Crowd Chaos Underlines Differences in Instigators versus Organizers

Ideas and Issues
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January 18, 2021

Washington Post

            Pearl River     The post-mortem on the Capitol mob scene has been bizarrely interesting from an organizing perspective. A lot of it has been more about name-calling than analysis.         This motley crowd is now seen as rioters, (maybe?), insurrectionists (really?), seditionists (huh?), and more.         This isn’t my team, so I have no interest in defending them. They were out of line, clearly out of place, and now fodder for charges against President Trump in his last days of office. My two cents might not be worth more than that, but I’m going to spend it here.

This might have been an organized rally, but it was not an organized takeover of the Capitol. I’m not saying that some of the bright lights didn’t have a fever dream about getting inside and making mischief. There was clearly some scouting done by some folks with what appears to have been help from some elected Congressmen, if early reports are to be believed, although some of these putative organizers, interestingly never were inside the Capitol. At the same time there are no signs that the takeover followed any orderly plan. Seeing the video of the breach of the door, where one of the protestors was trampled to death by the crowd, is evidence to me of the disorganization, as was the instance where a woman was being pushed through a window and then shot and killed.         People once inside, wandering around aimlessly speaks to the “oh, gee, look at me” surprise for the participants, rather than some achievement of concerted activity. This was a free for all, not a plan, produced by instigators more than organizers.

The New York Times took a cut at understanding the crowd, but seemed to be mostly swinging and missing. They drew from Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, which is a deeply biased, conservative perspective from someone totally frightened of people acting together and from my memory of reading the book, pretty uncertain about democracy itself and certainly anyone outside of his own class in France. The article did credit civil rights organizers and many others for bringing tactics and strategy to mass demonstrations without really connecting the dots to what a mess this Capitol action was, proving indirectly to my mind that it was a product of pure instigation, albeit with some individual actors up for a fight and ready to rock, rather than an organized assault, which would have portended a much more troubling future.

All of which puts the responsibility even more firmly on Trump’s call to the crowd to march on the Capitol, seconded by Rudy Giuliani and others, to fight it out and stop the process. Without the instigators this would have been your garden variety twist-and-shout affair with crazy costumes and some pretty deadly props, folks more part of the parade than battle ready troops. I honestly believe that except for some after-the-fact chest beating by some of the participants, this was crowd was clueless and opportunistic, called to action without organization, dangerous in its anger, and startled at its success.

All of which is a bit more disturbing to me.         Proponents of the mayhem unleashed something that they may try to duplicate, but have no idea exactly how this got out of the bottle or how to put it back in once it explodes.         Without Trump and the team to instigate this, the pretenders and posers, bereft of organization and organizing skills, might become even more dangerous provocateurs, as they try to get lightning to strike again.