Michael Brown Shooting

From Seattle to Ferguson: The Problem with 'Crowd Control'

This goes deeper than the rise of the warrior cop.


The news from Ferguson keeps giving me a feeling of deja vu. A decade and a half ago, before there was a Department of Homeland Security to amp up the militarization of local police departments, I was writing articles for Reason and Salon about militarized police trampling people's rights in the name of crowd control. After the Seattle WTO demos of 1999, I noted that on the first day of the summit, police confronted demonstrators right outside the meeting but left the looters alone. They also

Seattle '99
Steve Kaiser

ignored several calls for assistance from around the city, so focused were they on the events downtown. One woman, discovering someone had broken into her house, called 911—and was told to call back once the trade meeting was over. With the police unwilling to stop the vandalism, other protesters filled the breach, blocking shops and trying to restrain the window breakers.

The next day, of course, the cops were a lot more active: They gassed whole blocks, fired rubber bullets, and beat bystanders and peaceful protesters. This did not, however, stop the looting: Indeed, far from being more secure, some business owners were gassed in front of their own stores, according to their testimony at a post-WTO city council meeting. The police arrested people almost indiscriminately, with several journalists getting caught in the dragnets. In the evening, they chased a bunch of demonstrators out of the no-protest zone—then kept chasing, crossing Interstate 5 and entering Capitol Hill, a hip neighborhood and shopping district. The result was chaos, with police attacking locals outside their homes and on their way home from work….

It seems strange that the police would beat bystanders, lock up journalists, and gas whole neighborhoods, while leaving it to ordinary citizens to prevent vandalism and looting. But it actually makes a perverse sort of sense. The officers were told to guard the convention center and control the crowd, not to protect people and property. They were given virtually no flexibility to respond to other events: On the first day of the conference, some police reportedly explained that they could not cross the street to stop some vandals because that would mean leaving their posts. On day two, the officers may have behaved differently, but they continued to treat civilians as little more than a crowd to be contained.

On day one, no one could get arrested. On day two, anyone could get arrested. The crowd was collectively innocent or collectively guilty; individual wrongdoing was virtually irrelevant. This is the logic of a police state.

In Ferguson, similarly, the cops haven't confined their crackdown to people who were actually looting stores or acting violently. Whether they're tear-gassing an eight-year-old or threatening a reporter at gunpoint, the police have stepped far outside the behavior most people would accept as a reasonable response to unrest. The curfew itself has meant the authorities can arrest people without regard for why they're outside, a policy that has surely done more to ramp up tensions than to defuse them. Meanwhile, many store owners have felt so poorly protected that they took to guarding their shops themselves. The protesters have also interceded to protect local businesses from looters. For all the clear differences between Seattle in 1999 and Ferguson in 2014, there are obvious echoes as well.

This goes deeper than the rise of the warrior cop. It speaks to some longstanding ideas about crowds, which are sometimes imagined as feral beasts that must be contained even if that means diverting resources from actual crime-fighting. In that Salon story, I mentioned an incident that didn't involve military-style policing at all:

I was an undergraduate when the University of Michigan won the NCAA basketball championship in 1989, and along with hundreds of other students, I ran into the streets to celebrate. The crowd was rowdy that night, but most of us were well behaved: There was cheering, hugging, hand-slapping, and, at worst, a willingness to climb onto other people's cars. Then a few celebrants turned vandalistic, destroying store awnings, breaking windows and in at least one case attempting to steal from a store. The would-be looter was captured by a security guard, who dragged him to one of the many lawmen lining the streets. Here, said the guard, I caught this guy trying to rob a shop. Arrest him.

"I can't," the officer replied, and gestured toward the revelers. "I have to keep this crowd under control."

Maybe all that crowd control is making it harder, not easier, to keep citizens safe from criminals. It certainly isn't keeping them safe from the police.

Bonus link: Sociologists who study crowd behavior have rejected a lot of the ideas at the root of that approach to law enforcement—and some cops, such as the ones who police soccer matches in Western Europe, have benefited from their advice. Read more about that here.

