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:

The Great Debate and the Public Sphere.

Dialogue is the lifeblood of Democracy and is predicated on certain bonds of trust and respect. – Dr Cornel West.1

Debate is a fundamental part of modern political life. Frequently individuals gather together and argue their positions with the aim of resolving and illuminating differences. The aim of a debate may not always be to produce definitive and authoritative answers; often a thorough examination of the answers already presented is enough. In the modern media age this dialectic method is taken as an intellectual thresher; separating the spurious from the salient. While it is true that with enough honest scrutiny false-hoods, provided they are falsifiable in the Popper sense or just flat out irrational, will crumble we must consider whether debate does actually consistently achieve these optimal truth-seeking conditions.2

For a debate to be an honest appraisal of the positions in a disagreement it requires “debaters” to maintain a commitment to truth over rhetoric; worryingly an analysis of the kind of person who “wins” debates shows that this commitment is never really guaranteed. What I hope to show is that the nature of debating, as a competitive activity rather than an instructive tool, leads us to doubt its universal efficacy as an illuminating force.

Consider first a champion debater; someone who excels at convincing others of their position. Such a person is often sought after as an ally in politics and praised for their wit and strategy. Champion debaters are often praised for their rhetorical skill, and not necessarily for their familiarity with relevant literature or fact. The hallmark of a good debater is to be able to take whatever position assigned and turn it into a plausible stance while undermining others who attempt to do the same with other positions. The truth of the positions advocated by the debater are utterly irrelevant, the art of persuasion comes first. I do not think I am being cynical when I say that the ideal debater is someone who can make their position look better than it actually is and their opponents position look worse.

What faith can we have in debate as a tool to refine knowledge when the individual participants are so often inclined to obscure reality?

First, it should be obvious that I am not here to argue that all the outcomes from these more competitive debates are by de facto “tainted”. Often even the most competitive of dialectic investigations can yield positive results in raising new and salient objections while showing how old theories might be swapped with progressive new models.

Secondly, we should note that a debater who is advocating false-hood will generally be at a disadvantage as they struggle to interpret empirical evidence and work around aspects of rationality in order to best serve their position.

Therefore I do not wish to argue that competitive debate, where rhetoric becomes the focus of the activity over a search for truth, is entirely unproductive or indeed home to unrestricted postulation; instead I highlight that “debaters” in the singular disciplinary sense are trained not to investigate and articulate theories but instead to approach each subject with a set of explicit prejudices which they ultimately seek to confirm to their audience.

What should we take away from our possible disillusionment with the presumption that free debate is necessarily a champion of truth?

From our understanding of debating as a competitive discipline we can, reasonably, assert that whatever kind of intelligence is being tested in a debate it is not always related to a grasp of the subject in question. Debate can be used to clarify but there is also little doubt that debate can be engaged in in order to rustle up uncertainty by, for instance, deploying empty or pointless rhetoric through Gish Galloping (a method which involves drowning the opponent in so many false-hoods that they can’t possibly respond to all of them; the term was originally coined by the physical anthropologist Eugenie Scott).3

To progress from here we must acknowledge that public debates can be cynically manipulated by individuals with great strength in rhetoric to mislead and that debate does not necessarily bring about clarity although it no doubt plays a valuable role in that process.

We ultimately have to ask how far we can get public discourse away from competitive rhetoric based debating in order to push it towards “intellectual threshing”.  If this is a structural problem linked to the formats and incentives we re-enforce in our political culture then all we need to do is work to amend these structures so that individuals in the public sphere are not pressured to defend positions that they know are wrong.4 Alternatively the problem could be viewed as psychological; one simply does not want to believe that one is wrong and in-accordance with that will not want to “back down” in a public setting. Such a debate, over the cause of misleading rhetoric, is a matter for another day so I will end my piece here.


1. West, Cornel. “The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society.” New York: Routledge (Published 2001) [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 25 June 2013].

2. Popper, Karl. “Conjectures and Refutations” London Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1963, pp. 33-39 from Theodore Schick, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Science, Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000, pp. 9-13. ) [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 29 June 2013]

3. Scott, Eugenie. “Debates and The Globe Trotters” [online] Updated 7 July 1994. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 June 2013]

4. For an example of political culture pressuring people to defend opinions they believe to be wrong we need look no further than the phenomenon of “flip-flopping”, where politicians are regarded as weak if they change their mind on a subject. Flip-flopping is nearly always taken as a sign of two-faced cowardice when it may actually be a sign of serious engagement with opposing evidence and argument.

Prisoners, Politics and The Absurdity of Rioting

Direct Action; both in its methodical and spontaneous form seeks to achieve objectives and express political sentiment through direct intervention (or abstinence). Here I’m interested in the act of spontaneous rioting, a violent form of direct action in which the objectives are rarely well defined and the psychology difficult to understand.

