Crowd Behavior and Situational Awareness Around Protests
By TorchStone Vice President, Malique Carr, PH.D
Hundreds of thousands of people, ignited by the killing of George Floyd, have shown up for nationwide protests calling for the end of systemic racism. While there have been many peaceful demonstrations, some protest actions have seen violent clashes between police and protesters. Some demonstrations have also been undermined by infiltrators more interested in causing chaos, rioting, or looting than in peacefully protesting. Tragically, these clashes and actions of infiltrators often end-up obscuring protesters’ messages and furthermore, can endanger the physical safety and lives of those participating in protests; those whose homes, businesses, or other roles place them near protest activity; and those who unwittingly find themselves in the center of action or civil unrest.
Having a modicum of understanding about crowd behavior and safety strategies, maintaining situational awareness, and promptly responding to observed shifts in crowd behavior can go a long way in helping to keep yourself and others safe around today’s protests and future protest actions.
The psychology and behavior of crowds is complex and can differ based on the motivations, size, density, demographics, emotional intensity, psychological unity, and other internal/external factors.¹ “Demonstrator” or “expressive” crowds are comprised of individuals—who maintain their individuality—but who come together around a particular idea or cause.²
It is also important to note that crowds are not homogenous.³ Within a demonstrator crowd, one or more leaders are usually identifiable. These leaders coordinate and direct the crowd’s actions and movements. The active core of the crowd will follow instructions and guidance from the recognized leaders. Some individuals from the active core may take on the role of cheering on and providing verbal support for the leaders. Watching the leaders and vocal members of the core may help you assess any shifts in tone or intensity of the crowd.
A demonstrator crowd may also attract observers. Observers are individuals who may not be closely associated with the movement nor care deeply about the cause or mission. Instead, they may be more interested in a selfie opportunity or the feeling of getting caught up in the excitement of a crowd—in essence, performative activism.
A demonstrator crowd may also have infiltrators—individuals or groups trying to take advantage of and undermine the protests.4 Infiltrators may have incentives such as looting, and may remain on the periphery of a crowd, waiting for opportunities to exploit. Infiltrators may also be individuals or groups with extremist beliefs and tactics or in some cases even undercover police who are interested in working up a crowd and inciting chaos and/or violence. These infiltrators may be more in the center of the action.
Some infiltrators forecast their intentions by wearing militarized or riot gear and bringing weapons to the actions. Caution should be taken if a suspected infiltrator appears to be intentionally hiding parts of their body, as they may be attempting to hide a weapon on their person. Infiltrators may also present as less obvious with unassuming clothing and gear. However, their intentions will become clear as they grow verbally and/or physically provocative to others, seemingly disregard directions from leaders, and splinter from demonstrators’ synchronized movements.
If the infiltrators are part of a coordinated effort, they may be seen communicating via earpieces. There may also be the potential for flash mobs wherein droves of infiltrators rush to a specific location, appearing out of nowhere to stir up violence. Infiltrators’ presence may become known to protest organizers and participants ahead of time through leakage or intentional broadcasting of their whereabouts online. Howard University law professor, Justin Hansford has suggested that talking to people at protests and working on building community may help identify possible infiltrators.iv
It is important to note that protesters can also become enraged and impassioned and may provoke authorities or incite aggression or violence.5 In situations where protesters begin to act in this manner, infiltrators incite aggression or waves of confusion in a crowd, or there is a major flashpoint factor—such as a display of excessive or inappropriate use of force from authorities—participants may cascade into fight-or-flight mode, quickly shifting the larger crowd dynamics and behavior.
A demonstrator crowd may quickly devolve into an “escaping or trampling” crowd. Panicked individuals may flee in all directions to avoid physical threats of harm and/or arrests, and in doing so, could end up shoving, stampeding, or trampling others and causing injury or death.
A demonstrator crowd can also flare up and effectively go into fight mode, becoming either an “aggressive or hostile” or “violent” crowd—also commonly known as a mob. Individuals in a mob are driven to fight for their cause and rights, regardless of potential risks of destruction, arrests, physical harm, and sometimes even death.