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  1. They had huge crowd control and looting problems in the immeidate aftermath of the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake. Worse still, the city’s police and fire departments were completely overwhelmed dealing with the humanitarian disaster and had no time to provide protection from looters to people and property.

    The solution was to shoot looters on sight. That solved their crowd control problems very quickly. The psychology of a riot is very simple; a riot begins when the crowd concludes that it can break the law without repercussion. End that perception and the riot ends. Unfortunately tear gassing people doesn’t do much to end that perception. Shooting them does.

    1. My take on that quake is rather different.

      1. Jesse,

        I don’t see anything in that article that disproves the idea that the willingness to shoot looters on sight helped keep the peace. Do communities always and immediately fall apart during disasters? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that looting in fact can be a real problem and shooting looters solves said problem.

        1. So execution is the punishment for theft now? Seriously, John?

          1. I’m not sure that’s such a radical concept here. Theft being a violation of property rights yada yada…

            At least, that’s how I remember hearing it in the past.

          2. When it is done in the form of a mob running lose breaking and stealing things? yes it is.

            Would you prosecute a shop owner who shot looters for murder? I wouldn’t.

            1. If his life isn’t in danger? Yes.

              I wouldn’t accept a police officer killing somebody who wasn’t a deadly threat to him, why would I accept somebody else doing it? It’s murder.

              1. Well, it depends on the context. In a riot situation we’re getting close to lifeboat ethics here. If I am present at the store, and despite my armed presence, the mob decides it wants to loot my store…then its quite possible that my well-being is in danger.

              2. IOW Andrew S is against self-defense and property rights. The idea that someone should endanger themselves or their property for the sake of the aggressor is disgusting and antithetical to liberty.

              3. “Would you prosecute a shop owner who shot looters for murder? I wouldn’t”

                Yes it depends. If he dropped the loot and the store owner chased him down on the street and pumped six shots into him, I’d prosecute him for murder.

          3. In the wake of a massive disaster? Fuck yes.

          4. That’s not punishment, that’s defence and deterrence. Should have done a bit of shooting at the Vancouver rioters.

      2. The real question is what triggers the crowd to become the mob. You are correct that most people wrongly assume that the crowd always becomes the mob once a disaster has occurred. Libertarians argue that people are prone to self-organize and generally take care of themselves after a disaster.

        But John’s comment is about what to do once the crowd has turned into the mob. So your response is not actually on point.

        Interestingly enough, most of the people that believe crowds always turn into mobs also assume it is government that keeps the mobs in check. Whereas, libertarians know the answer to mobs is a good rifle and self-defense.

      3. That was an excellent piece, Jesse. Thanks for the link.

    2. Your solution to riots touched off when a police officer summarily executed somebody is for police officers to summarily execute people.

      It’s like the fascist version of that Xzibit meme.

      1. Yea, because shooting a 6’7″ 285 pound strong-arm robbery suspect who is attacking you is a “summary execution”.

        1. I thought he was 6’4″.

          1. A few more times around he’s going to have been Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, and the officer will have been protecting himself from becoming Oberyn Martell.

          2. 4-7 keypad mistake, looks like.

          3. He keeps getting taller. And attacking while running away with his hands up.

          4. He was over seven feet tall, strong enough that he could literally brush patrol cars aside with his hands, and so fast that he could take a man down from thirty feet away in only a second or two, especially since his senses were pumped up by massive amounts of PCP.

            1. And somehow Saban couldn’t convince him to come play ball for the tide.

        2. How’d that become the allegation? Did the cop-suckers excuse change when the autopsy found that he was shot from a distance?

        3. I would say that shooting someone who you don’t know is a suspect for anything more than jaywalking, from over 30 feet away, should raise questions.

          We’re a long way from knowing if this shooting was justified. Some of the early reports from both sides have been discredited, and the way the cops keep trickling out partial/misleading information is not helping build trust.

      2. Shooting someone looting a store is not the same thing as shooting someone resisting a cop.

        I have no problem with the store’s owner shooting looters. So I can’t see how I can object to the cops doing the same.

