Monday, 13 October 2014

Ebola outbreak- Keep calm and carry on, or 'panic' and freak out?

The current Ebola outbreak has so far seen over 8300 cases, with at least 4000 fatalities-the vast majority of these being in the three West African countries, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. However, there has been a media  frenzy focusing on the tiny minority of cases seen so far in the developed world, with reports that a nurse in the US has contracted Ebola after working with the Liberian national (Thomas Duncan) who died of the disease- the first case of transmission on US soil. Here in the UK, call handlers on the NHS non-emergency 111 phone-line, staff will now be asked to conduct checks for Ebola amongst callers. The UK's Chief Medical Officer (CMO) has announced that we should expect a 'handful of cases' in the UK, which seems to be an effort to help prepare the population for what now seems an inevitable spread of Ebola in this current era of global trade and transport. Throughout this latest outbreak, I have noticed different narratives emerging which I think reflect interesting (but also sometimes concerning) aspects of how Ebola is being represented in social discourse, and these often include reference to the terms 'fear' and 'panic'.

Ebola & strategic uses of 'panic'
First of all, a recent blog by John Drury looks at how responses to Ebola can illustrate the strategic functions that use of the term 'panic' can serve, such as apportioning blame to those who are displaying over-reactive or maladaptive behaviours. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with how I argue that 'panic' is often used (wrongly) to describe what outside observers of mass emergencies see as maladaptive crowd responses. A paper I co-wrote with him on the Hillsborough disaster (Cocking & Drury, 2014) looked at how survivors used 'panic' to describe their experiences, but they also rejected the notion that they were somehow to blame, and the term was frequently used to apportion responsibility onto others (e.g. they would argue that the Police 'panicked'). The term elite panic (Clarke 2008) has also been used to describe the authorities' distrust of the population to behave 'rationally' in mass emergencies and the measures they can impose in the mistaken belief that 'mass panic' will be the predominant response to any incident. John Drury also raises the issue of whether the current responses by the UK authorities show elements of elite panic, such as the decision to begin screening for Ebola at UK border entry points. For instance, the CMO has admitted that such screening for Ebola is "unlikely" to pick up many cases, "if any", begging the question of whether it has been introduced more because of a political need to be seen to be doing something, than because of a belief in its clinical efficacy. For example, The BBC reports that a doctor at Public Heath England has said in a leaked e-mail that screening was a "purely a political gesture, unlikely to provide public health benefits". This appears to fit with advice from the UN Co-ordinator for Ebola David Nabarro, who said that screening was more effective at the point of departure from Ebola affected areas, as those testing positive could then be prevented from leaving and thus spreading the disease further.

How we’ll know if Ebola hits our borders
Entry checks for Ebola may have little more than a placebo effect 

Fear of & fascination with Ebola?
David Nabarro also told Channel 4 News that the current outbreak was worse than a movie, which may not help dispel public anxieties, and perhaps also inadvertently mirrors the strange mixture of horror and cultural fascination that we have with Ebola. For instance, this August, the BBC Radio 4 programme Summer Nights featured a very good general discussion about the outbreak (which at the time was largely confined to West Africa), but it also explored why there was a kind of perverse curiosity with diseases such as Ebola. Guests discussed how people often have a fear of, but also a fascination with conditions that have graphic symptoms, and that there were possible similarities with other cultural manifestations of this fascination. For instance, horror movies, such as Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (where the UK is ravaged by the accidental release from a government laboratory of a super-virulent disease called 'Rage' which is spread by blood and saliva, and turns those infected into violent zombies) plays upon themes of distrust of the government and fear of strangers, both of which are present in the current Ebola outbreak. One guest even described Ebola as 'a Hammer Horror virus’, and made the point that it may be more sensible to fear airborne or insect transmitted diseases (such as the flu, or malaria), as they are easier to catch and potentially much more deadly (globally over 600,000 people die annually from malaria). However because Ebola has such graphic symptoms, people tend to fear it more, hence the popularity of films like 28 Days Later.

In 28 days later, victims with the 'Rage' vomit blood onto others, which rapidly spreads the infection

Ebola & the fear of fear
While I would reject descriptions of public responses to the current outbreak as 'mass panic', it is clear that fear of Ebola and its potential spread is influencing how it is being represented in social discourse, which can in turn result in some worrying public responses. For instance, there are concerns that xenophobia and prejudice could increase because of the outbreak, and Reuters have reported that in Dallas, African immigrants are worried about the backlash from the recent death of Thomas Duncan. Closer to home, a planned visit to a school in Stockport, near Manchester by a nine year old boy from Sierra Leone was recently cancelled after the Headteacher declared that there had been 'misguided hysteria' by some parents about the risks to their children from the visit (which seemed to be negligible as there was no evidence the boy had been in contact with anyone infected with Ebola). Tom Clark from Channel 4 News argues in his blog that the fear over the current outbreak is spreading faster than the disease itself, but that this is also ultimately counter-productive;

If there’s one lesson from west Africa, it is that fear is a far more efficient contagion than Ebola itself. Ignorance, mistrust and terror have only made things worse. Worth bearing in mind as Ebola slowly, but perhaps inevitably, makes its way here. 

