Neither thugs nor criminals lurk behind the masks of black bloc protesters, a renowned police psychologist suggests.
Rather, what Mike Webster sees are “very thoughtful people”, an assessment that former Vancouver police inspector Dave Jones strongly disagrees with, likening them instead to thrill seekers.
“The vast majority of people in that crowd are not bad people,” Webster told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview, referring to the black-clad activists who smashed windows and torched police cars in downtown Toronto on June 26 during a protest against the G8 and G20 summits. “They’ve got the same kind of values that most of the rest of us have. If they didn’t, they’d be in jail, locked up in jail for murder.”
A B.C.–based crisis-management expert who has consulted with the RCMP, the FBI, and many other police forces inside and outside of Canada, Webster went as far as arguing that black bloc activists aren’t much different from “well-socialized young individuals” who go off to fight a war believing it’s an honourable thing to do.
Webster’s more than 30 years of experience includes serving as a consultant with law-enforcement agencies during high-profile events like the Waco, Texas, showdown in 1993, the 1995 standoff with First Nations people at Gustafsen Lake, and the 2002 G8 summit in Kananaskis, Alberta.
Webster said that one of the most important things to remember about crowd psychology is that most human beings develop a set of values that is generally consistent with that of the larger society.
However, he maintained that these morals “don’t run automatically all the time”, and that “human beings have mechanisms of moral disengagement that they use to turn off their morals and their ethics in certain situations.”
The psychologist suggested this isn’t different from soldiers going into combat. “If I can find a moral justification for my behaviour now, I can turn something that was previously illegal into something that is honourable,” he said. “The military does this all the time. They take well-socialized young individuals, take them to war, and they can kill the enemy with very little compunction.”
Referring to the thinking of protesters who engage in black bloc tactics, Webster said, “What they’ve done is they’ve instilled a moral justification. ”˜What I’m doing is no longer bad. It’s good and I do this under a moral imperative now.’ So there’s one thing that I’m sure was going on in some of those heads.”
Another thing that goes on in the minds of these activists is what Webster describes as “attribution”.
“I say you made me do it,” Webster explained. “I’ve got a legitimate complaint here. There’s a segment of our society that’s being shortchanged in such and such a manner. And nobody’s willing to pay attention to them. So you’re making me do this.”
The phenomenon of “behavioural contagion” also rises when people gather in crowds, he said. According to him, this increases the potential for people to engage in acts they wouldn’t normally carry out, such as breaking store windows in the case of the black bloc rioters or stealing during mass lootings.
“We de-individuate,” Webster said. “That is, we have a lowered self-awareness. We get lost in this crowd, all this noise, all this activity, all this yelling, all this smoke, all this adrenaline, all this danger. We kind of lose our self-identity.”
A retired 30-year veteran of the Vancouver Police Department, Jones has his share of crowd-control experience. In 1998, he was the commanding officer of the antiriot squad that clashed with activists protesting the actions of then-prime minister Jean Chrétien in what became known as the “Riot at the Hyatt”.
For Jones, Black Bloc protesters are people who do “dirty work” for fun on behalf of their “more sophisticated” leaders.
“I think what’s going on is that there’s a lot of people now that treat these events as destination adventure holidays,” Jones told the Straight in a phone interview.
But he noted that events like the June 26 Black Bloc rampage in Toronto, the 1999 Battle of Seattle during a World Trade Organization conference, and the 2001 protests at the third Summit of the Americas in Quebec City raise a dilemma for governments.
“Do you simply say, ”˜Okay, we surrender. We can’t have these things in major cities because of what are essentially a couple of hundred people’?” Jones asked. “Or do you say, ”˜We’ll just go ahead.’?”
Jones said he has heard many people suggest holding conferences like that of the G20 leaders onboard aircraft carriers. He prefers out-of-the-way locations like Kananaskis. Regarding the latter location, Jones noted that security costs for the 2002 G8 summit were between $500 million and $1 billion, the larger figure being about the same amount spent on security in Toronto.
“It doesn’t matter where you do it or how,” Jones said. “There’s going to be security costs.”