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Making Sense of the ‘Mob’ Mentality | Press "Enter" to skip to content

Making Sense of the ‘Mob’ Mentality

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At the same time, as a rule, impulsive violence is less likely to occur in crowds that have some social structure and internal organization. The protests of the civil rights movement were tactical and organized, as far back as the 1950s. So were many sit-ins in the 1960s and ’70s, against nuclear power and the Vietnam War. Windows were broken, there were clashes with police, but spontaneous mayhem was not the rule.

“During this era, you now have Kent State, urban riots, civil rights marches,” said Calvin Morrill, a professor of law and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. “And the idea of the group mind does not give social scientists any room to explain the different levels of organization behind all those protests and what they meant. Ever since then, protests, whether nonviolent or not, have included tactics, strategy — and training — precisely to make sure the crowd does not lose its focus.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. personally trained many groups of Freedom Riders, detailing how best to respond to police provocation and what to say (and what not) if arrested. Those lessons carried forward. Many protesters at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant site in New Hampshire, in 1977, and at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, had learned to go limp to avoid blows from police officers, and to wear boots rather than sneakers. (Sneakers slip off when you’re being dragged.)

Such training is not reserved to groups pledged to nonviolence, of course, and it includes specific roles for individuals with special skills, and a kind of middle-management layer. Protest groups bent on provocation, whether left-leaning or right, often include so-called violence experts — young men willing to take some swings to get things started.

“Absolutely they are trained, trained to go right up to the line and mix it up, then fall back,” Dr. Morrill said. “There’s a long, long tradition of these tactics.”

Depending on the protest, and the mission, organized protests may also include marshals, or guides, helping shuttle people around, and so-called affinity groups — squads that take some leadership responsibility as the protest evolves. In its Tampa, Fla., demonstration last summer, Black Lives Matter reportedly had almost 100 marshals in fluorescent vests patrolling the crowd, as well as medics, all communicating with walkie-talkies and trained in de-escalation tactics.

“You’re talking groups of four to 10 people, protest participants, often friends who come in from another city or town to look after people who are injured or freaking out,” said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, of affinity groups. “And these groups will coordinate with each other, and if the crowd is assaulted or scattered, they’re capable of deciding, ‘What should we do next?’”


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