 A riot is a break down in the fabric of society; it is, in a small way, a revolutionary period of its own. During a riot the previous codes of law are often ignored even though new ones have yet to be properly proposed*; consequently the absolute ethical justification of a riot is nearly always found in what the riot achieves (though we will talk at a later date about the intricacies of rioting “morally”).

I am here, of course, treating riots as activities with self-conscious aims and values. The truth is that violent political struggle of spontaneous beginnings is often birthed by a moment of absurdity or neurosis. I believe it to be the case that rioting, when it initiates itself, is irrational and it is this moment of madness that gives violent direct action its peculiar moral character making it particularly problematic to tessellate into theories of political change.  

The rioter is faced with a similar predicament as the in-mates of the famous “Prisoner’s Dilemma”.1 In the Prisoners Dilemma themes of betrayal and co-operative decision create a situation in which agents are unable to make rationally justifiable choices despite all relevant information being present and I believe it to be analogous to the decisions facing a would-be rioter.
The Prisoners Dilemma (PD) takes two “prisoners” and places them in separate rooms and asks each prisoner individually whether they want to confess and incriminate the other prisoner or stay silent. Both prisoners are then told: 

A: If both prisoners stay silent then both participants will receive 1 year jail time.
B: If one prisoner confesses and one prisoner stays silent then the one who stays silent shall receive a 10 year sentence while the one who confesses shall go free.
C: If both prisoners confess then both prisoners will receive 5 years jail time.

The prisoners are left to muse over the potential ramifications of choosing each option. On the surface choosing to confess seems to be the best as outcomes involve either getting off scot-free or, at worst, getting 5 years instead of 10. Unfortunately once we consider “confessing” as the most logical outcome this increases the likelihood of the other prisoner choosing to also confess resulting in both prisoners receiving 5 years. Somehow the “best and most logical” choice in the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that which yields a less than optimum output. 

The best option must then be to stay silent; if confessing just leads to the other person also confessing then it makes sense to avoid playing the confession game entirely and opt for the 1 year knowing that the other Prisoner will probably come to the same conclusion. Of course this solution immediately collapses because as soon we think our opponent is going to collaborate then betrayal becomes all the more profitable which if we pursue immediately returns us to the concerns we had with confessing in the first place. The end result is huge levels of inertia and inability to select the “best” answer. 

If we’re to interpret the decision making process of initiating a riot through the paradigm of the Prisoners Dilemma then “staying silent” can be seen as “initiating” while “confessing” can be read as “abstaining”.

 A riot’s “success”, like staying silent in PD, is directly related to other participants and their willingness to follow suit** and so we must ask “What is the instigator of a riot thinking when they choose to initiate?”

Now while many within the fields of Mathematics and Logic have laid claim to either silence or confession as the provably “best” decision possible within the paradigm of PD a universally accepted answer is yet to triumph. Even if we do suppose that one camp has a mathematically sound answer it is reasonable to treat this answer as one that is not immediately clear. In effect, to the layman, this paradox is far from solved and likewise the same rational inertia that confronts us when we run PD is present in that crucial pre-rioting phase.

So if pure rationality cannot be relied on as a motive then what else can explain it? The only other candidate seems to be blind emotion. The act of both committing an act that will help bring about a period of domestic chaos and of bandwagon-ing on that act in the early stages to help it snowball require an almost kierkegaardian leap of faith that can only be justified in retrospect and in its moment of conception is analogous to some kind of temporary madness.

There are clear problems in how we approach such acts from the perspective of a political revolutionary, does the revolutionary mind treat domestic riots as tools (even though they seemingly cannot be controlled or rationally induced)? Or perhaps rioting should be treated as a symptom of oppression and injustice that occasionally, in an undirected manner, aids society in alleviating the problem?

Furthermore an ethical dilemma arises. As noted before a riot is generally seen to be justified consequentially, a riot that succeeds may hurt individuals and damage livelihoods but the positive changes that the riot achieves are seen to be outweighing the negatives. A failed therefore is nothing more than a moment of madness that inflicts suffering without offering any pay-off. Considering the irrational grounds on which these kinds of acts are predicated is it ethical for us to ever praise what is often an unthinking act of violence that is later appropriated and repackaged as a story of pre-meditated political agency?

Domestic rioting of the kind that organically arises from discontent rather than as part of a conscious political strategy does play a role in politics, but which role is it? Symptom? Cure? It seems there are many questions yet to be asked of both the psychological and practical nature of rioting.  
* Indeed it may be that the riot’s revolutionary period is not necessarily revolutionary in the sense of achieving concrete improvement but instead revolutionary in a, temporary, rejection of the status quo.

** Note that a riot can fail on two levels. Firstly it can fail on a personal level, if bystanders all abstain and the individual initiating the riot is immediately apprehended; secondly it can fail on a moral level, as we will soon discuss when the riot fails to achieve its aims and merely compounds the suffering felt by society. 


1. Prisoner’s Dilemma, 2007. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 May 2013]