- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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