There is much that is concerning about the current Ebola outbreak and its potential to spread, and more resources need to be provided urgently to assist those West African countries currently being decimated by the disease. Furthermore, governments and the media in the developed world should take a measured approach when dealing with this outbreak, by not adopting knee-jerk alarmist responses that may not allay public concerns and could be counter-productive in the long term.  However, public fears about Ebola may be more based upon lack of awareness about the disease and distrust of the authorities, as opposed to any inherent public 'irrationality'. So, rather than simply implementing short-term measures that politicians think may serve a populist agenda (such as screening people on entry to the UK), it might be better in the long-term to engage with and address any public concerns about the outbreak through better education about the disease and how to prevent its spread (such as early detection of symptoms and washing with soap and water after coming into contact with infected bodily fluids). Being open about the risks, not withholding information, and treating the public as potential partners in preparation for, and the response to Ebola may also be part of this education process which could contribute towards preventing the further spread of this terrible disease.

To donate to MSF who are on the front-line of tackling Ebola in West Africa, click here


Clarke, L. (2008) Elites and Panic: More to Fear than Fear Itself. Social Forces, 87 (2): 993-1014.

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2014) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 24 (2) 86-99.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Hong Kong policing & Britain's colonial legacy

An article I wrote for The Conversation on Hong Kong Policing can be found here, which is a shortened version of the piece below.

The recent mass demonstrations in Hong Kong that have been calling for greater democracy saw the Police initially responding with riot squads, tear gas and pepper spray against peaceful protestors. However, this authoritarian response merely caused the protests to grow, leading to the temporary withdrawal of the Police. On Sept 30th Human Rights Watch called for the authorities to avoid using excessive force, and there was a stand-off during the national holiday to celebrate the founding of Communist China. Protestors had planned to occupy government buildings if the Chief Executive CY Leung didn't stand down by midnight Oct 2nd, resulting in a heavy police presence outside the Chief Executive's building.  In a recent Press Conference, CY Leung still refused to quit, but has offered to hold talks and this offer has been accepted by protestorsThe situation currently appears to be calmer, although many protestors are still on the streets.

Historical contexts:
There are interesting and rather ironic historical antecedents to how the current situation has been dealt with by the authorities that date back to Hong Kong's colonial past. For instance, Chris Patten (who was the last governor of Hong Kong when it was handed back to China in 1997) has accused the Chinese authorities of reneging on commitments to uphold democratic principles. However, the way in which the Hong Kong Police Force initially dealt with the protests owes much more to when it was a British colony, and this style of policing doesn't seem to have changed significantly since the British handover in 1997. So, their recent use of riot squads with short shields, tear gas, (with rubber bullets in reserve) is nothing new, with this approach being developed in the 1960s to deal with the colonial administration's fear of rebellion by Chinese Communists and/or local Trade Unions. Furthermore, the way they respond to public order incidents has also influenced policing closer to home. Gerry Northam's 1989 book- Shooting in the Dark argued that British policing shifted in the 1980s from a policing by consent model, to a much more coercive and para-militarised approach, based upon how the colonial Hong Kong Police were organised. He recounts that after the riots in the summer of 1981, (which saw the most significant urban disorder in England for a generation), the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) invited the Director of operations at the Royal Hong Kong Police to their private annual conference, to advise UK police on how they dealt with crowd disorder. From this conference, ACPO set up a working group to review their riot control tactics and develop a national training package for all UK forces. This resulted in the development of the ACPO Public Order Training Manual, a secret document which only emerged during the trials resulting from one of the largest set-piece confrontations of the 1984-5 miners' strike.