        1. Theoretically, what about a shop owner that refused to shoot looters, and objects to the cops doing so as well? Is it ok to shoot looters going into his shop?

          1. Yes. Part of parcel of emergency ‘social sanitization’ measures.

            1. How about shooting cops who are beating women and children?

              How about shooting cops who refuse to protect the property of shop-owners, as they did in Ferguson and Vancouver?

              Hell, why not shoot cops for being the looters that they are?

              1. You may just be onto something.

    3. Mine as well. It depends on the reason. In Venezuela last year there was massive looting actually encouraged by the regime. As looters were carrying out big screen TV’s, other citizens would sometimes grab the TV away from them and smash it on the pavement in outrage.

      National Guard still gets called out and shoots rubber bullets (sometimes not rubber) and teargas into crowds of anti Maduro protests. People start picking up the teargas cannisters and throwing them back. I saw video of one lady apparently on her way to work, do this in high heels and barehanded.

      Perhaps this should be amended to when inaction is riskier than action, unruly crowd behavior will continue.

    4. “The solution was to shoot looters on sight.”

      Yeah, nothing calms a mob that’s angry about the police shooting an unarmed black man–like shooting more of the same?

      This is absurd.

      The LA Riots in ’92 were much worse than what’s happening in Ferguson, and they didn’t just start shooting rioters on site.

      P.S. Whatever happened in the wake of the San Francisco earthquake wasn’t the result of white police shooting an unarmed black man.

      P.P.S. Have you lost your mind?

      1. they didn’t just start shooting rioters on site.

        They should have.

        Whatever happened in the wake of the San Francisco earthquake wasn’t the result of white police shooting an unarmed black man.

        Looting is looting is best halted with some bullets shot at the looters.

        1. “Looting is best halted with some bullets shot at the looters.”

          That doesn’t even make sense.

          If the reason they’re rioting is because someone shot an armed black man, then why would shooting more of them make the rioting stop?

          This isn’t even sorta rational.

          They sent 4,000 National Guard troops to stop the rioting in LA. George H. W. Bush went on television to announce that the FBI would be investigating the police in question for civil rights violations, and if any charges were filed, the suspect cops would be tried in federal court.

          They didn’t have anywhere near enough manpower to enforce the curfew the last couple of nights.

          Obama has been too busy or too afraid to of what will happen in the elections to emphasize to the “protestors” that the cops aren’t going to be unaccountable for any injustices that happened. …because Obama is incompetent.

          I was there during the LA Riots. They had a National Guard trooper with an automatic weapon stationed every 20 feet down the middle of Hawthorne Blvd.

          That’s what stops looters.

          The President H.W. assuring rioters that justice would be served–that stopped the looters.

          Shooting more people unnecessarily would just make things worse.

          …even Daryl Gates was smart enough to understand that.

          1. I would add this:

            Obama sitting around waiting for the locals to tell him what to do–is a lot like Dubya sitting around waiting for the locals to tell him what to do about Katrina.

            Protecting the rights of the people of Ferguson from a rogue police department would be a perfectly legitimate libertarian function of government. Protecting the rights of business owners from looters is, likewise, a perfectly legitimate function of government–even from a libertarian perspective.

            Here’s a perfect legitimate opportunity for the government to act, and where’s Obama? Making some half-assed speeches on television? Waiting for the locals to get the situation under control? He seems to think the government’s job is to do everything except for what it’s supposed to do–protect people’s rights.

            And when the opportunity comes along to do that, he sits on his hands and does nothing.

            Obama is an incompetent oaf.

          2. That’s not why they are looting. Your premise is wrong. Looters loot because they can. Bullets mean they can’t.

            1. There are some opportunists, no doubt. But that isn’t the only reason they’re rioting.

              Did you notice they took out the store the kid apparently robbed those cigars from? You think that was a coincidence?

              Riots like this are a response to unaccountable police. When the community believes that they’re being discriminated against and there’s no accountability, they riot.

              Same kind of thing happened during the French revolution. Sure, there were opportunists among those rioters, too. But it also really was a response to unaccountable government as well.

