Is it only me, or does anyone else wonder how a governor can mobilize his state’s national guard and law enforcement, make highly visible preparations for an even more highly anticipated riot, and yet allow rioters to get away with torching two police cars and 25 businesses while looting and trashing other establishments they didn’t set ablaze? When did active security measures take a back seat to lofty pronouncements and highfaluting exhortations to please, oh, please, don’t express your understandable outrage in a violent and unproductive way? Ferguson, it seems, has become the poster child for how not to prevent a foreseeable riot.
What Could Anybody Do Anyway?
There are laws, specialized knowledge, and institutional memory available to use for anyone serious about preventing the kind of wanton destruction that went unchecked. Here follows a sampling to illustrate what was missing in the aftermath of the highly publicized and presumptive riot trigger that followed November 24th’s announced grand jury finding that there was insufficient cause to try Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown.
1. Absence of leadership.
From Army Field Manual 19-15, Civil Disturbances, p. 2-2:
Leadership has a profound effect on the intensity and direction of crowd behavior…. The first person to give clear orders in an authoritative manner is likely to be followed.
COMMENT: Where was such leadership on the streets of Ferguson last week once crowds started turning aggressive?
2. Use of legal means to control crowds. There are usually options for dispersing volatile crowds before they turn into aggressive mobs. Declaring them unlawful assemblies is often a step in that direction, and the means to do that exists in public law. As an example, in California, public law offers value by setting forth clear definitions which authorities may use to get the upper hand on an unruly crowd before it gets out of control.
From California Penal Code:
404. (a) Any use of force or violence, disturbing the public peace, or any threat to use force or violence, if accompanied by immediate power of execution, by two or more persons acting together, and without authority of law, is a riot.
404.6. (a) Every person who with the intent to cause a riot does an act or engages in conduct that urges a riot, or urges others to commit acts of force or violence, or the burning or destroying of property, and at a time and place and under circumstances that produce a clear and present and immediate danger of acts of force or violence or the burning or destroying of property, is guilty of incitement to riot.
(b) Incitement to riot is punishable by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by both that fine and imprisonment.
406. Whenever two or more persons, assembled and acting together, make any attempt or advance toward the commission of an act which would be a riot if actually committed, such assembly is a riot.
407. Whenever two or more persons assemble together to do an unlawful act, or do a lawful act in a violent, boisterous, or tumultuous manner, such assembly is an unlawful assembly.
COMMENT: Doesn’t Missouri have similar, legitimate grounds for crowd dispersal? If so, why didn’t someone in authority declare an unlawful assembly and take prompt action to disperse the crowd before it wreaked havoc on shops and cars?
3. Factors to monitor and mitigate that were nevertheless ignored.
From Peter E. Tarlow, Event Risk Management and Safety (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002), pp. 98-99
Components of a Crowd Likely to Riot
1. Mainly young people.
2. Good weather.
3. Abundance of bored people.
4. Inadequate security — too little coverage in early stages.
COMMENTS: The last two items were particularly ignored at the expense of business owners and employees who saw the source of their livelihood go up in flames last week. Media coverage of law enforcement and national guard mobilization suggested that uniformed responders were being kept out of sight of protestors and news cameras, ostensibly to avoid inciting aggression. This was precisely the wrong thing to do. Instead, their protective value would have been in exercising a presence to deter lawlessness, particularly if led intelligently by experienced authorities who know the importance of keeping a crowd moving, keeping them engaged, and keeping the high ground in order to be able to exercise authority and rapidly disperse them (tactics addressed at greater length in Jane’s Facility Security Handbook, 2nd Edition, D. Shawn Fenn, et al, Surrey: Jane’s Information Group, 2006).
What about darkness? Timing last week’s announcement for the hours of darkness seemed unwise because darkness masks identities, which in turn encourages agitators, looters, and predators to strike with lower risk of being caught or stopped. Besides, there was an earlier signal that masking identity was going to be easy for thugs planning to mix among nonviolent protestors with little fear of being unmasked.
What was this signal? Well before the rioting, faces in the crowd were getting away with sporting Guy Fawkes masks, ostensibly in expressing solidarity with generic resistance movements. This transparent canard doubles as a test, and authorities failed. Anyone serious about keeping the peace while allowing for nonviolent demonstrations would not have hobbled police by timing the triggering event to take place in the hours of darkness or by allowing people to conceal their identities so openly.
Lessons We Don’t Learn
America is no stranger to peaceful protest and catastrophic riot alike. We should know better by now. Perhaps the day has passed when the likes of the Texas Rangers would allocate no more than a single ranger to quell a lynch mob. (How? They would have the ranger worm his way through the crowd until reaching the instigator who was busy inflaming the mob. Then the ranger would beat the living tar out of the instigator, and the mob, seeing this, would lose its motivation and self-disperse.) Today, times may be different, but crowd behavior remains predictable, hence capable of being managed.
Failure to check the violent and destructive force of the Ferguson mob was a foreseeable failure of management, of leadership. And it was probably a failure of top management, since there had to be someone in law enforcement with the experience and expertise to get better results with the right use of available resources.
And so, when cases like this suggest that failure is not an option, why does failure turn out to be standard equipment?