Hong Kong Police short shield unit September 2014

The Battle of Orgreave

The Battle of Orgreave happened when 10,000 striking miners were confronted by up to 4000 police officers from across the country at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire, resulting in running battles between pickets and police, with 93 arrests and over 100 injured from both sides. This incident was significant because it saw the first major public display of the new paramilitary tactics that British police had learnt from their colleagues in Hong Kong, with Waddington (2011) arguing that the police planned a set-piece confrontation rather than reacting to violence from pickets as was suggested by the media. During the day police in riot gear would stand in formation holding long shields, and periodically part their lines to allow mounted police and officers with short shields to charge at the crowd, with snatch squads making arrests. In 1985, the  BBC produced a documentary about Orgreave and interviewed John Alderson, a former Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police. This was his response on seeing footage of the fighting at Orgreave;

'This is a carbon copy of the Hong Kong riot squad…The British people should never accept colonial style policing. It isn't democratic policing, it’s forceful, repressive policing. Instead of exporting the developed British tradition to the colonies, we are now importing colonial policing into Britain. The question that now faces us all is now this- if we've seen the Hong Kong Police tradition used in Great Britain in 1984, what are we going to see in future on the streets of our big cities?’ 
(quoted in Northam,1989 p.59-60 )

The Battle of Orgreave may have happened over 30 years ago, but I find this quote rather prescient, given the trend towards increasingly militarized policing in Britain that has happened since (especially since the 2011 riots)-something I argued against in a report I wrote regarding the introduction of water cannon and that is also summarised in a previous piece I wrote for the Conversation.

Battle of Orgreave 18/6/1984

British double-standards?
We shall see how the situation in Hong Kong develops, and hopefully there will not be a bloody crackdown by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) similar to Tiananmen Square in 1989. So far the Chinese authorities seem to be relying on the Hong Kong Police to manage the situation, perhaps fearful of the reputational and economic damage that could follow from sending in the PLA. However, if the Police do decide to take a more repressive approach to the protests (which seems possible given the recent admission that they have begun stockpiling rubber bullets and tear gas at the Chief Executives' Office), then those in the UK should think carefully about how they respond. For, while any brutal repression of the predominantly peaceful protests in Hong Kong should rightly attract international condemnation, it may be slightly hypocritical for British politicians to criticise the actions of a police force that was originally set up by a colonial British administration largely because of the fear of rebellion amongst the local population, and this force's public order tactics have directly influenced to this day how our own police deal with public order situations in the UK.    


Gerry Northam (1989) Shooting in the dark: riot Police in Britain. Faber & Faber: London

David P. Waddington (2011): Public order policing in South Yorkshire, 1984–2011: the case for a permissive approach to crowd control, Contemporary Social Science, 6:3, 309-324

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scottish referendum 'disorder'? Don't predict a riot!

As I write this, the polls are now open for the referendum on whether Scotland decides to become an independent country and thousands of Scots are queuing to cast their vote. As an Englishmen living south of the border, I will refrain from offering an opinion on how the vote should go (although I suspect the Cornish half of me may yearn for greater devolution for Cornwall if the 'Yes' campaign wins!), but I do find the media predictions of possible 'disorder' after the vote rather annoying and irresponsible to say the least. For instance, on 15/9/14, The Independent reported that Scottish Police will be on 'high alert' after the result of the vote is declared on the morning of September 19th. More recently, The Times on 17/9/14 ran with the almost hysterical headline, 'Fears of mob violence as pubs open all night for vote count', and even the normally measured John Snow from Channel 4 News was asking guests in Edinburgh if they thought there was going to be 'trouble' after the vote. Such media speculation is insulting to the vast majority of Scots from both sides of the referendum debate who have conducted themselves in an overwhelmingly civilised (if at times impassioned) debate over the pros and cons of independence, and this speculation reflects what I think is a deep mistrust of people coming together en masse.Therefore, I will argue in this post that riots in the wake of the referendum result are not inevitable (or even likely), and that exaggerating the risk could even generate a self-fulfilling prophesy that increases the chances of any such disorder happening.

Illustration: Monica Burns

Comparisons with English examples
In a previous post I looked at two examples of recent urban disorder in Tottenham, London (the 1985 & 2011 riots). I argued that while both happened in a context of tension and strained community relations (both involved deaths at the hands of the Police, with Mark Duggan's shooting in 2011 sparking four days of rioting across England), neither riot happened straight after the incident, and there were also specific events that happened in the aftermath of each death that triggered the disorder. For instance, I felt it was crucial to explore how the crowds that gathered in response to these deaths interacted with the police, and that there were mistakes that the police made in managing the protests in each situation that triggered a riot. However, there were other similar situations where riots did not happen. So I argued that disorder in such tense situations is not inevitable, but that creating an atmosphere that emphasises the potential for disorder can make such disorder more likely to occur. The current situation in Scotland is clearly different in that there have thankfully been no fatalities related to the referendum debate. However, what I think is also interesting is that unlike the incidents in London where I argued that the Metropolitan Police seemed to go along with a media narrative emphasising the possibility of disorder in the aftermath of Mark Duggan's inquest, the Scottish Police so far seem to be trying to avoid following such a position. For instance, the Chairman of the Scottish Police Federation issued a Press Release on 17/9/14 that attempted to play down any risks of possible disorder, as illustrated in the following extract;

