Opinionista J Brooks Spector 20 August 2012

Lost in space and time – or, Crowd Control 101

Lack of discipline can cost lives, as police action across time and nations has demonstrated again and again. Marikana is the most recent example of this. It’s time we learned from history.

When the violence and killing at the Marikana platinum mine took place the week before, I was in Kruger National Park, a universe away in terms of what was happening. In the natural world, one expects inter-species violence. Lions do not usually lie down with the lambs—or impala, kudu or nyala (of the flesh and blood type) either, for that matter. There the killing is part of the natural order of things. 

But while at Kruger, enjoying even a fruitless day on dirt roads, searching for just a glimpse of a cheetah, let alone one of those even more elusive leopards, it was nevertheless impossible to escape seeing the scenes on television of that demonstration-turned-deadly mayhem at Marikana. And like most people in South Africa, I too was astounded, then horrified at what was in those deadly scenes. It all happened so fast, so suddenly, like the flash explosion of powdered magnesium. One minute inert; then those lethal volleys of weapons fire.

It is not yet time to apportion responsibility among the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), its newer rival union the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU); the mine owners and operators; the dozens of government departments at all levels with some responsibility over labour, mining and public order; and pretty much anybody else. Perhaps Jacob Zuma’s special commission of inquiry will fully examine events, tease out a full understanding of all of the decisions and the time line that led to these killings and then provide a thorough evaluation of the events and a richer appreciation of the larger context in which they happened.

And perhaps it will also make the kinds of recommendations made by the Kerner Commission in the US after the serious outbreaks of urban rioting in the 1960s (although it is sobering to recall that so few of that commission’s recommendations to deal with America’s urban nightmares were ever actually adopted). Or perhaps, instead, it will be an exercise of bureaucratic finger pointing. With or without a government commission, however, what happened at this mine is certain to become the raw material for academic studies for years into the future. 

In one sense, of course, it really doesn’t matter what is said or written by a government commission. Marikana is the moment when South Africa’s new order lost its innocence in full view of the world. These deaths are turning into a synonym of what happened at Sharpeville 52 years ago or in with the student marchers of Soweto in 1976, when people could point to events as decisive turns in the arc of South African history. But with Marikana, the guardians of public order of a very different society turned weapons on fellow citizens and fired with lethal intent.

To watch the video footage is to be horrified about the lackadaisical, even casual manner of that policing and the ad hoc nature of police actions. These pictures and accounts also led me back to memories of both being on the side of protestors and then part of anti-riot forces 40-plus years ago. In the US, the 1960s had become a particularly energetic period for protest, some avowedly non-violent, others much less so. 

The expectations of the civil rights revolution, together with continuing racial inequality, gave birth to urban riots in places like Detroit and Newark, New Jersey, and later across the country in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Taken together, the death toll ran well into the dozens and there was extensive property damage in many cities.

Concurrently, protests against America’s participation in the Vietnam War rose up as well. There was that chaotic demonstration at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, followed by massive anti-war demonstrations in Washington, DC, between 1969 and 1971. These, in turn, triggered marches and demonstrations against the war across the country on many university campuses, including one at the near-bucolic Kent State University in Ohio. There, a hastily mobilized and thoroughly undertrained Army National Guard unit confronted the students and then fired loaded weapons directly into the crowd, killing four and producing the iconic photograph of a young woman horrified at the death of another student. (In fact, within days of this event, two other students were killed at the historically black Jackson State College in Orangeburg, South Carolina, as part of a civil rights protest; still, the Kent State killings became the symbol of the times.)

Meanwhile, I was attending my own classes when news of Kent State filtered across the country via radio and television reports. On that day, thousands of students converged on a major north-south artery that bordered the campus, blocking it to any through traffic. As the day wore on, county and state police moved in, followed by units of the Army National Guard that had also been summoned to active duty to take back control of the campus from students. Numerous baton charges, the use of stun grenades and then volleys of tear gas and pepper spray led to numerous injuries. I ended up in hospital with head wounds from a beating by police wielding their riot batons.

A few months later, my local army draft board caught up with me and told me I would be drafted if I didn’t find an appropriate military berth by enlisting in a military reserve unit by week’s end. The only space available (vacancies in reserve units in the Washington, DC, area were at a serious premium) was, ironically, in the very same unit that had just finished occupying my university campus.

