Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013 review of the year

Following my review of 2012, I thought I'd have another go for 2013 and also welcome new followers to my blog. I was initially inspired to write a blog following my experiences on holiday in Tunisia in Jan 2011 during the Jasmine revolution which was the first of many popular uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring, but it has since evolved into a general commentary of how I think crowds are often misrepresented in popular culture and discourse. 2013 has also been another busy year for me as I set about correcting what are often outdated myths about crowds that are rarely supported by detailed studies of their actual behaviour. My interests can broadly be described in the following three main areas which I will cover in turn in this review:

a) Exploring populist descriptions of crowd behaviour, questioning whether the terms used are useful in describing what people actually do, and considering the implications of such descriptions

b) How irrationalist views of crowds can affect the ways in which they are policed & how people involved in collective action protests can often experience positive and lasting psychological change

c) How those affected by mass emergencies can (and should) be used as a potential resource in their aftermath as people co-operate to support each other and rebuild their communities in times of adversity  

A critique of 'panic' narratives 
I began the year by looking at how a fatal fire in a Brazilian nightclub was reported, and I argued that using 'panic' to describe people's behaviour as they evacuated seemed to be not only inaccurate, but also risked diverting attention away from the possible negligence of the building's owners, as the wrong kind of pyrotechnics were used, and the club only had one working fire exit. I also looked at tragedies at two religious festivals in India this February and October, and argued that describing the crowds' actions as 'stampedes' could serve a similar purpose by blaming the 'crazed' behaviour of pilgrims rather than what looked like woeful crowd mismanagement on the part of the Indian authorities.
In May a paper I co-wrote with John Drury on the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster was published. In it, we explored how survivors of the disaster often used the term 'panic' to describe their experiences, despite clearly having good reason to reject the irrationalist implications that go along with such usage (the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel report concluded that fans were not responsible for the disaster, thus dispelling a controversial myth that had previously been propagated by some aspects of the media). We concluded that this was a good example of how people in such situations can be constrained by the language available to them, and that this was yet more evidence to show that the word 'panic' is inadequate to describe how people behave in such emergencies. Furthermore, use of this term in social discourse can encourage crowd management that views crowds from a public 'order' rather than public safety perspective, and the Hillsborough disaster is a tragic case of what can happen if crowd events are considered in this way.

In November, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, and the media were quick to talk about fears of the breakdown of law and order, freely using terms such as 'looting', although they presented little evidence to support this. I felt this was re-hashing clichéd narratives about how communities are supposed to descend into 'lawlessness' after natural disasters, and pointed out that there was similar reporting when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, despite the fact that detailed investigations afterwards concluded that reports of such lawlessness were often vastly exaggerated, and crime rates tend to drop after such incidents.

Most recently, accounts from those who witnessed the recent collapse of the ceiling of Apollo Theatre in London's West End, showed quite well how people can co-operate in such situations, with existing social attachment bonds between family members and friends remaining. I also argued that people would also co-operate to help strangers in emergency evacuations, as a common identity often emerges in the face of a shared threat which encourages co-operation rather than selfish behaviour. This post was mentioned in an article in the Guardian, which massively increased hits on my blog, and quickly made it the most widely accessed post I have written so far.  

Hillsborough disaster
The 1989 Hillsborough football disaster

Public order policing 
In January, I had a paper published that looked at how the use of indiscriminate public order tactics (such as 'kettling' to contain crowds or charges to disperse them) could escalate rather than reduce crowd conflict because it psychologically united crowd members against a shared threat. Later in the year, there were   marches in Brighton and London by the far-right English Defence League, and I looked at how such events can attract clashes in views of legitimacy which can result in actual physical clashes between opposing sides and/or the police. However, I also argued that the police's sometimes rather selective use of public order legislation (such as the 1986  Public Order Act) can exacerbate mutual distrust if there is a perception that opposing groups are being treated differently and make further conflict more likely. I also argued that the acquittals of two students charged with violent disorder after their involvement in the 2010 tuition fee protests, were good examples of how public order legislation is often underpinned by outdated irrationalist views of crowd behaviour.  

The summer saw anti-fracking protests in Balcombe, West Sussex, and I looked at how those involved could develop a wider sense of collective identity that goes beyond the specific local issue they were protesting about, how there can be differing views of legitimacy between the protestors and the police, and how their measures of success could also go beyond the specific protest itself. Similar psychological processes also seemed apparent during student protests in England in March and December, and I argued that while the campaigns could be initially inspired by a specific issue, they could often grow into covering wider issues relating to Higher Education (and beyond), and even extend into a debate about the right to protest itself.

Police 'kettle' anti EDL protestors September 2013 

First Responders
The final area I looked at was how those directly affected by mass emergencies are often best placed to respond in the immediate aftermath before outside help from first responders arrives. Therefore, they could serve as 'zero-responders', and this is a valuable potential resource that should not be overlooked in such situations. The attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya this September showed how in this situation where first responders were delayed in reaching victims, uninjured bystanders helped others to escape, tend to the wounded, and in some cases, even lead security forces back into the Mall to locate other survivors.More recently, the Glasgow helicopter crash in November was a classic example of how people often rush into to emergency situations (instead of rushing away to reach safety) to help those in need, and the only people who seemed surprised about this were the journalists who had turned up to cover the story! Finally, when Lee Rigby's attackers were found guilty of his murder this December, I argued that this contradicted early psychological research that suggested bystanders were apathetic to others in need, and that in the right situations, people would intervene to help others.

