Crowd Control Technology and Peaceful Direct Action

The modern world is dominated by technology, the endless drive for progress and efficiency creates a landscape that is constantly shifting and updating itself; bringing with it change in the political sphere with regards to the issues at hand and the strategies at play. Technology can change the way we are informed of politics, the way campaigners conduct themselves and even the kind of direct action political activists engage in. Here we will discuss how technology is changing the strategies available to those wishing to engage in direct action and how more efficient and “safe” crowd control technologies, designed to control, contain and subdue large numbers of people, may remove what was previously a major advantage for peaceful protest.

Direct Action, loosely defined as “An attempt to highlight a problem, demonstrate alternatives or limit the concrete effects of an organisation through direct physical action”, will be split for the purposes of this piece into two categories; violent action and peaceful action. Note that we will be defining violent action as action that is damaging to both people and property.

Peaceful direct action is traditionally the more popular of the two alternatives in activist politics due to its moral accessibility for a wide range of political sympathisers (i.e. it does not marginalise those who do not wish to be violent on moral grounds). Another reason for the popularity of peaceful direct action, and one that is of particular interest to this essay,  is that it allows political dissidents to hinder, and occasionally halt, the activities of organisations they oppose without being subjected to violence in response.

Activists will generally want to avoid violent clashes with police as the police force and other professional security firms will more often than not have the advantage of relative experience and technological superiority in violent confrontations. This means that political dissidents who engage in violent direct action and face organised opposition from Riot Police must rely on speed, flexibility and prior planning in order to avoid being squashed by highly trained specialist units. Ultimately this means that a major strategic disadvantage to violent direct action lies in its legitimisation of overt violence from opponents, not just legally but also perhaps morally.

Today in the West we prefer methods of dispersing protestors that are safe and relatively free from physical and psychological stress especially when protestors are peaceful. Causing pain or undue injury for the sake of efficiency is something that modern police forces are generally expected to avoid; importantly when a police force is seen to fail this maxim they are often seen in the eyes of the public as behaving irresponsibly and/or unjustly.

In order to deal with peaceful direct action appropriately, police are expected to respond with a similar level of “peacefulness”, such a response is usually very time-consuming in comparison to other violent alternatives. Peaceful responses range from co-operating with protestors in order to reach a mutual agreement over the terms and conditions that will end the action to peacefully arresting protestors and carrying them away from the site of the action one by one. Both require police to make some concession on the protestor’s part; either in allowing them say in the stipulations of when and why they leave or in respecting the peaceful nature of the protest and removing protestors slowly, to avoid causing undue harm, thereby prolonging the action.

It is through a strategic manipulation of this fact that peaceful direct action acquires its efficacy*. If a police force encounters peaceful direct action and initiates a violent response it will make people distrust the police, giving the activists a small victory: their message was silenced but the methods by which they were silenced demonstrate to on-lookers the perceived injustice that protest so often try to highlight. Furthermore if police forces faced with peaceful protestors automatically default to the method of policing that causes the least harm, then the arrest and cleanup process is made more time consuming and less harmful to activists resulting in a more successful protest when activists behave non-violently.

Peaceful direct action however may lose its charm in the face of new crowd control technologies. Technologies like the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) a device that focuses sound waves and can be used to force activists to retreat via pain inducing tones and even, more crudely, tear gas open up an opportunity for police forces to control and disperse protestors and activists without causing lasting harm while still retaining the speed and efficiency of more violent responses.

Please note here that I do not wish to argue that tear gas or LRAD are peaceful or necessarily harmless, rather that they do not, generally speaking, cause “lasting” or “widespread” harm in the same way that a baton or cavalry charge might, and to that end they blur moral boundaries.

To expand this observation further we can view each course of action available to the police force on a sliding scale that charts the level of coercive violence inherent in a particular action. Peacefully arresting and carrying protestors away would be at one end of the scale while rifle fire would sit at the other end of the scale. Previously the courses of action available to police were quite polarised; either the police used truncheons and horses or they did not. Furthermore if it was the case that truncheons and horses were considered off-limits then the police would necessarily be forced into much more time-consuming and permissive styles of policing. Today’s technological advances change this and have, for better or worse, opened up a middle ground.

LRAD, for instance, does not damage protestor’s bodies, though it does subject them to pain, and in that sense forces activists to withdraw. Indeed a lot of modern crowd control techniques work not by necessarily disabling the activists through personal injury but by subjecting them to stressors or logistical challenges that encourage the protestors to give up or go home.**

A question is raised here: What are the advantages of peaceful direct action in the face of technologies such as LRAD?

LRAD because of its position in the moral “grey area” of our scale of violence means that protestors can be dealt with incredibly swiftly with some temporary pain and stress inflicted but with no certainty in knowing that their opponent’s violence highlighted any injustices. The only strategic argument left to justify peaceful direct action is that violent direct action may increase the level of violence directed at protestors.

Now there may be ways for peaceful activists to work around these new crowd control technologies, for instance activists could chain themselves to a building and inform police that they cannot remove themselves. As discussed before modern crowd control partly occupies its space in the violent/non-violent grey area because it makes the activist elect to leave rather than inflict or threaten direct injury so it seems plausible then that if police become aware that the activists cannot elect to leave then this would shut off certain options, such as tear gas (presumably tear gassing activists who cannot remove themselves from a protest site would be seen as morally deplorable in comparison to the tear gassing of activists who can simply choose to withdraw).

Ultimately a key reason for the adoption of peaceful direct action over violent direct action lies in its manipulation of the logistical challenges that face police forces dealing with mass-action. Unfortunately as technology expands then that opportunity disappears. The question then has to be asked, what will happen to peaceful direct action once it can no longer guarantee activists safety from being swept aside? Will activists still be swayed by moral arguments and stick to peaceful direct action or will they be tempted into violent direct action in order to ensure that their message is heard?

For instance: a group of protestors who simply stand idly in the path of an oncoming bulldozer can be moved via LRAD (to use an example we are familiar with) and outside the call-out cost of an LRAD no major trouble has been caused; the demonstration has been dealt with in a matter of minutes. Conversely activists who sneak onto the building site the night before and sabotage the bulldozer and destroy other assets belonging to the bulldozing company cannot have their version of direct action swept aside quite so easily.

Today we see crowd control technologies bringing the paradoxes of liberal political life to view. The question of “How we navigate the relationship between regulatory governments, civility and the desire to respect political dissent?” has become more pressing than ever.

Previously political dissent could be accommodated peacefully thanks to the moral dilemma that forced police to choose between efficiency and safety thus ensuring peaceful direct action its effectiveness. Worryingly the encroachment of modern crowd control technology and the bridging of the gap between police efficiency and protestor safety may just make the accommodation of legitimate political dissent in the liberal state an absurdity.

* This is especially true when the Direct Action is directed at a particular government by its own civilians. The point of the direct action is, presumably, in part to highlight the injustices of the state and this means that disproportionately violent attempts to deal with protesters end up bolstering the message of the activists rather than silencing it.

** A point worth exploring in specific is that modern crowd control technologies blur the moral boundaries between violent and pacifistic responses by forcing activists to move away and disperse themselves rather than directly beating activists into submission. A striking example of this are police use “stink bombs” that don’t, in the traditional sense, cause pain but can be deployed in order to render an area occupied by activists un-inhabitable or an area which protesters intend to march through, inaccessible. An article on Police Stink Bombs can be found here:


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