It was inevitable that the closer we came to the 18th of September passions would increase but that does not justify the exaggerated rhetoric that is being deployed with increased frequency. Any neutral observer could be led to believe Scotland is on the verge of societal disintegration yet nothing could be further from the truth... police officers have better things to do than officiate in spats on social media and respond to baseless speculation of the potential for disorder on and following polling day”

Historical comparisons- a 'Scottish Approach' to policing?
A quick look back at the history of Scottish urban disorder also raises some interesting issues. While researching for this post, I really struggled to find examples of recent widespread disorder in Scotland (thanks to those who helped with this search). For instance, the riots seen in England in 2011 and the early 1980s did not spread North of the border, and while there were mass campaigns of civil disobedience in Scotland against the hated Poll Tax, there were no riots like the one seen in London on 31/3/1990. Furthermore, the 2005 G8 Summit at the Gleneagles Hotel did attract some of the largest protests in central Scotland's history (resulting in over 700 arrests in total), but these were largely peaceful, and none seemed to result in widespread urban disorder.The most recent example I could find of a large riot in Scotland was the Battle of George Square in Glasgow 1919, where the local Police lost control of a crowd of up to 60,000 workers on strike and the British government deployed 10,000 soldiers supported by tanks (see photo below) so fearful were they of the Russian revolution spreading to Clydeside. Apparently local Glaswegian soldiers were not deployed because of the fear they might mutiny and join the strikers! To find another large riot in Scotland, I had to go back to the Tron riot in Edinburgh, Hogmanay 1811-12, where the wealthy inhabitants of the New Town were attacked by youths from the deprived Old Town, resulting in the death of a police officer and five youths subsequently being sentenced to death for their part in the riots. 

Tanks deployed after the battle of George Square, 1919

These historical examples lead on to the question of why Scottish cities have not seen similar outbreaks of the urban disorder that has happened in England in recent years, given that the underlying social contexts (such as deprivation, inequality, youth alienation, etc.) are often similar or worse than in the English communities where disorder occurred. Some observers have tried to address this issue, offering a variety of reasons why riots are less frequent in Scotland. For instance, in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, Marianne Taylor from the Guardian considered whether it was policing, urban planning, different gang cultures, or even bad weather in August 2011 that meant they didn't spread to Scottish inner cities. Gorringe & Rosie (2010) also looked at how national identities were manifested in the policing of the G8 Summit protests in 2005. The senior police officers they interviewed believed that the particular 'Scottish approach' used at the protests (a less confrontational approach, and reluctance to deploy specialist public order officers in riot gear etc.) contributed to the lack of widespread disorder, and they felt this set them apart from English policing. However, this view was not universally shared, and a member of the Scottish Socialist Party they interviewed rejected this notion of 'Scottish policing', arguing that they could be just as forceful as some English police forces are and equally alienated from the communities they police in some inner-city areas. Gorringe et al (2012) later looked at the policing of the 2009 NATO summit  in Edinburgh and concluded that while the police stated their intention was to 'facilitate lawful protest', this approach was not ultimately effective in practice, and 'frequently reverted to styles of policing designed to contain protest' . 

It's always risky making definitive predictions about whether or not disorder will occur before an event as there's always the chance that you will get it wrong! I also have to confess that there may well be gaps in my own knowledge of Scottish public order incidents which limit my ability to offer much more to this debate. However, from my own studies of crowd disorder in England, I would argue that how crowds interact with the police at specific incidents is crucial to our understanding of these events. So, in the unlikely event that any disorder does occur, it will be vital to forensically examine the chain of events leading up to each incident, rather than assuming that disorder was 'inevitable' in such contexts. I would also suggest that just because we are seeing an impassioned debate by the Scottish people about the future of their nation, this does not necessarily mean that they will begin rioting when the result is announced. Furthermore, it is irresponsible for the media to suggest on spurious (or even absent) evidence that we will see widespread disorder and 'mob violence'  in the aftermath of the vote on September 18th, and merely reiterates the deeply flawed views of collective processes that are prevalent in social discourse in general. I worry that there's also an element of implicit xenophobia in some of the English media as they seem to distrust the ability of Scots to come together peacefully after the result. One thing that I have heard mentioned by people from all sides of the debate is how proud they are of their fellow Scots for engaging in such widespread debate on this issue (often from a grass-roots level). So, whatever happens in this referendum, I think those of us South of the border should be inspired by this exercise in mass democracy, rather than fearing disorder in the aftermath of the referendum.    