Bystanders to Lee Rigby's murder intervene to confront the attackers before 1st responders arrive 


Cocking, C. (2013) Crowd resilience during the 7/7/2005 London Bombings: Implications for the Emergency Services. International Journal of the Emergency Services. 2 (2) 79-93. 
Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason?Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling. 10 (2) p.219-36. DOI: 10.1002/jip.1389

Cocking, C (2013) Collective resilience versus collective vulnerability after disasters- a Social Psychological perspective. In R. Arora (ed.) Disaster Management: A Medical Perspective. 

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2013) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/casp.2153.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Apollo theatre roof collapse

London's West End is reeling after the sudden collapse of the ceiling in the Apollo theatre during a performance of 'The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time'. The performance was nearly full with around 720 people in the 775 capacity theatre, and 76 people were injured, with seven of them seriously. Mercifully though, no-one was killed, and the London Fire Brigade  has stated that it was lucky more were not injured. The Guardian newspaper reports eye-witnesses hearing a bang and seeing a cloud of dust that some people initially thought was part of the performance.This quickly changed, as the seriousness of the situation became apparent, but the following quotes illustrate that people's behaviour remained orderly; "people realised it must be some sort of emergency and people started getting up... people didn't panic".  The sudden and unexpected nature of this incident means that it was a potentially distressing experience for those affected, but people still remained calm; "people were scared, but they weren't screaming". I also saw a tweet from a colleague at my University who was in the theatre, and she acknowledges the distress, but refutes the idea of 'panic'

Interviews with eye-witnesses by Channel 4 news also report that when a crack appeared in the ceiling, someone in the audience stood up and told everyone to get out, which people quickly did. So it seems that it was a remarkably efficient evacuation, with casualties occurring during the initial roof collapse, and no reports of injuries sustained while people exited the venue. People also tried to locate members of their own groups before they evacuated, meaning I very much doubt there was any kind of crazed 'stampede' to get out. The BBC also reports instances of people protecting more vulnerable family members-

"I tried to cover my daughter-in-law, who is pregnant, to protect her but some of the debris fell on her back"

These accounts are very much in line with the social attachment theory (Mawson, 2005; 2007), which argues that in emergencies people don't tend to 'panic', but seek out familiar attachment figures (e.g. friends or family), and tend to evacuate as groups. The idea that people will 'stampede' to save themselves is not supported by evidence. Work I have done with survivors of mass emergencies (Drury & Cocking, 2007; Drury et al. 2009) has supported social attachment theory. We also found that disasters can create a sense of shared identity, meaning that strangers can and do co-operate with each other in life-threatening situations. Finally, in a previous post I looked at coverage of a fire in a packed nightclub in Brazil, in January 2013, and argued that we should be careful not to rush to describe people's behaviour in such situations as 'panic', as it could deflect blame for possible negligence on the part of those responsible for the safe management of such events. 
The response by the emergency services to this event appears to have been exemplary, with a very quick response (I have seen reports that some arrived on scene within 3 minutes), and I wish a speedy recovery to all those injured. However, I also think questions need to be asked about the possible safety of London's theatres.  I was fortunate enough to see some plays and musicals in the West End as a child and have fond memories of being in the Apollo and other West End theatres. These venues are classic examples of the old style theatres that the West End is famous for, but some of the buildings are now quite old, and stricter safety checks may be necessary to prevent any future incidents. The safety of people attending such events  has to take priority over all else, and safe crowd management should never be compromised in the pursuit of maximising profits.  

Debris on seats


Chertkoff, J.M. & Kushigian, R.H. (1999). Don’t panic: The psychology of emergency egress and ingress. Westport, CT: Praeger,

Drury, J. and Cocking, C. (2007). The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice. http://www.sussex.ac.uk/affiliates/panic/Disasters%20and%20emergency%20evacuations%20(2007).pdf

Drury, J Cocking, C & Reicher, S (2009) Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 487-506.

Mawson, A.R. (2005). Understanding mass panic and other collective responses to threat and disaster. Psychiatry, 68, 95-113.

Mawson, A. (2007). Mass panic and social attachment: The dynamics of human behavior. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Bystander intervention and the Woolwich barracks attack

Today (19/12/13), the jury reached a verdict in the Woolwich barracks attack of May 2013, and perhaps unsurprisingly both suspects were found guilty of the murder of Lee Rigby. The British media (such as this coverage by the BBC) is currently full of details of this shocking attack in broad daylight in a quiet area of suburban London. Therefore, I will limit this blog to focussing on the responses of the bystanders who witnessed it, as I think they yet again show the amazing resilience and courage that people can exhibit when exposed to such horrific situations. Furthermore, the notion that bystanders will always be apathetic to others in times of need (a concept known in Psychology as the bystander effect) is too simplistic and not always supported by evidence, especially during serious and/or life threatening emergencies.