A demonstrator crowd can also rapidly transform into a “dense and suffocating” crowd if the movements of the crowd are being manipulated or restricted. In this situation, the individuals begin to feel trapped or backed into a corner. A dense or suffocating crowd can be a very dangerous and life-threatening situation. A sobering statistic and safety suggestions presented by a colleague, Steve Crimando at the 23rd annual Association of Threat Assessment Professionals conference in 2013 remain a relevant concern.ii The compounded force of just five people pushed up on each other can cause someone to lose consciousness and die within minutes. In crowds, if people are pushed up against each other or hard surfaces like barricades or walls, they can die by compressional asphyxiation,6 and most people who die this way do so without ever even falling to the ground. People need at least one square yard of space to have free movement, and that space can quickly and dramatically shrink in a crowd.
If you are participating in a protest or find yourself near a demonstrator crowd, remain situationally aware. Consider your environment. Avoid standing near fixed objects, like barricades and walls, which could limit your movements and escape options. Map out potential escape routes and identify areas of safety. Watch for potential infiltrators. If you think you spot an infiltrator, give them distance, and consider warning others. Alcohol and some types of drug use can exacerbate the potential for escalation; therefore, take extra caution around anyone who appears intoxicated. Keep a finger on the pulse of the ever-shifting tone, density, and flow of the crowd. Watch for individual protesters or authority figures who appear to be verbally or nonverbally intensifying.
Your decisions surrounding where to go and how to behave in the crowd will largely be driven by your intentions and the circumstances that led to your being in the area in the first place. Some individuals may knowingly choose to put themselves at greater risk of potential physical harm for their cause, some may be solely focused on maintaining safety or leaving the crowd, and others will fall somewhere in-between.
If you find yourself in the middle of a crowd, especially one that is escalating and that is not where you want to be, continue to move in the general direction the crowd is moving, but slowly work your way diagonally to where there is a lighter crowd flow and more open space. Do everything you can to try and keep an open space in front of your chest. If you drop something, consider leaving it behind. You do not want to stop or crouch down amid a moving crowd. This could increase the risk of your being pushed to the ground or being trampled. If for some reason you do fall or are pushed down in the stream of a crowd, try to get back on your feet and move in the direction of the crowd again and toward a more open space. If you are continually getting jostled and fall as you try to stand, crawl with the movement of the crowd, waiting for breaks in the crowd to get up. Reaching and calling out for help may also prompt those nearby to help you to your feet. If the crowd is getting dense and you cannot get up, it is best to assume a defensive position. Curl up into a ball with your back facing up. Create an air pocket so you can breathe freely and cover your head with your hands and arms for protection. As soon as there is a lull in the crowd, try to get back up and start moving again.
Most protests do not end up becoming violent, trampling, or dense and suffocating crowds; however, all actions have the potential to become volatile and dangerous. Whether you are participating in protests or find yourself in the heart of a protest for another reason, remaining situationally aware will be paramount for your safety. By continuously monitoring the shifting tone and factors of the crowd and environment, you too will be able to adapt your approach, and mitigate potential physical risks.
¹e.g. The Cabinet Office Emergency Planning College. (2009, June). Understanding crowd behaviours: Supporting evidence. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/ file/192606/understanding_crowd_behaviour-supporting-evidence.pdf
²Crimando, S. M. (2013, Aug. 14). Understanding the evolving threat of group, crowd and mob violence [Conference session]. Twenty-Third Annual Threat Management Conference, Presented by the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals ™ ®, Los Angeles Police Department, and Los Angeles Police Department Threat Management Unit, Disneyland Hotel, Anaheim, CA, United States.
³e.g. Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies Applied Research Laboratory, The Pennsylvania State University (2001, Jan. 1). Crowd behavior, crowd control, and the use of non-lethal weapons. https://live-cpop.ws.asu.edu/sites/default/files/problems/spectator_violence/PDFs/HEAP.pdf; Emergency Management Australia. (1999). Australian emergency manuals series: Part III: Emergency management practices: Volume 2- specific issues: Manual 2: Safe and healthy mass gatherings: A health, medical, and safety planning manual for public events. https://www.police.sa.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/68302/Manual12A-Safe-Healthy-Mass-Gatherings-2.pdf
4Zhou, L. (2020, Jun. 3). The trope of “outside agitators” at protests, explained. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2020/6/3/21275720/george-floyd-protests-outside-agitators-ferguson-civil-rights-movement
5Note that there is a distinction between fervent individuals in a “demonstrator” crowd and an “aggressive or hostile” crowd where a majority of participants are acting in an abusive, threatening, or potentially unlawful manner.
6I acknowledge the sensitivity in discussing compressional asphyxiation at this time given the context of George Floyd’s killing. The hope is that there will be no loss of lives during protest actions due to crowd crushing.