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.