In previous posts, I have looked at how survivors and bystanders intervened to help each other during the 7/7/2005 London bombings, and the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya this September, and this also seems to have happened immediately after the attack on Lee Rigby. Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, a cub scout leader from Cornwall (who is on the left in the image below) witnessed the attack, and become famous for her subsequent intervention. In interviews for the BBC, and the Daily Telegraph newspaper, she describes how she initially tried to help Lee Rigby, but then also engaged the perpetrators in conversation to try and prevent them from attacking others, and even asked one of them to hand over his weapon. The image also shows two other female bystanders talking to the other attacker.What I think is also significant, are the bizarre instances of near-normality in the period between the murder and the arrival of armed police on the scene. One of the attackers asked a bystander to film him while he made a speech seeking to justify his actions, and this became the infamous video clip that went around the world in the attack's aftermath. The footage shows the attacker speaking to the camera about the murder he has just committed, with his hands soaked in Lee Rigby's blood, as people walk past him, seemingly oblivious to what has just happened. I think both of these examples illustrate the almost complete lack of any 'panicked' behaviour in this situation, and also contradicts the idea that bystanders always ignore people in need (as the 'bystander effect' would predict).  

The murder of Lee Rigby was a truly shocking and horrific attack that risked dividing communities and briefly created a revival in the flagging fortunes of the Islamophobic English Defence League. However, a piece in The Guardian today argues it  has instead had the opposite effect to that intended by the attackers (to start a 'holy war' between Muslims & non-Muslims) and united communities in their opposition to such attacks. I believe that the selfless and courageous acts by passers-by on the day were perhaps the first example of such opposition and show how people can unite and come together to support each other in times of adversity.


Cocking, C. (2013) Crowd resilience during the 7/7/2005 London Bombings: Implications for the Emergency Services. International Journal of the Emergency Services. 2 (2) 79-93. 
Cole, J., Walters, M. & Lynch, M (2011). Part of the solution, not the problem: the crowd's role in emergency response, Contemporary Social Science, 6 (3) 361-375.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009) The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Student protests at Sussex and London Universities

Student protests are on the upsurge again, with a wave of actions across the country (including occupations at Warwick and Sheffield as I write this), but I shall focus on the Universities of Sussex and London, where there have been increasingly disproportionate responses to their respective campaigns. Many commentators have rightly highlighted the excessive and disproportionate response implemented by the respective university authorities and the police, and have also raised questions about the morality and legitimacy of such actions. However, I would argue that such responses may also be counter-productive to the aims of the authorities, in that they could escalate current discontent and broaden the protestors' determination and appeal to others, thus prolonging their duration.

University of Sussex:

Sussex University has suspended five of its students for allegedly leading an occupation of the Bramber House conference building in support of the recent strike by staff in HE on 3/12/13 (the last Sussex occupation is covered in my previous post), and these students are currently banned from coming on to campus for any reason (even to see their GP). These students face possible sanction and/or expulsion if found guilty of misconduct under the University's disciplinary procedures. Sussex's registrar, John Duffy claimed that recent protests had seen 'violence, intimidation or serious disruption', but the Sussex 5 reject such claims, and argue instead that this action, along with a previous injunction to prevent protests on campus after the last occupation is part of an attempt to stifle legitimate protest.

Since the suspensions happened, there have been daily protests on Sussex campus, which have attracted hundreds of students and staff. At today's rally (6th Dec), staff spoke out in favour of the suspended students, saying that they were being penalised not because they'd broken any rules, but to intimidate others from getting involved. More interestingly, a member of staff from the University and Colleges Union (UCU), reported that colleagues of his who had previously not been interested in the campaign against outsourcing of services at Sussex (and did not take part in the recent national strike action either), were so outraged by the suspensions that they had now become involved. This suggests that support is growing rather than diminishing, but also that the campaign is also concerned with wider issues are now, and as the protest moved off for its regular walk round Sussex campus, protestors were chanting "re-instate the Sussex 5, keep democracy alive". I also saw what is probably the best resignation letter I have ever read, from a porter at Sussex university who was not prepared to work at Sussex any more because of the current situation. He describes very eloquently how the Vice-Chancellor's actions had created a community at Sussex in opposition to the proposed outsourcing of services, and finishes by advising the VC to 'go and violate yourself brutally with a pineapple'!.

University of London:
The protests against the proposed closure of the University of London Union (ULU) have seen much more violent scenes, with police and private security forcibly removing protestors from Senate House on the evening of 5/12/13, and arresting up to 40 students in the process, with reports of injuries and photos posted on Twitter of students's blood on the pavement. ULU president Michael Chessum (who was recently arrested under the public Order Act for allegedly organising an 'illegal demonstration at ULU) said; "I saw a level of police violence and violence from university security staff that I have not seen for a very long time, if ever." Those arrested at the protests in London have also been given bail conditions by the police that include an order not to 'be in a group of 4 or more persons... in any public place', leading some to conclude that the police are attempting to ban protests. 

Coverage by the Guardian newspaper of the protests reported there was a strong police presence stationed around University of London from the outset, with a significant proportion being from the Territorial Support Group (TSG) that deal with public order protests- attracting criticisms from students of collusion between the police and the University of London management. The article continues by highlighting the contexts in which the protests are occurring, and how protestors are making connections with other causes beyond the immediate issues that they are protesting about . For instance, protestors can be heard chanting  'you killed Mark Duggan' at police (whose fatal shooting triggered the 2011 riots in England), showing a wider sense of identification beyond the immediate issue of the protests. 

