Thursday, 28 March 2013

Cyprus- bank run or crawl?

So far, the expected 'bank runs' of savers emptying their accounts that were expected when Cyprus re-opened its banks today (28/3/13) don't seem to have materialised. However, I don't think the lack of the predicted 'stamepedes' by depositors trying to get their cash out is thanks to any measured reporting of the story by the media. Coverage by the BBC shows a scrum of journalists and film crews outside the banks in Nicosia before they opened, and the article also comments that some banks had more journalists than depsoitors queueing outside!

This issue highlights to me how the reporting of such events risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, and in a previous post in March 2012, I looked at how media reporting of 'panic' buying of petrol can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophesy and represents what psychologists call a social dilemma, as what may seem a sensible indvidual choice is not in the collective interest if everybody does it. This can create a difficult situation for the media, as they may not want to be responsible  for creating a self-fulfilling prophesy of reporting bank runs, but they may also be concerned not to be seen as repressing legitimate news stories (which would probably emerge via social media anyway). There's an interesting clip from Radio 4 news on march 20th, which discusses this dilemma for the media. There's no easy way to completely overcome this dilemma, but I think it highlights the importance of not sensationalising news coverage in these situations, or relentlessly pursuing a particular angle on a story that may not be supported by events on the ground. Otherwise the media risks creating the stories rather than simply covering them. 

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

student protests postscript

Since my last post on the acquittal of the 2010 student tuition fees protestors, fresh coverage of the case has emerged that raises some interesting points regarding the policing of such protests and the legal processes often used against those arrested at them.

An article by Nadine El-Enany (a lecturer in Law at Birkbeck University), argues that this trial highlights a current crisis in public order policing. She points out that the charge of Violent Disorder (Section 2 of the 1986 Public Order Act), emerged in the context of widespread unrest in the UK in the early-mid 1980s, and argues that this legislation was part of an ongoing political attempt to criminalise such protests and deter people from attending them. However, juries do not seem to have agreed, and of 19 defendants who contested violent disorder charges after the tuition fees protests, 18 have been acquitted.

Coverage in the Independent, and the Socialist Worker newspaper, also show that both defendants in this case (Alfie Meadows & Zak King) were acquitted on the grounds of self defence, as the jury accepted their argument that they were defending themselves and others in the crowd from police attack. Zak King’s legal representative in court argued that the use of such charges shows a failure to differentiate between the actions of a crowd and individuals within it; 

With violent disorder it’s the actions of a number of people taken together that the jury is encouraged to look at. And one of the difficulties the prosecution – and to an extent the police – have in these sorts of cases is that they view the crowd as one unit. They fail to see there are individuals within that crowd, like these two young men, who were trying to protect people and stop them getting hurt. They just viewed them as one large anonymous block.”

This fits with numerous psychological studies of collective disorder (see below) that argue it is often the use of indiscriminate police public order tactics that psychologically unites previously disparate groups within crowds. This can result in increased (and not less) disorder, as people who were previously strangers can come together and collectively resist what they perceive as indiscriminate (and illegitimate) behaviour by the police, and seems to explain quite well this notion of collective self-defence amongst crowds that were previously predominantly peaceful.

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling. DOI: 10.1002/jip.1389
Reicher, S. (2001). The psychology of crowd dynamics. In M. A. Hogg, & R. S. Tindale (Eds.),
Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Group processes (pp. 182–208). Oxford: Blackwell

Reicher, S., Stott, C., Cronin, P., & Adang, O. (2004). A new approach to crowd psychology and public order policing. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 27, (4), 558–572.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Alfie Meadows & Zak King acquitted

It was announced today that student protestors Alfie Meadows and Zak King have been unanimously acquitted by a jury at their trial in London. Alfie and Zak had been charged with Violent Disorder under the Public Order Act (which carries a possible 5 year sentence on conviction) after the tuition fees protest in central London on Dec 9th 2010. To add insult to injury, Alfie had also sustained life-threatening injuries at the protest after allegedly being struck on the head with a Police baton, and required emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. In a Press Release issued by campaigners, comparisons were made with policing during the 1984-5 miners' strike and the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster. I can see the parallels being drawn here as narratives can emerge after controversial crowd incidents where the victims of crowd mismanagement are portrayed as the villains. I would also argue that the deep societal distrust of crowds can encourage this process, and looked in a previous post at how viewing crowd management as a 'public order' rather than a 'public safety' issue contributed to the Hillsborough disaster. Furthermore, an aggravating factor in the sentencing guidelines for the offence of Violent Disorder is a 'large group', meaning that defendants can expect a more severe sentence on conviction if they were in a crowd when the alleged offence happened (despite there being little evidence to show that just being in a crowd encourages more anti-social behaviour).