After my initial intake of “basic” training and some additional time serving in a training unit, I was sent off to the military’s newly ramped-up, anti-riot training programme. Following the obvious failures at Kent State and increasingly mindful of the “police riot” at the ’68 Democratic Convention, the military worked out more intensive guidelines and training rituals. Key among them was the use of the power and impact of well-armoured, well-trained, massed troops to move or disperse demonstrators, without having to kill them. (Seems obvious now, doesn’t it?)

Using those now-familiar shields, batons and tear gas while in a formation “in echelon” (on the diagonal), blocking streets in close order formation, or learning to disperse protesting groups in a built-up urban area, we drilled and drilled. Sometimes, we took turns role-playing as demonstrators chanting and throwing things at our fellow trainees. A confession: my past caught up with me on at least a couple of occasions as we were swept up in the enthusiasms of the moment and I swore and cursed at those agents of the capitalist warmongers, my fellow trainees.

The key, of course, for all of this training is close attention to discipline, adherence to formations and the proper use of equipment. No freelancing with the military’s armament was permitted and the loading of firearms, let alone their discharge, was strictly regimented. The military clearly wanted no more Kent States laid at its doorstep. (Okay, prisons in Iraq were a different story.)

The current version of the training manual for this activity has obviously taken into account some hard lessons learned, even if troops and officers can and will make terrible mistakes. But as the introductory pages of the newest manual explains: “Field Manual (FM) 3-19.15 addresses continental United States (CONUS) and outside continental United States (OCONUS) civil disturbance operations…. During these operations, US forces are often faced with unruly and violent crowds intent on disrupting peace and the ability of US forces to maintain peace. Worldwide instability coupled with increasing US military participation in peacekeeping and related operations requires that US forces have access to the most current doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) necessary to quell riots and restore public order.”

It goes on to provide “the commander and his staff guidance for preparing and planning for such operations…. It also addresses special planning and preparations that are needed to quell riots in confinement facilities are also discussed. In the past, commanders were limited to the type of force they could apply to quell a riot. Riot batons, riot control agents, or lethal force were often used. Today, there is a wide array of nonlethal weapons (NLW) available to the commander that extends his use of force along the force continuum. (Italics added) This manual addresses the use of nonlethal (NL) and lethal forces when quelling a riot.”

Coincidentally, watching the video of the police action at Marikana yet again while writing this piece, I was struck by how many of the key principles in that training manual and many others like it seem to have been ignored. Officers in command did not have rigorous control over action and movement; the police were not massed to concentrate their physical presence to intimidate; they did not use shields and batons to intimate and move demonstrators away; they did not move up an escalatory scale from verbal warnings to tear gas to water cannon and other non-lethal measures and then, only as a near-final resort, firing live rounds over the heads of demonstrators. 

Marikana may not have been a police riot in the classic sense of Chicago’s finest back in 1968, and maybe it was not the direct lineal descendant of the actions of apartheid’s police forces in 1960 or 1976, but then neither was it the kind of well-directed, carefully-conceived, thoroughly-controlled police action one might have expected now. Given this woeful performance, as well as the fact the multi-sided standoff and labour unrest at Marikana is not yet over and the sources of this unrest are not limited to one platinum mine, maybe we must brace ourselves for much more of this. 

But maybe, too, we can—and should—insist that those in control of the police download some of these training manuals from other nations, read them carefully, adapt them for local conditions and then drill, drill, drill, train, train, train. And as for me, well, I’ll be happy to offer up a critique of their readiness from the perspective of an old demonstrator turned anti-riot trained army private first class who still bears a scar on his scalp that is the gift from a police baton charge that happened way back in 1970. DM

Read more:

  • Ousted SAfrica leader blames police in mine deaths, at the AP (among thousands of articles now appearing on this event internationally and locally, including extensive coverage in The Daily Maverick)
  • South Africa’s Lonmin Marikana mine clashes killed 34 at the BBC
  • Police riot (definition) at Wikipedia
  • US Army Field Manual FM 3-19.15, Civil Disturbance Operations, the official manual
  • The Kerner Commission, excerpts at George Mason University’s ‘History Matters’ website


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