Embedded image permalink

Territorial Support Group police deployed outside ULU 6/12/13

It is clear to me that the way the campus protests are currently being dealt with at Sussex and London Universities illustrate the bureaucratic sanctions and also sheer physical brutality that student protestors can face. But I think these incidents can also unite protestors, widen their outlook (and consequent support), and make them more determined to continue with their campaigns.  So, in these particular campaigns, what initially began as campaigns against outsourcing  and/or  closure of services, are now being openly discussed in terms of defending  the right to protest. This is something that has been found in previous research (Cocking & Drury, 2004; Drury et al, 2003) into psychological change happening through involvement in collective action, and also in my exploration of the Balcombe fracking protests. On the day that the world is mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, one of the world's most famous campaigners against injustice, I think it is appropriate that his name was invoked at today's rally at Sussex and a minute's silence called in his honour. 

Nelson Mandela

Dedicated to the memory of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) and his struggle against apartheid

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2004) Generalization of efficacy as a function of collective action and inter-group relations: Involvement in an anti-roads struggle. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 34 (2) 417-444

Drury, J., Reicher, S., & Stott, C. (2003). Transforming the boundaries of collective identity: From the "local" anti-road campaign to "global" resistance? Social Movement Studies, 2, 191-212.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Glasgow helicopter crash

So far there have been 8 people confirmed dead, and 32 injured after a police helicopter crashed onto the roof of the Clutha pub in central Glasgow during a concert that was packed with an estimated 120 people. However, despite descriptions of 'panic' and 'pandemonium', again the evidence shows that the behaviour of survivors and eye-witnesses was anything but 'panic', with reports of people running towards the pub to help as soon as the helicopter had crashed (instead of fleeing away from danger). A report by the BBC quotes an eye- witness;
"My own reaction was to run straight up to the pub.It was amazing to watch just how people were trying so hard to get into this building."

The local labour MP, Jim Murphy was in the area when the helicopter crashed, and described the spontaneous co-operation he saw  that happened in the time before the emergency services arrived, as eye-witnesses formed a human chain to help people out of the pub & assist with the casualties. An interview with the Leader of Glasgow city Council also illustrates the general co-operation that happened in the aftermath;

[people] "helped out their fellow human beings who were out having a good time. It's Glasgow at its best you know, if people are in need the spontaneous response is to go to their help. And I want to pay great tribute to that and I'm very proud as leader of the city that that was the reaction. It doesn't surprise me."
Indeed the only people who seem surprised that people weren't running away and 'panicking' in the aftermath of this incident seem to have been the journalists who were interviewing witnesses to this incident!
The scenes of spontaneous co-operation that we have seen in response to this dreadful tragedy illustrate very well how people behave remarkably well during such incidents, and I would argue that it is a universal human response to adversity (although I have been to a  variety of gigs in Glasgow over the years and can also account for the general hospitality and generosity of Glaswegians!). In a previous post , I looked at how the idea of spontaneous help in emergencies by eye-witnesses & bystanders is being increasingly recognised via the concept of 'zero-responders', whereby, those immediately affected by such incidents come together to help each other before help arrives from emergency first responders. Research I have done into 7/7 (e.g. Cocking, 2013), argues that this co-operation happens because people develop a shared sense of identity in response to a common threat which encourages cooperative (rather than selfish) behaviour.
My thoughts go out to the victims and their families of the helicopter crash, and I also hope it is of some comfort to those affected that people's general responses to this disaster yet again contradict the clichéd  views that wrongly predict that such situations will result in selfish and/or 'panicked' behaviour.    
scene of crash
Cocking, C. (2013) Crowd resilience during the 7/7/2005 London Bombings: Implications for the Emergency Services. International Journal of the Emergency Services. 2 (2) 79-93

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Typhoon hits Philippines

Reports are continually being updated, but the shocking extent of Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines is now emerging, with about 2500 dead, 673,000 displaced, and up to 11 million affected in some way by it, according to the BBC, and comparisons with the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami are already being made. Thankfully aid is now beginning to arrive, although there seem to be some logistical issues with getting aid to the more remote areas, as the Philippines is made up of around 7000 islands, and so many survivors may well face delays before getting the help they so desperately need. As with previous disasters in today's age of global media, many journalists have travelled to the Philippines to cover the story. There are of course benefits to such media coverage, as it raises global awareness which can result in increased logistical support and humanitarian aid (the UK Disasters and Emergency Committee has set up an appeal for funding to help the victims which can be reached here). However, I worry that the media also need to be careful that they don't retreat into clichéd reporting of how communities respond to disasters, as they risk perpetuating unfounded myths about mass emergencies.

A common fear is that after disasters, social norms & structures can collapse before the authorities arrive to regain control of the situation and restore order. For instance, a reporter from the BBC's Newsnight on 11/11/2013, talked of 'a growing sense of panic' in Tacloban (the town that was worst hit by the typhoon) with reports of the breakdown of law and order and armed looters on the streets, although there was no footage of such looting, and the interview was filmed while he was walking through deserted streets. A missionary from the US interviewed by the BBC also expressed his worries about a potential 'mob' situation and said, 'we need the military to get there as soon as possible' but this seemed to be more his fears of what might happen rather than descriptions of what was actually going on. Other coverage by the BBC also describes 'desperate survivors looting damaged shops and buildings for whatever they can take'. While such quotes may make sensational headlines, they are rarely backed up by detailed examination of what actually goes on. If such 'looting' happens it is usually the exception (rather than the norm as is often implied in media reports), and local crime rates tend to drop after disasters as survivors support each other and try to re-build their lives.