Gorringe H and Rosie M (2010) The 'Scottish' Approach? The discursive construction of a national police force. The Sociological Review, 58 (1) p.65-83

Gorringe H, Rosie M, Waddington D & Kominou M (2012) Facilitating ineffective protest? The policing of the 2009 Edinburgh NATO protests. Policing & Society, 22 (2) p.115-132.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Ferguson 'riots'- militarised policing is not the answer

The town of Ferguson, Missouri in the US has now seen ten days of almost nightly disorder, according to the latest BBC reports. This was sparked by the fatal shooting of the Black teenager Michael Brown, promoting accusations of racism by the African-American community against the police (Ferguson's population of 21,000 is two-thirds Black, but there are only 3 Black officers from a total of 53 in the local Police Department). The town currently looks more like a war zone than a previously unremarkable suburb of St Louis in the mid-West, with the media presenting images  that seem more reminiscent of scenes from apartheid South Africa. The recent deployment of the Missouri National Guard has not yet quelled the disorder either, with 31 protestors arrested during the night of 18/8/14 (there is also evidence that Amnesty human rights observers were told to leave the vicinity and did so with their hands up), and I would argue that this increasingly militarised response may well be one of the factors that is perpetuating the situation.

Militarised policing:  
The police deployed in the evenings in Ferguson are heavily armed with a range of sophisticated weapons (such as: tear gas, sonic devices, baton rounds, and stun grenades) making them look more like soldiers than civilian policeman. What these devices all have in common is that they are indiscriminate crowd control weapons designed for dispersal that treat crowds in an indiscriminate way and cannot differentiate amongst protestors. In previous blog posts and an article for The Conversation, I argued that the introduction of water cannon into British policing would probably be counter-productive as it would contribute towards the increased militarisation of the police and could result in more disorder rather than less. This is in line with research done by a variety of academics into crowd behaviour using the Elaborated Social Identity Model (e.g. Stott, 2009) which argues that treating crowds forcefully and indiscriminately often escalates disorder, and was recently covered in a Newsweek article;  

'Studies [ ] show that police have the power to either lessen the tensions of an angry group of people or goad them into a riot. This conclusion is based on the Elaborated Social Identity Model (ESIM), which is the leading scientific theory on managing a boisterous horde of people. What the ESIM shows is that an angry crowd can be driven to riot if they believe they are being treated unfairly—for example, by being confronted by cops decked out with military weaponry. When police treat a crowd justly and humanely, the chance of an uproar decreases and participants trust law enforcement more.'

Riot police in Ferguson (18 August 2014)

Irrationalist narratives of crowds:
I have also noticed that the language used to describe the protests in Ferguson reflects a pervasive mistrust of crowds in society that is heavily influenced by pathological  views of crowd behaviour (that are often flawed and not supported by current evidence). There are also commonalities with how protests were covered after similar events in the UK (such as the 2011 riots after the shooting of Mark Duggan by London's Metropolitan Police). For instance, the Ferguson Police Captain Ron Johnson claimed in an interview that;
"a small number of violent agitators... hide in the crowd and then attempt to create chaos" 
I have seen no CCTV footage to support this assertion, but I would take issue with the premise behind this statement- that there are a small number of people with malicious intent who are responsible for 'inciting' the peaceful majority to behave violently. This assumes that crowd members are easily influenced by others to do things that they would not do otherwise. If crowds were this easily influenced by others, then why don't they listen to the police announcements to disperse and go home?! The reality is that the idea of gullible crowds, uncritical of any social influence is largely a myth not supported by evidence from studies of crowd behaviour. If violence does occur it rarely happens because a violent 'minority' has whipped up the the crowd, and is more likely because of the police treating the crowd in an indiscriminate way which psychologically unites crowd members to act together against what are perceived as illegitimate attacks against them. Ball & Drury's (2012) study of the narratives presented by the media and politicians of 'irrational' criminality after the 2011 riots in the UK, shows how the statistics used were often selective and/or mis-represented, and the conclusions drawn were not supported by detailed examination of what actually happened. Finally, locals from Ferguson also seem to reject this dominant narrative of pervasive 'criminality', and there have been much more positive accounts of recent events by those involved in them. For instance, the BBC has reported how some locals perceive an almost festival-like atmosphere in Ferguson;

Sarah from nearby University City has spent four days in Ferguson.

