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.