A previous post I wrote after Hurricane Sandy hit New York in Oct 2012, looked at how coverage of anti-social behaviours post disasters is often vastly exaggerated, with descriptions of such behaviours very much in the eye of the beholder. For instance, the difference between people 'looting' and  'gathering essential supplies' to survive when local infrastructure has broken down, is often a matter of interpretation, and Vorhees et al (2007) argued that descriptions of such behaviour after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 often depended on the ethnicity and/or social class of the people doing it. Indeed, recent research into disasters (e.g. Jacob et al, 2008) has found that the threat of widespread disorder is one of many 'disaster myths' that are not supported by evidence, and such beliefs may be held even by those responsible for emergency management and response (Drury et al, 2013). Some (e.g. Tierney et al, 2006) have also argued that media reports exaggerating 'lawlessness' after disasters are problematic because they reinforce ideological discourses that call for an increased military role in disaster response. This isn't to say that there aren't some benefits of military resources being used to assist with the aid effort (as they will have the equipment and expertise to quickly dispatch aid to remote communities), but I believe disaster relief efforts should  remain as much as possible under the control of the civilian authorities, as militarising disaster relief can perpetuate outdated myths about communities' 'irrational' responses to emergencies.

Survivors in an indoor sports arena in Tacloban, Philippines (12 Nov 2013)
Survivors seeking shelter in the local convention centre in Tacloban- scarily reminiscent of New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina

Drury, J, Novelli, D & Stott, C (2013) Psychological disaster myths in the perception and management of mass emergencies. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12176

Jacob, B, Mawson, A, Payton M & Guignard (2008) Disaster mythology and fact: Hurricane Katrina & Social attachment. Public Health reports, 123. 555-566.

Solnit, R. (2008). A Paradise built in Hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. Viking, New York, US. 

Tierney, K., Bevc, C, & Kuligowski, E. (2006). Metaphors matter: Disaster myths, media frames and their consequences in Hurricane Katrina. ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604: 57-81. 

Voorhees, C.W., Vick, J. & Perkins D.D. (2007). ‘Came Hell and High Water’: The Intersection of Hurricane Katrina, the News Media, Race and Poverty. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 17: 415–429.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

A tale of 2 emergencies in India

India experienced two different emergencies this weekend, with markedly different results.

Cyclone Phailin hit the East Coast state of Orissa, causing widespread damage, but mercifully there have only been 18 fatalities so far- compared to over 10,000 when a cyclone last hit the same area in 1999. This has been largely attributed to the Indian authorities being much more pro-active in their response this time, and evacuating up to 800,000 people from the affected area . To me, this shows how good emergency planning and response can have an enormously beneficial effect in mitigating the effects of natural disasters and fatalistic approaches that believe nothing can be done in the face of such events are both unfounded and negligent.

However, at least 115 people were killed in an incident during a Hindu festival in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, and I think this shows how easy it is for the reporting of such incidents to slip into outdated cliched accounts of crowds before the full facts have emerged. As soon as news of this tragedy broke, the  BBC was reporting the incident as  a 'stampede' and also mentioned 'panic' before going into any detail of what actually happened. From the limited information I have seen so far about this incident, I worry that using such irrationalist descriptions risks obscuring the truth about what happened and could also unwittingly shield those who may be responsible for another possible case of fatal crowd mismanagement.  A local Police spokesman was reported in The Guardian newspaper as saying that rumours that the bridge pilgrims were crossing was about to collapse caused a 'stampede'. However I think this claim is somewhat undermined by his later admission that;

"police wielding sticks had charged the crowd in an effort to contain the 'panic'"

Now I'm sure that those familiar with my blog posts will know that I take issue with the idea of crowd 'panic', but if one were to buy into this notion (as many in crowd management still do), then this statement doesn't seem to make sense. For, if a crowd was indeed 'panicking', why on earth would they stop 'panicking' and suddenly calm down if they were then charged by police with batons drawn?! Previous research I have done on crowd flight during riots in the UK (Cocking, 2013) looked at what happened when crowds are charged by the police. I found that there was often an initial surge where people did flee, but this rarely lasted more than a few seconds, and that during this flight people would co-operate with each other and help those who fell over where it was physically possible to do so. I concluded that descriptions of such flight as 'stampedes' was not accurate, and also too loaded a term, because of its animalistic connotations (it implies that people in crowds behave like herds of cattle). Furthermore, I explored in a previous post how descriptions of crowd 'panic' after disasters can be used as a tactic to deflect blame from those responsible for the venue where the tragedy occurred.

We shall see what further information emerges from this awful incident, but at this stage I fear that negligent crowd mismanagement may have contributed at least in part to this disaster, and lazy reporting of incidents that use uncritically outdated terms  like 'stampede' and 'panic' may delay the truth about the incident emerging, and possibly even hinder proper accountability. As I recently argued in a paper about the Hillsborough disaster (Cocking & Drury, 2013), we need to find new terms to describe people's behaviour crowd disasters if we are going to contribute to increased public safety and avoid such tragedies happening in future.


Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling. 10 (2) p.219-36. DOI: 10.1002/jip.1389

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2013) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/casp.2153.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

'Zero-responders' & the Nairobi shopping mall attack

As I write this, Kenya has begun 3 days of national mourning after the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, where so far at least 67 people have been confirmed dead, and more information is emerging out about how people responded to this horrific incident. As usual, media reporting is full of accounts of 'panic', despite most of the footage I've seen showing little evidence to support this. People are clearly fleeing from danger (which I would argue is quite a logical response, given the situation!), but within this flight, there are also many examples of people helping others as they escape. What's also worth noting is how bystanders can often contribute towards the safe and efficient resolution of such situations.        

