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Iran - On The Meaning Of Crowds
Terrell E. Arnold
As a diplomat, evaluating the size and significance of crowds was always a tough assignment. For this writer, that was about equally true of the street throngs of Cairo during Gamal Abdel Nasser's early years, the slash and burn contention of Hindus and Muslims in Calcutta, or the quick and fiery onslaughts of the Tamil minority in Colombo. Those encounters all occurred in the decade of the 1960s, but there have been many examples since. In no case could one have plotted a clear path from the immediate sound and fury to the long term impact of such incidents.
Predicting outcomes is a chancy business. In his pursuit of a Pan-Arab union in the Middle East as well as to maintain his own power Nasser could put a large crowd on the street in a heartbeat, and it cost him only a few piasters (pennies) per demonstrator.  That was a rude lesson in the political volatility of poverty.  Forty eight years later his regime is still in power and his second successor (Hosni Mubarak) is looking to hand on to his son.
The Hindus and Muslims of Calcutta are both far more numerous than in the 1960s. They still threaten India's unsteady political consensus, and crowds can form quickly, but competition for resources is the main driver of contention, not religion. Recent assaults by government troops are said finally to have brought Sri Lanka's Sinhala/Tamil dispute to an end, but there are still many of both. The Sinhala majority still has not learned the fundamentals of sharing either wealth or power, while the Tamils simply want out. That dispute looks far from resolved.
Uncertainty in such situations begins with assessing the size and significance of crowds. For example, 1970 was an important political year in Sri Lanka (then still called Ceylon), and large crowds turned out to boost the campaign of oppositionist Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who won the election to prime minister from conservative Dudley Senanayake. But the largest crowds that year were generated by the visit of the Apollo 12 astronauts (Charles (Pete) Conrad, Richard Gordon, and Alan Bean) escorted jointly in Ceylon by this writer and the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Sri Lankans were interested in these three heroes not so much because they were Americans, but because they had been to the moon. In Sri Lanka the religion and daily life of the people are keyed to the rhythms and festivals tied to a Lunar calendar. A person who had walked on the moon had to be superhuman.
Crowd estimating is far more an art than a science, and it has much to do with the impression a writer or reporter wants to make. For example, after Iran's June 12 elections, millions of people were reported to have taken to the street to protest reported results. Such numbers were more notional that real. Take, for example, the famous Naghsh-e Jahan Square, the main square in Isfahan. It has an area of about 90,000 square meters, a bit less than a million square feet. If you allot no more than a two foot square (meaning four square feet) to each protester in that square, it could contain about 240,000 people. That is a crude rack 'em and stack 'em estimate, because much movement would not be possible.
The city of Isfahan contains about 1.5 million people and the Isfahani region (including the city) contains about 3.5 million. That means only about one in six city dwellers could crowd into the square or maybe one in fifteen-twenty regional folk. A crowd of active demonstrators would probably equal below half of those numbers, meaning one in twelve-fifteen city dwellers or one in thirty-forty area folk. In short, after the elections, even on a bad day in the square, the great majority of people were simply somewhere else.
Crowd estimating, in effect, is a very deceptive enterprise. On a city street 200 feet wide and a mile long, you could jam pack about 250,000 but with people moving around the number would probably be half that or less. Nobody is likely to do a head count. Instead, most people are likely to use impressionistic numbers. Reporting the heat of the moment usually matters more than the number of hotheads.
The second problem is crowd management. Virtually no areas other than athletic arenas or stadiums are equipped to deal with large crowd needs for sanitation, hydration and food. A focal point, e.g., important speaker, rock band, or other event, will sustain a crowd for at best a few hours, but the logistics become increasingly important. All those matters affect crowd mood, and attention/focus declines. That is a point at which increasing toxicity may set in, and communities either have to be ready with crowd dispersal and control tools or suffer the consequences.
With earth's increasing numbers and growing concentrations of people, crowd control needs and technologies have grown.  Nearly a decade ago, a consultant looked at the matter for the European Union and found that about 110 countries of the world possessed and used crowd control weapons such as chemical irritants, kinetic energy weapons, water cannons, electro-shock devices, and so on. Moreover, this study found that at least 47 countries had gone in for non-lethal weapons such as tazers, applying such tools in addition to or conjunction with potentially lethal devices.  In the years since that estimate, both the number of countries with crowd management teams and strategies and the sophistication and diversity of their weaponry have grown.
