The coverage of the G20 and NATO demonstrations suggest that many commentators and informed parties don’t understand crowd management. Not only do they not understand it, but they are making egregious mistakes about who is causing violence and when violence is being successfully contained. This suggests that there may be some woefully inadequate abilities to deal with protestors and violence within the US, because they are based on grievously incorrect assumptions.
There are a plethora of comments about G20 and how the demonstrations there were not that violent. This is dangerously wrong – elements of the crowds showed considerable violence. To the protestors’ obvious disgust, the Metropolitan Police closed them down using a series of successful tactics such as kettling (bottling the protestors up and containing them for hours with no room for manoeuvre) and asymmetric operations such as widespread, co-ordinated arrest raids on squats to arrest troublemakers from previous days, against whom there was credible evidence sufficient for a conviction.
By contrast, the demonstrators in Strasbourg managed to outmanoeuvre the police who established a ring of steel around the main event locations, focused on security and disregarded the rest such as interest in actual public order. This created the conditions for the successful use of serious violence by the protestors. The police made the mistake of assuming that the demonstrators would focus on the location of the events, but as recent events such as the G8 in Gleneagles have shown, demonstrators have learned to attack high profile, media friendly targets away from the main location. Protesters have found this has been effective in getting their message out.
Another contrast should be with the RNC. The RNC has often been described as being “violent”. There were troublemakers, those anarchists intent on disrupting events and causing trouble with the police, however, to have characterised those events as including ”serious violence” or “serious disorder” is simply wrong. While they may have created great television to fill holes in the media news cycle, the only reason that they were characterised as riots were because of the dress state of the police who were in full crowd control armour during situations that didn’t warrant its use, and the methods used to contain dissident elements and the peaceful crowds sucked into those confrontations.
The major lesson of the previous week for those with an interest in, or risk of, crowd management events is that the successful management of protestors and those determined to riot is that those who are exceptional at it can make it look easy. However, to make assumptions, or to escalate the events, unduly hands the protestors media victories, the opportunity to achieve violence,,and, in many cases in the US, completely unnecessary compensation victories as well.
There is a rising risk of sympathetic demonstrations and protests in the US, and clear evidence that tactics in Europe are being exported to the US for both large scale demonstrations and more isolated, targeted incidents at banks and campuses (witness the events at Duke and Bank of America last week). Both private and public organisations with any exposure to protests or to layoffs should be examining their ability to deal with protestors of all types, and considering these risks from the operational, reputational, financial and physical perspectives.
A riot is not a riot because the media says so, and a crowd is not well controlled because the media say so. However, those distinctions look awfully thin when the bank or the local PD are being roundly criticised for being unable to handle a protest that gets out of hand, particularly if it was mishandled and the police either were, or were not but allow themselves to be portrayed as, an incendiary rather than de-escalatory influence.