              Same thing happened during the Boston Tea Party. My understanding is that the Sons of Liberty had tea smugglers among them and didn’t appreciate the competition, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also a reaction to unaccountable officials.

              The colonists changed “no taxation without representation”. The protestors in Ferguson chant “no justice, no peace”. It’s all an expression of social contract–and the government breaking the bargain.

              Does that justify looting? Of course not! But giving the rioters even more dead kids to riot about isn’t going to protect the rights of business owners from looters either. Things are bad enough. No sense in pretending these protestors don’t have any legitimate grievances (from their own perspectives, even?) or that shooting more of them is going to soothe their anger.

              1. I disagree to about everything you wrote Ken. Sorry. So the Zimmerman case was about justice?

                Everyone here is saying “the cops are trigger happy etc”. What about the point of view the cop was afraid. They fear for they lives in these zones?

                Ken, no justice, no peace – yet they violate that by looting, looting their own neighborhood in fact. Rodney King, OJ Simpson, Zimmerman, here, all have looting? What happen to Martin Luther King just walking down the street?

                Sorry, when you encourage a victim class (A generalize of everyone of course), than this is how people act out. They see themselves as a victim instead of looking to themselves as a solution in the culture.

                1. To add, when the “looters” who are demanding justice are as concerned for all the deaths in Chicago everyday than I will take them seriously.

                  While I’m sure for a few it’s for justice, ours it’s spotlight, it’s to be able to get what you can get easily.

                  1. “To add, when the “looters” who are demanding justice are as concerned for all the deaths in Chicago everyday than I will take them seriously.”

                    What does this mean?

                    Why should they react the same way to how people who live somewhere else are being treated?

                    Because the number of victims of crime and gangs are bad in Chicago, the people of Ferguson should shut up and accept mistreatment–if that’s the way they think they’re being treated?

                    I really don’t get it.

                    What are you trying to say here?

                    What do rioters in Ferguson rioting because they think the police are mistreating them and unaccountable have to do with the victims of crime in Chicago?

                    If any connection should be made by progressives and liberals, it’s that the police unions make the police so unaccountable to the people in the communities they work in, that they can spark a riot. I’m sure that could happen in Chicago, too. Maybe that’s what you’re trying to say?

                2. Who’s encouraging anybody to go looting?

                  There are things that make people riot.

                  There are things that will make people stop rioting.

                  When people are rioting over an unarmed black man being shot by the police, shooting more of them is not likely to make them want to stop rioting. Quite the opposite.

                  I’m not saying this is the way things should be. I’m saying this is the way they are. I’ve mentioned social contract theory–I’m not the one that invented it. There are implications of it that I do not subscribe to, and that I don’t think are well supported by the evidence, historical record, etc.

                  That being said, when the basic agreement between the government and the people breaks down, there are certain consequences that social contract theory does a really good job of explaining.

                  I’ve given three examples of this happening: the French Revolution, the Boston Tea Party, and the ’92 riots in LA. All three examples involved looting. All three were also reactions to people being fed up with abuse from government that was unaccountable. I think that’s what we’re seeing happen in Ferguson, too.

                  1. Mind you, the only thing I’m really saying here is that indiscriminately shooting looters–when a simple arrest for looting would do–is inviting further social unrest. You know what the definition of insanity is, right?

                    If the appearance of unnecessarily shooting black men started this, why do we think doing the same thing would get a different result? And I offer as evidence that they see looting as a way of forcing some kind of accountability, the fact that they targeted that store the kid apparently stole those cigars from–not coincidentally. …but because that’s the only way they see that they can hold people accountable.

                    Again, nobody’s justifying anything. But there are reasons why things happen, and choosing a course of action without considering those reasons and the likely outcome is the very definition of foolhardy.


    5. Yep John, shoot looters on sight. Like those two guy on Danziger Bridge, right.

      ‘Cause during normal operations we can’t trust cops to not lie, cheat, and kill but during an *emergency* they’ll always get it right.