The number of people assigned to "control" a crowd is usually much smaller than the crowd. Thus, the decisions about which devices to use are difficult dual estimates of crowd behavior on one hand and controller risk exposure on the other. Those problems grow more difficult and the error rates increase with rapid changes in crowd behavior.
To deal with large crowds with small numbers of controllers, governments have adopted deployment strategies that hark back to the Roman phalanx. Goal one is to avoid getting into a confrontational situation with the crowd. If trouble arises, goal two is to identify and neutralize the troublemakers. Goal three is a subset of goal one, that is to avoid getting into a general confrontation with a crowd that has agitated members and behavior.
Controller formations vary with the type of challenge being faced. A great deal of analytical work has been done on the tactical moves, the numbers of controllers, formations and leads that may be called into play with various situation assessments.
Media tend to play to the hard side of crowd situations. Peaceful marchers don't make much of a show. Rock throwers, shouters, window breakers, trash burners, and controller challengers typically get the attention. The sad part of this from a crowd manager's point of view is that situations get the most intensive media coverage when a crowd has gotten out of hand or when individual protesters are doing destructive things. That typically catches the controllers in a reactive mode and the common impression of such scenes is that the controllers are causing the trouble, when in fact they are trying to control the situation.
While they may be equipped with everything from lethal weapons to water hoses, most likely they will be using no more force than appears called for by the problems they are trying to overcome. Still, in most situations the recording media cameras are behind the controllers, and the first thing people see on their screens is what the controllers are doing. This makes it visually easy to create the impression that the controllers are the troublemakers. Sometimes through flaws in response judgment, they may make trouble, but generally they are trying to control and shut down a situation, not make it worse.
At the same time, there is a certain amount of trickery that can occur. As many experienced agitators/militants know, and as noted earlier, a peaceful crowd is not much of a media show. One of the ways to liven up the TV version of a crowd scene is to provoke the controllers, give the camera crews something to shoot. It is virtually impossible to know how much of what one sees on television has been ginned up in that fashion, but the probable answer is a good part of it. Experienced controllers expect the provocateurs while knowing that control teams will usually be pictured as the villains of the piece. But they have to do their jobs anyway.
This sort of perspective is needed to understand what was going on in the streets and squares of Iran after the June 12 elections. The prevailing impression on US and probably European television screens was that government crowd control teams were attacking the crowds excessively and unnecessarily. That painted a picture of crowd control with a political motive. But in reality, with tens of thousands of people roaming the streets, and with at most tens of controllers in any one scene, crowd control teams had little time or incentive to worry about the politics of what they were doing. Crowds were getting out of hand and members of the control teams were personally threatened thereby. It was under those conditions that resort to lethal weapons and shootings occurred. That made the night for media. To be sure, failure would buy the controllers no cigars with the Ayatollahs, but their necks were on the line regardless of what the hierarchy may have thought about happenings on the streets.
Some critical judgments emerge from this appraisal. First, the post-elections crowds in Iran were most likely much smaller in numbers than the media estimates, but the numbers were still large. The square in Isfahan, for example, could have contained a loosely configured crowd of up to a hundred thousand people. Mile-long stretches of Tehran streets could have done the same. Second, the pro-Mousavi crowds featured on international television wanted to show off while making the government look bad. That created a situation which was prone to trouble, and it probably yielded numerous efforts, some of them successful, to provoke the controllers, especially as it became known how the scenes were playing on western television screens.
Mousavi himself could have damped the crowd situation down had he chosen to do so. That he did not suggests that he and his advisers wanted the international support possibly to be garnered by unfavorable television portrayals of government election management and crowd control. There probably were controller excesses, although the fact that shootings occurred does not necessarily mean excessive use of force. However, the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan-the cause celebre of that night's mayhem-may have been deliberate murder; the known facts of the case do not indicate any serious crowd control problem in her vicinity at the time. A constant concern of the controllers is that a mob scene may readily become a crime scene.  We the television viewers are simply at the mercy of the on scene observers and their media interpreters; however honestly or dramatically they may wish to inform us.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose overseas service included tours in Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil. His immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at
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