The Press Release also highlights the police's use of indiscriminate public order tactics (such as kettling and charges) on the day, and report that they had also considered using plastic bullets. An article I recently had published (Cocking, 2013) looked at the use of such tactics (focussing on baton & mounted charges). I concluded that use of such tactics usually escalates crowd disorder, because they psychologically unite previously mixed groups in a crowd. So, if the intention behind the use of a tactic is to disperse a crowd and make people go home, then it is often counter-productive, because it usually has the opposite effect. In this paper, I included interviews with people who were at this protest, and their accounts along with my own observations on the day, support this conclusion. This protest was probably the most violent I had witnessed in Britain since the mid 1990s. However, from my observations and the accounts of the people I spoke to, the conflict increased after the police charges, escalating into a major riot in Parliament Square, with minor skirmishes and looting spilling over elsewhere in central London. Therefore, assertions that indiscriminate public order tactics are necessary to quell crowd 'disorder' are rarely supported by closer observation of the sequence of events, but this doesn't stop violence at such incidents usually being portrayed as the responsibility of crowd members and their inherent susceptibility to 'sinister forces'. 

Today's acquittal is clearly good news for Alfie, Zak, and their families and is to be welcomed. However, I think we also need to closely examine how such protests are viewed and managed so that we can question outdated and unsubstantiated views of crowds that permeate the legal system and public order policing.

For more detail see coverage in the Guardian, and the Defend the Right to Protest website web-site.

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

Friday, 1 March 2013

Sussex students are revolting!

As I write this on friday 1st march, Sussex University students are entering their 3rd week of occupation of the University conference centre in Bramber House to protest against management's plans to privatise up to 235 jobs. What started as around 30 students virtually under siege (private security guards initally prevented access to the occupation before hundreds stormed the building) has now grown into a campus-wide action, with temporary occupations of 2 other lecture theatres on thurs feb 28th. It is certainly the longest occupation at Sussex that I have seen over the years that I've had an association with the University, and makes me feel a little embrassed about the first occupation I was involved in back in the early 90s. Our student union at the time decided to occupy our own student union (which does seem a bit pointless with hindsight!) but the union officers all left after 2 days because they feared everyone would be arrested, leaving the rest of us to sit there shivering for another 3 days before we decided to call it a day.
Press Coverage has been largely fairly positive, and the local paper, The Argus has a centre-spread documenting the broad support they have received (ranging from comedian Mark Steel, to the local MP Caroline Lucas, and the MIT professor, Noam Chomsky). However, this doesn't stop them retreating into the age old myth that protests can be 'hijacked by trouble makers', which assumes that if any trouble happens it's because the well-meaning (but gullible) majority were influenced by a sinister minority to do bad things in the absence of wider social contexts (e.g. how they were treated by other groups such as the police etc.) This assertion is almost never supported by evidence from such protests but it doesn't stop it being reported uncritically, as if it's an accepted truism that doesn't need challenging.  Nevertheless the support that the campaign is getting from staff and students alike has been widespread, and this is by no means an isolated protest by the 'usual suspects'. On a quick visit today, I could see that the campus was covered with yellow squares (the symbol of support for the campaign), and a tree opposite is now covered in yellow ribbons of support.

How this particular protest develops is clearly of interest to those involved and could have important implications for how Universities are run. However, I'm also interested  in how those involved in such campaigns can experience fundamental positive psychological change. In a previous post I looked at how involvement in collective action protests often resulted in increased feelings of efficacy and empowerment amongst participants that often went beyond the particular issue they were campaigning about. This sense of collective empowerment can also contribute to an enhanced sense of mental and even physical well-being, which is supported by recent evidence from social psychology (Jetten et al, 2011) about the growing understanding of the benefits we can draw from groups and collectives.

See the following links for recent coverage in the Guardian, and the campaign web-site, and some photos I took at yeterday's demo are below. They are open 8am-10pm and welcome visits, messages of support, and talks, workshops etc.

 Jetten, J., Haslam, C.& Haslam, S.A. (Eds.) (2011). The social cure: Identity, health and well-being. Psychology Press, Hove, UK