"What they're not showing in a lot of the media is how diverse these groups of people coming out are and how welcoming everybody is. It's really wonderful to be in this community right now. There's so much love and support."

Another man described efforts by young men to protect several local stores and the greater community from looters.

"People care about this community and the people who are looting are not necessary residents of Ferguson. They're opportunists," he said. "It's really really sad to see that people still want to take advantage of the situation and feel that it's right to loot. But one sin is not greater than another and ignorance does not justify ignorance."

The second statement to supported by the photo below (that is circulating on Twitter) that appears to show rival gang members (wearing different coloured scarves) standing together to protect a shop from looters, This also illustrates that protestors are placing limits on the crowd's behaviour, which also undermines another common myth of crowd disorder- that once riots begin, anything goes and 'mob rule' takes over. This fits with evidence from the 2011 England riots (Reicher & Stott, 2011) that found similar complexities in crowd behaviour, with non-police emergency services (such as fire-crews and paramedics) rarely being attacked by protestors, and when looting happened, it was often selective (and not indiscriminate) and some local properties were even protected from opportunistic looters by people who had previously been fighting the police.

The disorder in Ferguson is happening for a complex set of reasons, and I cannot claim to have all the answers to explain why such events occur and escalate. However, I'm pretty confident that such events happen in a social context which needs to be considered when looking at solutions (such as the deep inequalities in American society and how African-American communities often feel they are being victimised by a still predominantly white police force). Therefore, trying to de-contextualise such events by blaming the behaviour of a minority of bad-intentioned individuals, and responding to legitimate protests with increasingly militarised policing is not going to provide a solution. Furthermore, it can only further alienate communities from their local police forces if they are met with such overwhelming force when they take to the streets.
In a previous post I argued that disaster response should not be militarised (such as when National Guard soldiers were withdrawn from Iraq in 2005 and redeployed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), as it was predicated on a fundamental distrust of crowd behaviour, and I would say similar issues are at play here.The US Police are probably amongst the most heavily armed police forces in the world, but this has not stopped urban disorder happening, and something is clearly badly wrong, when US citizens in 2014 are openly talking about their own police as an occupation force. The reasons why such events happen and escalate have to be explored in a broader social context and long term solutions will not be found by turning police forces into the paramilitary outfits we are currently seeing on the streets of St Louis.

Update 20/8/14:
Since writing the above post, there has been another tragic shooting by police of a Black teenager in Ferguson. So far, there does not appear to have been a repeat of the previous disorder, but it is clearly early days yet, and we shall have to see how events unfold. The BBC have reported that protestors have marched peacefully through the streets to protest against the latest shooting and 'hundreds of police were out on the streets, but kept their distance'. I believe this illustrates that disorder is not inevitable in the immediate aftermath of fatal incidents involving the police, and that what is crucial is how such tense situations are managed afterwards. In a previous post on disorder in the UK, I looked at two separate riots in Tottenham, London- both sparked by the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police (Mark Duggan and Cynthia Jarrett). I pointed out that after each incident there were delays in the disorder beginning (48 hours and 24 hours respectively), and that it was vital to look at how the police interacted with the community afterwards to understand how riots can begin in tense situations. Both situations involved forceful public order policing that resulted in angry (but peaceful) crowds becoming much more hostile to the police as a result of what they saw as indiscriminate and illegitimate police tactics that escalated the situation. I would suggest that how the police interacts with the community in Ferguson over the coming hours and days may very well influence whether the disorder continues or dies down.  

Cocking, C (2014) Dousing disorder or fatally fanning the flames? A study of the possible psychological and physiological effects of water cannon. Report for the public consultation into the proposed introduction of water cannon by the Mayor of London Office for Policing & Crime (MOPAC).University of Brighton, Feb 2014; Available online

Reicher, S. D. and Stott, C. J. (2011). Mad Mobs and Englishmen: Myths and Realities of the 2011 ‘riots’. London: Constable Robinson. available on Kindle 

Stott, C. J. (2009). Crowd psychology and public order policing. Unpublished report submitted to the HMCIC inquiry into the policing of the London G20 protests. Available online

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Metropolitan Police given authority to purchase water cannon

I was recently asked to write a couple of comment pieces on the decision to authorise the purchase of three old water cannon from Germany by the Metropolitan Police. The first was an article for the on-line Conversation, which gets academics to write pieces on their research for the broader public. In it, I repeat the concerns I first raised in the report I wrote in February and argue that any pretence at saving money by buying the appliances second-hand would be a false economy with potentially tragic implications. The second article was a letter in the Evening Standard that appeared 12/6/14 (page 63) which amalgamates my original article for the Conversation, and also includes my thoughts on the Mayor of London's (Boris Johnson) offer to be blasted by water cannon to 'prove' it is safe. I have yet to find a copy of the full article on-line, but have copied below the original section I wrote in response to Boris's offer to get soaked.   