An eye-witness who was in the mall when the attack began told the BBC about how he not only tried to help others as he escaped, but also went back in to help evacuate more. When told by the reporter 'you must have saved a lot of lives', he replied, 'it was a team effort- wasn't just 1 person'.  Other reports from eye-witnesses illustrate similar tales of co-operation, and an orthodontist who has a clinic in the mall describes how he communicated with his son to help the authorities lead him and 23 of his patients to safety (with his son actually leading security personnel back into the mall to show them where the clinic was).  These accounts show the courageous things that brave individuals can do, but I think they also reflect the general co-operative norms that exist in such situations. This is because if 'mass panic' actually happened in such emergencies, it would be much more difficult for any brave individuals to emerge (if people are running around like headless chickens, they're less likely to listen to others!). Therefore, the reason that such people are able to influence others to co-operate, is that people don't tend to lose their capacity for rational thought (as panic models would predict) and are able to act together to escape. This supports previous research I did with  John Drury into 7/7 (Drury et al, 2009) that found general co-operation among survivors in the immediate aftermath of the bombings on the London transport system.

The attack on the Westgate mall  also illustrates a concept that is being increasingly recognised in emergency response- the role of those directly affected or 'zero-responders'. This is because there will always be a delay in the emergency services reaching the scene (however quick they are, no response is instantaneous), and so uninjured bystanders may need to look after casualties in the immediate aftermath before paramedics and other first-responders arrive. This is something that I looked at in relation to bystander responses during 7/7 (Cocking, 2013), and more recently, the Boston marathon bombings.  The prolonged nature of the Westgate incident also shows how there can sometimes be delays in first-responders reaching casualties and so those trapped in siege situations may need to help each other out before professional help arrives. Cole et al (2011) point out that the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks  went on for over 48 hours, and hundreds of people were trapped in the buildings targeted, meaning that they had to look after each other before professional responders arrived. Therefore, this general crowd resilience in emergencies is a resource that can and should be drawn upon, rather than assuming people will be too shocked or 'panicked' to help each other. I hope that this can provide a glimmer of comfort to those affected by this shocking incident, as I believe it shows the power of the human spirit to deal with terrible adversity.

Adults leading children to safety from Westgate shopping centre


Cocking, C. (2013) The role of 'zero-responders' during 7/7: Implications for the Emergency Services. International Journal of the Emergency Services, 2 (2) 79-93

Cocking, C (2013) Collective resilience versus collective vulnerability after disasters- a Social Psychological perspective. In R. Arora (ed.) Disaster Management: A Medical Perspective. 

Cole, J., Walters, M. & Lynch, M (2011). Part of the solution, not the problem: the crowd's role in emergency response, Contemporary Social Science, 6 (3) 361-375.

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009) The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Brighton zombie march cancelled

I have just seen the sad news in the Huffington post that the annual Brighton beach of the dead zombie march has been cancelled for health and safety reasons as it was apparently getting too big to manage safely. Last year's march attracted over 6000 assorted members of the undead, who groaned and staggered their way through Brighton to the sea-front, but went way over the projected budget of £2000. In an interview with local paper, The Argus, the organisers felt this event  had become “a victim of its own success”, and blamed increased stewarding, insurance and medical costs for this year's cancellation.

Putting to one side flippant comments about how much insurance and medical aid the undead actually need, I think it's a real shame that such events get cancelled ostensibly for health & safety reasons because of rising costs. The research I have done on mass emergencies (such as the Hillsborough disaster) means that I appreciate the crucial importance of ensuring crowd safety, and the need to have adequate measures in place to deal with any untoward incidents. However, what I find ironic is that events like Beach of the Dead that are very popular in Brighton (we like that kind of thing down here!) can fall victim to restrictive bureaucracies that take a rather risk averse approach and place restrictions on such marches that can make them non-viable unless they can get external funding. On the other hand, Sussex police are prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to allow the  March for England to come to Brighton, in the face of massive local opposition (see my previous blog post for coverage of this & why I think the police mistakenly felt they had a duty to do so). I'd be much happier for my local Council Tax to go towards helping fund zombie marches than it going towards policing costs to facilitate marches by the far-right that the vast majority of people in Brighton don't want to happen. Zombies are much better behaved- they listen to stewards & wait for the lights at crossings as you can see in the photo below! 

Monday, 9 September 2013

Variations in views of EDL protest in London

This weekend saw some interesting scenes in London as the anti-Islamic English Defence League (EDL) attempted to march into the borough of Tower Hamlets (which has one of the highest Muslim populations in the country), and home of the East London Mosque. An earlier decision in the High Court  had ruled that the EDL could not march into the borough as they had wished, and allowed the Metropolitan Police to cut the march short, meaning that it would end at Aldgate (which is on the border of the City of London and Tower Hamlets). However, it was clear that the EDL still intended to march, and so thousands of  anti-fascist protestors mobilised in opposition to them. Estimates of numbers vary, but it seems that around 5-600 were on the EDL march (significantly less than the 1-2000 predicted by police), and around 5000 attended the counter-demonstrations.

