Protests and Mobs
We have recognized that humans are social animals who interact continuously.
There is a constant tension between self-identity and group membership; between
self-interest and group interest; between bonding, belonging and being a free
independent person. There are important differences between acting alone and
acting within a group. Group size also influences behavior. We have also
recognized that humans do best living in working in small groups and become
dysfunctional when they join larger groups. Social grooming is one of the most
common everyday social interactions among chimpanzees and other primates.
Chimpanzees allocate a large portion of their daytime hours grooming each other.
Humans often form social gatherings and interact with multiple partners at
the same time in everyday interactions, such as conversation. Adult male
chimpanzees compete for higher status by forming coalitions. Males have to renew
or confirm their relationships with each other by frequent grooming sessions in
relatively small clusters. Adult females do not compete for higher status by
forming intimate allies and do better by having wider interactions with many
individuals and tend to groom in larger groups.
Some primate species, including humans, come together in groups of several
hundred individuals for conventions. These are temporary congregations that may
have enduring benefits or adverse consequences for the participants. Humans also
assemble in-groups to protest, to seek revenge and to attack real or imaginary
enemies. Well-focused mobs with effective leaders can be agents of change.
Authoritarian rulers are sometimes disposed when large numbers of people protest
injustices on the street, risking their lives to demand rights, freedoms and
justice. Democracies need activism and public displays of disapproval to survive
corrupt and incompetent politicians who tend to disregard human rights.
Even in polite societies, mobs may become disorganized and destructive,
transforming more or less well-behaved humans into combatants, who push, shove,
raise their arms in the air, show fist gestures and shout meaningless slogans.
Soccer fans, for example, will gather in large stadium to enjoy the game and
then riot as they exit, crushing each other and destroying property down the
street. Mass movements of humans occur regularly and often operate at the lowest
level of intelligence with none of the moral restraints that are available when
individuals act alone according to the rules and peer pressure of the local
Street Mobs with Opposing Views
Mobs of people have assaulted each in passionate encounters that
lead to mass deaths. Kakar describes an ethnic riot as-the intense, sudden
physical assault by civilians of one group on civilians of another group. He
stated that: “In the 20th century, the number of dead claimed by the primitive
weaponry used in ethnic riots was second only to the number killed by
sophisticated armaments. Ethnic riots can be followed by secessionist warfare,
terrorist violence, and a general undermining of democratic institutions.”
Dictators often use protests as an opportunity to kill
disobedient citizens either by uniformed police shooting at the crowd or by more
surreptitious attacks by mercenaries who form counter protest mobs.
Horowitz studied 150 ethnic riots in 50 countries and concluded that lethal
riots combine passion and calculation. He identified four factors that lead to
killing: a hostile relationship between two groups; a response to events that
engages the anger of one group, a response dominated by outrage or wrath; a
sense of justification for violence, such as viewing it as self-defense, part of
a long drawn-out war, or punishment of the other group for wrongdoing. The
participants in lethal riots believe that that their aggression will not be
punished. Societal assets that reduce outbreaks of violence include more liberal,
humanitarian attitudes that negate ethnic animosity and increase the aversion to
violence of all kinds. Increased personal risk assumed by would-be rioters is an
important deterrent. Even in polite societies such as Canada, the deployment of
riot police has become routine for crowd control. The politicians and police
will argue that dangerous riots often escalate over days and even weeks so that
early intervention and detention of aggressive rioters will prevent escalation
toward property damage and of loss of life. Crowd control is not an easy task.
Suppression of Dissent
Despite token support of human rights, the right of free speech and the right
to assemble and protest peacefully, governments everywhere prepare to suppress
dissent by using force, arrest and detention. You could invent a scale to rate
governments according to their tolerance for public protest and their
willingness to abrogate human rights to stay in power. One of the problems with
mob control by riot police is that legitimate and peaceful protest may be
suppressed with the same vigor as potentially dangerous riots. Public protest is
a citizen’s right in a free society and a necessary option when governments
become corrupt and autocratic. A citizen concerned with civil rights will insist
on strong civil control of police actions. Otherwise, corrupt governments will
use police and military power to further their fascist goals. Autocratic
governments stay in power by limiting or banning public protest, suppressing
free speech and using lethal force to punish individuals and groups for
challenging their authority.