London doesn't need water cannon

Boris Johnson’s offer to be hit by water cannon so that he can understand what Londoners could experience when it is introduced into policing in the capital may be a tempting prospect, but there are more serious issues behind this gimmick.  I am a social psychologist who has studied the effects of public order policing tactics, and recently argued that the introduction of water cannon could further erode trust between the public and police, and its use would largely be ineffective or even counter-productive.  Finally, if it is used in cold weather and in conjunction with the tactic of ‘kettling’ there is a real risk that the police could be faced with multiple cases of hypothermia, which can become fatal if not detected and treated in time.

However, if he is determined to be a guinea-pig, can I suggest that he experience it under the following conditions to make it a more realistic experiment? First of all, he should be hit with a jet at full power so he can experience the effects of being violently knocked to the ground. Next, he should be doused with the spray at the diffused setting, so he can experience the disorientation and possible breathing difficulties that can go along with being in a thick cloud of water droplets. Finally, he should be made to stand around soaking wet, for hours on end as it gets dark and the temperature drops close to freezing, and not allowed to leave until he has agreed to give his personal details the Police. This should provide him with a realistic sense of how Londoners could experience water cannon if it is introduced!   

A copy of the full report on water cannon I wrote for the public consultation in Jan 2014 can be downloaded here.

Dr Chris Cocking, Senior Lecturer, University of Brighton

PostScript 19/6/14:

Today an excellent article criticising the recent move towards using water cannon was published in The justice gap, which I strongly recommend reading, and not just because it describes the report I wrote in February as a  'scholarly and well-evidenced report'!

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The March for England and the limits of Public Order Legislation

Brighton is counting the cost of another protest by the March for England (MfE) on Sunday 27th April 2014. So far, there have been a reported 27 arrests and some local businesses were damaged during scuffles in the city centre as anti-fascists confronted them. The MfE attracted an estimated 100-150 and they were opposed by at least 1000 counter-protestors. As happened last year, Sussex Police conducted a massive operation to police the march and counter demonstration, with Superintendent Steve Whitton quoted as saying that up to a dozen different forces were involved, including officers from: Surrey, Hampshire, Dorset , Kent, Devon & Cornwall, City of London Police (CoLP) , the Metropolitan Police (MPS), and Thames Valley Police (TVP). A Police helicopter, eight horses and dog units were also in attendance, so estimates that costs of the policing will run to at least £1/2million seem realistic given the resources they had available on the day.
As happened in 2013, the MfE were allowed to march along a stretch of the seafront road, with barriers and police vans separating the two sides. However, there were also serious scuffles between counter-protestors and police as they headed north back to Brighton station afterwards, with horses being used to push the crowd back down Queens road. This has some similarities with the march in 2012, as it was on Queen's road where the Police had to cut the MfE march short and divert it through back streets because of the level of opposition they faced. Prior to this year's march, there had been speculation that the march might be cancelled or re-routed at the last minute because part of the road on the route along the seafront collapsed, leading some to Tweet that 'even the road don't want fascists on them'! However, other than announcing a slightly amended-route on 25/4/14, Sussex Police allowed the march to go ahead despite massive local opposition, including a unity statement signed by local trade unions, the local MP- Caroline Lucas, and most of the Green councillors on Brighton Council.

 The Argus: Violent clashes as March for England returns to Brighton
March for England protestor confronts counter-demonstrators 

Use of public order legislation:
After last year's March for England 2013, I looked at how I felt the Police selectively interpreted sections of the 1986 Public Order Act (POA) to justify why they felt forced to facilitate these marches that are highly disruptive and not wanted by the vast majority of Brighton residents. I felt that a similar attitude seemed to prevail this year as well, with Sussex Police issuing a public statement attempting to explain why they felt they could not ban such marches. Again, I think this is a rather selective and narrow interpretation of available legislation. For instance, S.13 of the POA does mention 'serious public disorder' as the benchmark for judging whether or not the police can apply to have a march banned, but I would argue that definitions of 'serious disorder' can be a matter of subjective interpretation, and the police have used other legislation in different circumstances to prevent such events going ahead. For example, in November 2011, the Metropolitan Police arrested 156 English Defence League (EDL) supporters to prevent a 'breach of the peace' (BOP), because they thought they were going to target the Occupy protests that were under way in London at the time. One does not have to have committed a specific offence to be arrested to prevent a BOP (the police merely have to fear that it may occur if they do not make the arrest), and so such arrests have been used in the past as a kind of catch-all tactic to remove people from potentially volatile situations and then release them later once the threat of a BOP is over. Such BOP arrests used to be a fairly common occurrence at trade union and environmental protests in the 1980s and 1990s, although they seem to have become less common in recent years (possibly to avoid contravening the European human rights convention, which protects the right to peaceful protest).