  2. Jesse Walker the police militarization hipster.

    “Oh sure everybody’s talking about warrior cops now, but I was into cops using brutal methods back in Seattle in the 90s. That’s probably where Balko got the idea. ::wraps scarf around neck and strokes ironic beard::”

    1. That’s why he lives in Baltimore. He’s going to out-hipster everybody once Baltimore becomes cool.

      1. Baltimore is always on the verge of being cool the same way that Brazil has always been the country of the future.

  3. A few years ago I was watching footage of some riots on youtube – it might have been some WTO protests. It was pretty bizarre. The crowd wasn’t doing anything particularly aggressive, violent, or criminal.

    The cops would form up and start marching, phalanx style, towards the crowd. The crowd would try to back off, but you can’t just turn around and run when you’re packed shoulder to shoulder.

    Every so often, the cop’s front line would break and a cop in the second row would dart out and grab a protester and drag them into the cop formation to put zip ties on their wrists. There didn’t seem to be a reason why they chose that person. Sometimes a protester would trip and fall, and then the cops jumped on them.

    It just seemed to be an exercise in herding crowds. Typically, the protesters would gather in a square or park and because the streets were narrow, the crowd can’t exit in time and the cops just keep marching forward.

    1. Kettling

      1. Ah, good to know the term for it. It was all pretty vicious. It got my blood up just watching and I could understand how riots would start.

        When you see a woman trip and fall, her boyfriend try to help her back up, but then the cops jump all over them both, it just doesn’t seem right whatever the context may be.

    2. So they were treating the crowd like a herd of wildebeest?

    3. The cops would form up and start marching, phalanx style, towards the crowd.

      A formation that seems designed to maximize the damage of a Molotov cocktail.

  4. Every time I see a picture like this, I think the demonstrator should be captioned “Wants More Government” and the cop should be captioned “More Government”.

  5. So to prevent potential police misconduct, you would allow certain crime to occur?

    Let’s say the police are assigned to cover certain areas and will not actively confront looters. The (probably jittery and trigger happy) shop owners are armed but know that the police will only watch as vandals will taunt them and make threatening gestures and push a lot of limits, just like the looters did to the armed Koreans on rooftops. NO ONE will get hurt, right?

    It seems strange to me that the crowd would react less violently if the cops arrived not wearing military equipment. The CHP took over policing, but that apparently did not stop the looting and the rioting.

    The “crowd” is in fact a bunch of angry leftists who were fed a ton of anti establishment sentiments all throughout their lives. They threaten journalists and confiscate recording material as well. OWS was assault and rape zone. And they get to face off with the police who tends to be heavy handed in their response.

  6. I’m a troglodyte, I guess, but anytime someone is on your property taking your shit, I think you should be allowed to shoot them if you want.

    Looting your store, robbing your house, makes no diff. I’m just not going to insist that the innocent party in that situation has to pat down or interview the thief before filling out a form 72/B “Justification For Use of Deadly Force”, file it with the local DA (in triplicate), and get a response on whether their application has been accepted.

    Someone who is on your property, stealing your shit, is presenting enough of a threat that you should be allowed to shoot them, “detain” them, help them load their truck, or, if you prefer, cower somewhere dialing 911.

    1. So, what do you do about shooting a cop, who, after all, is the quintessence of a looter?

        1. If you are for liberty, you can not, by definition, support the means by which public employees are paid:


      1. Aim for the head or legs?

    2. Anyone who disagrees with MM is not a libertarian, full stop.

  7. Sometimes you jsut have to slap them silly.


  8. So basically, you’re saying that property rights no longer are important? That the government shouldn’t try to safeguard them, it should be left up to property owners? And that rioters can do whatever they want?

    Police militarization is a problem, but not when it comes to stopping riots and mobs. There is little worse than a mob, and unless you are putting the onus on property owners to use deadly force to stop looters (which to my mind is full blown anarchism), the police have to be the ones to stop it.

  9. They gassed whole blocks, fired rubber bullets, and beat bystanders and peaceful protesters.

    I was there, in the crowds, on the police lines, they didn’t do that much of this, really, at all.

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