April 21, 2024

A specter haunts Westminster – the specter of collective violence against MPs. Big crowds chanting loudly outside parliament during debates on Palestine; protesters surrounded Tobias Ellwood’s house; Jo Stevens’ constituency office is vandalized – and all this against the background of the murders of David Amess and Jo Cox. The parties are united in the effort to exorcise this specter. This has already led to parliamentary procedure be changed in a way that made a mockery of the debate on violence in Gaza. It also led to calls for new police powers to to combat protests outside parliament. But is collective violence the problem here, and is putting even more curbs on protests the answer?

Certainly, acts of vandalism and violence against MPs cast a chill over our democracy and have no justification. But over the past months have some individual acts identify with the collective protest – and in turn, protest is equated with violence, or the threat of it.

All this is illustrated by the language of “the mob”. The prime minister condemned “aggressive mobs” as the root of the problem. He is echoed by the home secretary and by the government’s adviser on political violence, John Woodcock, which concludes the “aggressive intimidation of MPs” by “mobs”. Referring to mobs as mobs taps into a long tradition of assuming that it is in their nature to be volatile, destructive, and violent.

Such negative views of crowds have existed since ancient times. But they became systematized with industrialization and the formation of a mass society during the 19th century. The elite feared that the urban masses, in large numbers, would reject existing hierarchies. Furthermore, if the masses were an imminent threat to the social order, the mob was the mass in action—the sum of all fears.

As the challenge grew, crowds were viewed in more and more negative terms. This was especially true in France, rocked by defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, by the Paris Commune and by the rising tide of discontent against the Third Republic, which had grown from its ashes. In the 1870s there were an average of 80 strikes per year. By the early 1890s, that figure had grown to more than 400 a year, peaking at 634 in 1893, just before the 1895 publication of Gustave Le Bon’s book The crowd – probably the most influential psychology text ever written.

Le Bon’s account is a litany of loss. In crowds, people lose their identity, they lose their rationality, they lose their morality. People “climb down several rungs on the ladder of civilization” when they enter the crowd. They become “powerful only for destruction”. Even the most reasonable people lose control of themselves and become beloved in the crowd. In a phrase, all mobs are crazy, bad and dangerous to know.

There is only one problem with all of this. Although some crowds can be clearly violent, mob violence is actually extremely rare. Of the some 2,700 strikes in the period when Le Bon wrote, only 3.6% resulted in violent acts. In only one – the Decazeville strike of 1886 – was anyone killed. And yet Decazeville haunted Le Bon and his fellow psychologists of the time. To them it was emblematic of all crowds. The exception became the rule.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Manhattan, New York. Photo: Ira L Black/Corbis/Getty Images

The same is true today. In recent years, the US has been obsessed with Black Lives Matter protests. It is estimated that between 15 and 26 million people participated in protests in the weeks after George Floyd’s death. There was much controversy about these events, with many allegations of violence and intimidation. But careful analysis by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project showed that 93% of the events were peaceful.

In this country we are generally more obsessed with the violence of sports crowds – especially football hooliganism, the so-called “English disease”. It wasn’t just big in the 1970s and 80s. It may not seem like it’s gone. A few years back, the headlines scream that “football-related arrests rocket amid rise in violent disorder”. But look closer at this football crowd nightmare, there were 2,198 arrests at football grounds in the 2021-22 season, of which 20% were for violent disorder (just over 400). In 2022-23 the figures were much the same. There were 2,264 arrests, 21% of which were for violent disorder – out of a total of 45 million match attendances. In other words, there was a one in 100,000 chance that someone attending a game would be arrested for being violent—hardly compatible with the idea that crowds are “crowds” in which people are inherently violent.

There is another twist to this story. Even where mob events are violent, the vast majority of violence tends to be inflicted by the authorities, not by mob members. In England during the 18th and 19th centuries more than 600 people died in popular riots – all but a handful killed by the yeomanry, cavalry or other such forces. During the American urban riots of the 1960s, the vast majority of those who died were shot by state or federal forces: 14 of the 17 who died in the 1967 Newark riot were shot by officials, while in Detroit in the same year, the figure was 19 out of 29.

In general, therefore, the language (and the idea) of the mob paints a false picture of mobs, of mob violence and of violence in society more generally. The gathering of people in protest does not indicate the imminent outbreak of violence and excess. This in itself cannot be taken as proof of intimidation. It is not a threat to our democracy.

On the contrary, crowds and protests are an essential dimension of our democracy. The mark of a healthy society is when everyone feels safe to participate in protest. The more you instill fear of the crowd and the more you put curbs on crowds, the more you limit participation to those willing to resist conflict. Moreover, it is precisely when people consider that the authorities are illegally blocking their democratic rights to peaceful protest that they willing to act violent.

The message is clear. You will understand and handle crowds much better than, as recorded in international human rights law you start from the presumption that they are peaceful rather than violent. It is by ignoring this message that our MPs are making themselves less safe. Should they seek to make collective protest more difficult, it would increase rather than reduce the dangers they face, and undermine rather than protect our democracy. It is high time that we lay the ghost of the “mob” to rest.

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