There was however, a noticeable difference in how the POA was implemented when compared to how it has been used against other anti-fascist protests. For instance, I explored in a previous blog in September 2013 how nearly 300 anti-fascist protestors were arrested en masse under the POA while protesting against an EDL march in London. While  Sussex Police invoked Sections 12 and 14 of the POA this Sunday (which meant they could place temporal and spatial restrictions on the march and any counter-protests), no mass arrests happened, and local media have reported just one person as having been arrested under these sections of the POA. Why this happened is a matter of speculation, but I would suggest two possible reasons (although I'm sure there could be others).

Firstly, the fluid nature of the situation (especially when crowds were blocking the route of the March for England North to the station), may have meant that it was not practical (or even feasible) for the police to have conducted mass arrests in central Brighton on a busy Sunday afternoon- whereas the MPS had created a large sterile area for the EDL protest in London in September 2013, and it was easier to detain people en masse within this space (especially as this area was close to the City of London, which was largely empty on the Saturday afternoon that the protest happened).
Secondly, it's possible that the police were wary of making arrests under the POA because of Caroline Lucas's recent acquittal in Court after being arrested at the fracking  protests in Balcombe last August. She had been charged under S.14, but it emerged in Court that the police had  made mistakes in issuing the necessary conditions and directions, as illustrated by local journalist Ruth Hayhurst;

The district judge at the trial of MP Caroline Lucas and four other anti-fracking campaigners said conditions imposed on people at the Balcombe protest on August 19th were unlawful. He said the senior police officer who issued the conditions was not authorised to do so, he was wrong to issue them and they were so vague and unclear as to be meaningless.

Therefore, perhaps Caroline's recent victory meant that Sussex Police were reluctant to make fresh arrests under the same legislation, in case a similar verdict was reached in future trials arising from any mass arrests. She was also visibly present (see photo below) in the pen that was designated by the police as the 'authorised' protest area under S.14, so maybe she scared them off from making a repeat performance!    

Brighton MP Caroline Lucas joins protest against March for England
Caroline Lucas in the Section 14 pen (from

Wider context of the POA:
There are also wider problems associated with current  public order legislation. For instance, Nadine El-Enany (In Press) suggested that the more serious sections of the POA (such as S.2- 'Violent Disorder' which can result in up to five years in prison if found guilty) are routinely used against those who engage in what she terms 'unwanted political activity' p.1. For instance, 58 protestors were charged with 'Violent Disorder' following the 2010 student tuition fees protests, with 12 receiving prison sentences on conviction (although the vast majority who pleaded not guilty were eventually acquitted by a jury, including Alfie Meadows). She argues that such legislation is often used in a political way to try and de-contextualise and so de-legitimise protestors' actions;

 'The criminal law acts to de-contextualise the behaviour of individuals from the social context in which that behaviour took place [ ]. The social context in which actions take place ought, however, to be entirely relevant when assessing the ethics of an individual's actions' p.16

Events such as the March for England can create a great deal of disruption, and the opposing perspectives held by the different groups involved are not easily reconciled. For instance, the MfE seem determined to continue requesting permission to march in Brighton (despite the fact that the vast majority of the local community do not want them to do so), and the police claim that they are duty bound to facilitate them if they are approached. I would argue that it is a little disingenuous for the police to make this claim, as such an approach is predicated upon a rather selective interpretation of minor sections of the POA, and that in other situations, more serious public order legislation is often invoked if it suits their aims and tactics. I'm not saying the situation will necessarily be resolved if the police started mass arresting MfE protestors next time they appear at Brighton's city limits (and I  imagine some counter protestors would probably prefer to oppose the MfE themselves, rather than relying on the police). However, specific problems associated with the MfE coming to Brighton, and the wider social contexts in which such groups can emerge, need to be considered, as solutions are unlikely to found by merely relying on the selective (and sometimes politicised) use of controversial public order legislation.  

N. El-Enany, (In Press) ‘The criminalisation of the right to protest’, in F. Pakes and D. Pritchard (eds.) Riot: Unrest and Protest on the Global Stage. Palgrave Macmillan.