 The policing of yesterday's march and the counter-demonstration raises interesting issues about how such events are policed and also how those affected perceive such events. First of all, a vast amount of resources were expended in policing this day, with reports of around 3000 police on duty from up to 14 different forces (and officers from as far away as the West Midlands and Leicestershire). This figure seems credible, as protests where there are two opposing sides (rather than one group of demonstrators with similar aims), expend more resources, as the police try to keep both sides apart from each other. 300 arrests in total were reported: 14 EDL protestors for a variety of public order offences (such as violent disorder and assault of a police officer), and 286 counter-demonstrators were also arrested (the majority of these under Sections 12 or 14 of the Public Order Act, which can place restrictions on the time and location of protests). The disparity in numbers arrested from the two opposing sides (especially as the anti-fascists outnumbered the EDL by almost 10 to 1) fits with the contexts in how such arrests were made. It seems that the 14 EDL marchers were arrested for various different reasons, and so were probably as a result of individuals being singled out for specific offences that they had committed. However, the vast majority of the counter demonstrators were arrested after being  'kettled' en masse (see picture below for an example of one 'kettle' near Tower Bridge), which is an example of the indiscriminate public order tactics that have been criticised by mine and others' research in this area (e.g. Cocking, 2013; Stott 2009), as they risk escalating crowd disorder. However, even if 'kettling' helps the police achieve their short-term aims (they did so on Saturday to prevent break-away groups of counter-demonstrators reaching the sterile area through which the EDL were marching), I would argue that use of such a tactic can create a generally confrontational atmosphere that means that innocent bystanders can also get caught up in the situation. This has resulted in previous tragedies, something I explored in a  previous post about the death of Ian Tomlinson, during the 2009 G20 protests in London. The Network for Police monitoring also provide more details on the tactic of mass arrest and how it has been misused in recent police operations in London and the South East.

police 'kettle' protestors by the Royal Mint

Five Legal Observers were also arrested, which has attracted  controversy, as their status has usually been respected previously by the police (while they are often sympathetic to the aims of the protests they observe, they do not openly participate and merely take details of what happens for possible future legal defence). Finally, it seems that the majority (if not all) of the counter-demonstrators were also given restrictive bail conditions by by the police, requiring them not to protest against the EDL within the M25 area. 

The Public Order Act and its effect on policing

All of these actions have resulted in accusations that a decision was taken at a senior level to treat the two sides differently which created the context in which such mass arrests of counter-demonstrators could happen- something I also looked at after the far-right March for England in Brighton this April. As I said previously, I would suggest that at least part of this can be explained by the police's selective interpretation and use of the 1986 Public Order Act (POA), whereby they feel they have a duty to facilitate protests by those who approach them for permission (as the EDL did), but also that they can impose sanctions against those who do not (such as the anti-fascist protestors who left the counter-demonstration in Whitechapel to  try to block the route of the EDL march). While the POA does allow the police to place restrictions on gatherings if they fear disorder,  I feel this is a rather narrow interpretation of the law, and I believe it is often misused to justify such mass arrests on the grounds that protestors are acting 'unlawfully' if they don't seek the police's prior permission to protest, or deviate from pre-arranged routes. Indeed, the HMIC report released after the G20 protests concluded that the police had a duty to facilitate all protests, whether or not they had complied with the rather narrow guidelines of the POA. 

There are also some interesting historical parallels relating to Saturday's protests, as it was the disorder provoked by marches of Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists (BUF) in the 1930's that inspired the original 1936 Public Order Act, that banned the wearing of paramilitary uniforms (the BUF were also known as the 'blackshirts' because they dressed in black) and required protestors to inform the police in advance of proposed marches. Ironically though, the POA ended up helping the fascists somewhat, as post 1936 they tended to liaise with the police and so this gave them more ‘legitimacy’ in some people's eyes. Furthermore, the POA has more often been used since against left-wing and other anti-fascist protestors who may be less keen on liaising with the police. The most famous of these marches was the battle of Cable Street in October 1936, where Mosley's blackshirts had to turn back because the police could not clear the anti-fascist crowds that gathered to block their proposed march though a predominantly Jewish area of the East End. Coincidentally, some of the fighting in 1936 happened outside the Royal Mint, (there is some original footage on youtube) where protestors were detained on Saturday, and as they were lead out of the kettle one by one, they were held on commandeered buses in the road that leads onto Cable St.!

protestors detained on buses at the entrance to Cable Street

Different perceptions of the same event 

How these events have been portrayed since by various anti-fascist groups also highlights some interesting differences in how those involved can perceived them. For instance, the left wing group Unite against fascism (UAF) has a rather triumphalist account that focuses on the rally they organised in Altab Ali Park, and the 'victory' march they held down Whitechapel road (despite the fact it was the police who prevented the EDL from going from Aldgate into Tower Hamlets itself). Initially, there was no mention made of the mass arrest of those who broke away from the rally to try to block the route of the EDL, although this was mentioned in a later addendum.  Other coverage (such as the Brighton-based news-sheet schnews) highlights some people's displeasure at the UAF holding a 'victory' march while nearly 300 other protestors  were being kettled by the police. The South London anti-fascists were also more circumspect in their coverage, and while expressing their pride in those who mobilised and thanks to those who supported people arrested, they also highlight the need to reflect on what went well for them and what didn't.

