Why the Police Provoke Crowds

The police seem to want as much trouble as they can get.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 20th June 1996.

One year ago tomorrow, King Arthur Uther Pendragon was arrested at Stonehenge for trespassory assembly. He was caught on his way to the stones with 27 other people – seven more than you need to qualify for the Criminal Justice Act’s attention. In court, however, he was able to demonstrate that the group consisted of a few druids, a German TV crew, three legal observers and a couple of drunken Italians, staggering along the road. The “assembly”, in other words, was not an assembly at all.

The police made a long-established mistake. They confused a physical gathering with a psychological gathering. This year, as Euro ’96 gets into full swing just as the protest season begins, an overhaul of the police’s approach to crowd psychology and crowd control has never been more urgent.

Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, published in 1895, is possibly the most influential work of psychology ever published. When people assemble in crowds, Le Bon opined, they descend to a primitive racial unconscious, losing their individuality and becoming impulsive, irrational and senselessly violent.

Le Bon believed he had a mission to combat working class activism. Laced with political bias and mystique, his work is so deeply flawed as to be worthless. Regrettably, perhaps because it neatly articulated the propertied classes’ fear of the mob, it laid the foundations for most crowd psychology right up until the 1980s.

Today, thanks to the work of researchers such as Dr Stephen Reicher of Exeter University, psychologists have a better understanding of why crowds behave as they do. Reicher has shown that physical crowds consist of many different psychological crowds – on any march there might be furious class warriors and gentle pacifists walking side by side.

Most importantly, Reicher considers what Le Bon deliberately excluded – the effect of the police on crowd behaviour. Contemporary accounts show that most of the violent confrontations of the 19th and 20th centuries were initiated not by the mob but by police or soldiers. As crowds are attacked, more and more of their members identify with those who are prepared to use violence. The obvious lesson is that if the police are not to unite the crowd against them, they must subtly contain the violent minority without alienating the peaceful majority.

It is hard to believe that the police are not aware of this – after all, they have more experience of demonstrations than anyone else. Yet, in the two biggest protests of the last seven years, they have done exactly the opposite. During the poll tax demonstration, police horses charged into crowds in which a violent minority was scattered among people trying to go home. At the Criminal Justice Bill march in October 1994, police blocked a procession of tens of thousands of people in order to stop a single vehicle. As if to ensure that no one was uninvolved in the ensuing panic and confrontation, they decided to drive people out of Hyde Park, the one place where they could do no harm.

In both cases, the police compressed the crowd both physically and psychologically. They forced peaceful demonstrators to make common cause with violent protesters, turning minor skirmishes into a full-scale battle. Similar events, on a smaller scale, have taken place over the last three years in Hackney, Wanstead, Islington, Oxford and Bradford. At Marsh Farm in Luton, riot police were sent in just as the demonstrators were calming down, with the result that a small disturbance became a furious three-day rampage.

So let us turn the psychologists’ questions around. Why do crowds of police behave in this way? Is it some atavistic reversion to a racial unconscious? Are they descending the evolutionary ladder towards the chimpanzee or the marmoset? The answer, of course, is no. It’s clear that junior officers are often ill-prepared to understand and respond to a crowd. They are taught all the right manoeuvres, but not the means to discriminate between a largely hostile gathering and a largely peaceful one. Young policemen and women often panic when the first missile flies.

But there’s no doubt too that on some occasions the police want serious trouble and go out of their way to provoke it. You don’t have to dig far to see what they might have to gain.

Whenever the police are involved in violent conflict, they are praised by both the papers and the government. The bigger and more violent the confrontation is, the greater the plaudits. The suspicion that the police sometimes exacerbate crowd conflict in order to secure both funding and moral support is terrifying but not wholly implausible.

Whipping up rational crowds into furious Le Bonian mobs helps justify ever more confrontational policing. If authoritiarianism were to arrive in Britain, this is how it would begin.