We are peaceful. What about you?

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

Micro-sociology attempts to be realistic, Randall Collins claims: 

Violence cannot be stopped everywhere. Sometimes force rolls on and crushes everything in its path. But — sometimes violence is stopped. It happens locally, and by persons acting in local conditions.  This is something to build on. What are those conditions?

Turn now to the work of Dr. Anne Nassauer, of the Free University, Berlin. Using videos posted on-line from mobile phone cameras, plus GPS maps of streets, charting time-lines from police radio traffic, in short with the whole array of tools now available, she reconstructs protest demonstrations in Germany and the US. With this cutting-edge media high-tech, she is able to reconstruct the micro-history of protests and to pin-point just when and where a demonstration will turn violent. On the whole, I should mention, Nassauer finds that most demos stay peaceful, and their peacefulness can prevail even when militant protestors announce in advance that they will use force; or indeed, when police announce a tough crack-down-on-everything policy. That is to say, whether a protest turns violent or not depends on local and emergent conditions; violence-threatening events can end up peaceful, and peaceful demos can turn violent.

I will not try to summarize here Nassauer’s findings of the several pathways that lead to violence. Let us concentrate on a single point: if violence has already broken out, nevertheless all is not lost. It is not too late to stop the violence — not everywhere, but locally, at the place where human individuals use the right techniques. What are those techniques?

When the police surge forward and the crowd starts running and ducking, people are likely to be beaten. Photos often show clusters of police or soldiers, attacking anyone in their path — swinging clubs at women, old people, news reporters, anyone.

This is an emotional rush by the police, that I have called Forward Panic. It is like the crowd contagion of running away, except in this case forces that have been pent up by confrontational tension, run forward into the vacuum left by a sudden weakness on the other side. It is an adrenaline surge that has been kept in suspense, suddenly released into action. That is why the police go out of control, swinging at anything in their path. It is important to see that this is a reciprocal emotion—the crowd running away is the counterpart of the police running forward, the display of emotional weakness feeding the surge of dominance of the attackers. In Nassauer’s data, she often finds that when one cop at the front swings at a target — it may be a person who has stumbled and fallen to the ground — the cops just behind will also swing at the same target. One policeman’s attack leads others to repeat the attack.

But — and here is the good news — Nassauer also finds that these attacks can be stopped locally. When an individual stands still, directly facing the police, and calls out in a strong, clear voice: “We are peaceful. What about you?” – or words to that effect, the attack almost always stops.

This does not mean that the riot as a whole can be stopped in this way. There can be hundreds or thousands of persons spread out over a considerable space. Violence in a riot is not like one huge rugby scrum, not like huge battle-lines of ancient phalanxes, but a series of little clusters of violence here and there.

Each one of these clusters may be checked, could be rendered no longer violent, by the right local action.

To repeat: the details are important. The peace-making person must stand still, no longer moving. When almost everyone’s back is turned, he or she stands in direct eye contact with the on-coming forces. And one’s voice must be clear and steady, neither threatening nor fearful.

Especially important is not to scream. Someone in the crowd, in the fear or rage of being attacked, can cry out the identical words: “WE ARE PEACEFUL!! WHAT ABOUT YOU!!” but in this case it will not work. The police perceive and feel the crowd as being out of control. To scream at the police does not correct this impression, but reinforces it. Screaming is an expression of being out of control; and that is precisely the problem with the interactional situation. Tension and fear pervades everything, and the violence is coming out of the situation of one-sided emotional dominance by the police. The victim who screams does nothing to change the emotional field. It is the strong, calm tone that changes it, back towards local equilibrium, where the violence stops.

A similar technique can work when it is not a confrontation of police (or soldiers) versus a protesting crowd, but a violent attack by one crowd upon another. David Sorge, in research at University of Pennsylvania (2014), shows that in an incident of communal violence in India, the technique was used that stopped violence in a specific location. The individual under attack was a peace-maker, a citizen who had stood up in a town meeting the day before, to urge the Hindu populace not to pay attention to rumours and not to attack the local Muslims. As often happens in the early phases of communal violence, the peace-maker became targeted as a traitor. A crowd gathered in front of his house and pelted it with stones, the usual preliminary to an attack. But the peace-maker came out of the front of his house carrying a chair. Before anyone could attack him — there is usually a time-lag of shouting before someone starts the personal assault — he stood up on the chair and started to make a speech in a loud voice. The crowd quieted down and eventually dispersed.

Notice the details. He stood up above the crowd, where he could be seen. He met them face to face. For the members of a violent crowd, usually the target is someone anonymous up there behind all the surging bodies; for the few in the front with clearer visibility, someone cringing, showing weakness and fear, usually cowering, hiding their face, or knocked to the ground where all we can see is their side and back. Standing up in a prominent position, in this instance the peace-maker remained a human individual. He spoke in a loud, strong voice, not in anger, but resolutely. He spoke to them as individuals, and took apart the collective emotion of the crowd, where each relies on the others to carry out acts of violence that ordinarily would outrage our moral sensibilities.

Again, we must recognize, it was a local solution only. The riot as a whole was not stopped. The crowd moved elsewhere, where emotional dominance was easier to establish. Nevertheless, this is a hopeful sign. The whole pattern of a riot consists in all its local parts; and the more of these parts that can be stopped, the less damage it does.


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    I’d like to see this tried against ISIS, and I’d even be willing to chip in on the guy’s funeral who tries it. This sounds a lot like Ghandian non-violent resistance – it might work against those who are basically decent people, and who might have a few doubts about their cause anyway, but I wouldn’t try it on Nazis, Commies, AQ, or other fanatics.

  2. Alex J. says:

    E.g. people who will say “No, we are not peaceful.”

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