These differences in views reminds me of a paper I co-wrote with John Drury and others (Drury et al, 2005), where we interviewed people who had been on a variety of different protests over the years, and asked them about what ones they felt were empowering and/or disempowering. What was interesting was that different participants would sometimes view similar events differently, depending on their own views of empowering actions and whether they were consistent with helping them achieve a sense of collective identity. For instance, some would consider traditional marches as empowering because it gave them a chance to spread their message to the general public (by selling papers, getting new members for their group etc.). However, those that favoured more direct forms of protest (such as direct action road-protestors and hunt saboteurs) could consider such events as disempowering, because the way they derived a sense of empowerment was often achieved by physically confronting the particular issue they were protesting about. Therefore, I wouldn't be surprised if similar processes are at play in the different anti-fascist groups after Saturday's demo, with  views of whether such events were empowering or disempowering being guided by individuals' perceptions, as well as the mere sequences of what actually happened on the day.


Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 10: 219–236 

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Beale, J., Hanson, C., & Rapley, F. (2005). The phenomenology of empowerment in collective action. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 309-328.

Stott CJ. (2009). 'Crowd psychology and public order policing'. Liverpool, University of Liverpool, UK.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Fracking protests & measures of success

The fracking protests at Balcombe have been going on for over a month now, and to mark this occasion, BBC Radio Sussex Breakfast Show interviewed me on 30/8/13 as part of their coverage (significant points in the 3 hour programme are covered below & should be available on BBC iPlayer until 5/9/13).

The focus of the interview was whether or not companies can be put off taking on environmentally contentious projects, because they may fear the negative publicity (and extra security costs) that direct action protests can generate. I spoke after a representative from a drilling company involved in similar projects to Balcombe in Sussex, and I suggested that whatever they may say publicly, such protests may mean that private companies are more cautious about taking on similar projects in future. This got me thinking about how success in these campaigns can be measured by those involved, and that outright 'victory' is not the only way that protestors can gauge the effectiveness of their actions.

 Previous posts I have done on the protests at Balcombe have looked at campaigners' sense of collective identity, and their perceptions of legitimacy, but there has also been research done into how those involved in such campaigns feel about the success (or not) of their actions, and any resulting empowerment (Cocking & Drury, 2004; Drury et al 2005; Drury & Reicher, 2009). Common sense might suggest that people would not get involved in such protests (which can result in a great personal hardship and/or sacrifice) if they did not think that they would achieve something through their actions. However, not achieving the immediate visible objectives of direct action protests (e.g. to delay or even stop the particular scheme that they're protesting about), does not mean that protestors will necessarily consider their actions as 'failure'. In a previous post on the protests against the Bexhill to Hastings link road, I looked at the concept of quiet victories vs. noisy defeats in direct action campaigns, where protestors often defined their success in how they successfully raised public awareness about the specific issue, and/or how their actions often deterred other future schemes from happening. This certainly happened with the anti-roads movement in the 1990s, where the £21 billion road building scheme initially proposed by the Major government in 1992 was slashed after huge direct action protests (such as the Twyford Down, no M11-link road, and Newbury by-pass campaigns).

I think we may see a similar situation as a result of the protests at Balcombe, in that whether or not drilling actually stops before the proposed deadline of sept 28th may not be how the campaign is defined as a success or not, but in its ability to bring the issue of fossil fuel extraction centre stage and to prevent other similar schemes being undertaken in future. post on the campaign web-site looks at how there may be wider issues involved than merely stopping the work at Balcombe. Cuadrilla is undertaking exploratory drilling (and not full scale oil production), and is likely to finish their operations by the end of September, and there are concerns that the data from this project could inform larger scale projects involving much more drilling at multiple sites across the region (which would be necessary to make any extraction economically viable). This could mean that the drilling at Balcombe could be the thin end of the wedge that sees similar operations springing up all over Sussex and beyond. Therefore, one focus of this campaign is to deter other companies from taking on similar projects, and from 1-28th September a rolling blockade of the site has also been announced. Therefore, it seems that the protests will continue for the immediate short term, but I also doubt that the campaign will come to an immediate end if the drilling at Balcombe finishes by the end of this month, and we may see similar protests spreading if further schemes are announced elsewhere in the region or further afield. 


Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2004) Generalization of efficacy as a function of collective action and inter-group relations: Involvement in an anti-roads struggle.Journal of Applied Social Psychology 34 (2) 417-444

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Beale, J., Hanson, C., & Rapley, F. (2005). The phenomenology of empowerment in collective action. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 309-328.

Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2009). Collective psychological empowerment as a model of social change:Researching crowds and power. Journal of Social Issues, 65, 707–725.

BBC South today Breakfast show 30/8/13 highlights:

1.50 Interview with Vanessa from Frack Free Sussex rejecting significance of 60 locals anonymously signing pro-fracking letter for media, suggesting that they could be people living on Balcombe estate (the land where the drilling is taking place) and so have a vested interested in being pro-fracking, and are not representative of the wider Balcombe community.

2.18-2.23 John Blair-Meyers- representative of Sussex based drilling company. Talks about how drilling companies need 'social license' to operate & need to engage with local community, admitting ‘people have legitimate concerns’ about fracking, and the ‘industry still has some work to do to explain’. 

2.23-2.25 Interview with me. I talk about how companies can be put off bidding for environmentally contentious projects (as happened with anti-roads movement in 1990s). But even if they claim to not be put off (and Cuadrilla are currently very gung ho about continuing at Balcombe) this could be for PR reasons & not wanting to be seen as running scared, when in fact they are concerned about negative publicity. I pointed out that it is also important to consider wider factors such as potential opposition from the local community, local government and sometimes even the local police force (as happened during the Shoreham live exports protests in 1995).