Force, pressure and rallies

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Giovanni Tapang, Ph.D.

Giovanni Tapang, Ph.D.

Last Monday’s State of the Nation Address demonstrations turned violent when police forces started to push through the ranks of protesters while negotiations were going on between the ground commander and some leaders of the rally. Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Secretary-General Renato Reyes called the attack “premeditated treachery” and a “vicious suppression of dissent.” Around 41 protesters were injured and nine were “picked up” and brought to Camp Karingal in Quezon City.

I placed the phrase “picked up” in quotations since they were literally grabbed from the ranks of the rallyists and taken to a van without being informed of their rights and the reason for their detention. There is video documentation of them being “picked up” by plain clothesmen and brought to a waiting BJMP van. They were released Tuesday afternoon after a Quezon City fiscal moved for further investigation.

If one looks at the pictures and videos of the confrontation along Commonwealth Avenue, we can see the police blockade arrayed against the wide line of protesters. In the areas where they breached the protesters, the direction of force was obviously coming from the police side.

In scientific literature, there are many models of pedestrian and crowd flow that could predict how it evolves given different obstacles and stress. Dirk Helbing and his colleagues point out that it is only when there is a low number of people at an area that pedestrians can move freely. Above a certain point, the movement of people is, in their words, “surprisingly predictable.”

People tend to move like fluids when in crowds. You can direct its flows to a certain general way using barriers, pressure and timing. The police along Commonwealth had lined the mid-island with dangerous concertina wires to make pedestrians in the crowd avoid it and serve as a funnel to the points where the police wanted to contain the protest. There were also big container vans placed purposely at the middle of the road after Ever Gotesco to prevent any further advance by the crowd.

Asserting their right to assemble and have their grievances heard, the protest moved to avoid the blocks and “flowed” to other points where they could advance. As negotiations were being held, the police instigated the violence as they pushed through the crowd and started snatching people to their side as they advanced. Using their shields and batons, they tried to subdue the crowd who naturally resisted this brazen attack.

Crowds normally occur and disperse without incident. It is only when there are events like these attacks or blockades that the situation becomes violent. The tactics usually used to control crowds is usually based on the principle that the police are better equipped with anti-riot gear, shields and truncheons.

Typical crowd control methods employ the acronym FIST to understand and control people massed together. F is for the crowd force; I is for the information upon which the crowd acts; S is for the physical space involved including how many the people are as well as the blocks and architectural structures that are present. T is for time or the duration of the incident.

The crowd just before the altercation was at rest and waiting for the negotiations to happen. Therefore there was no push from the rallyists towards the Batasan. They were waiting for further instructions when the police went into their lines. The picture of the activist hugging the policeman in fact shows that they had time to do this interaction while waiting for the talks to finish. This was the information available to them.

The physical space was pre-defined by the structures put into place by the police. They knew where the control points were and they were the ones who placed the big container vans along the road. They could also monitor the size of the crowd as they marched slowly. The police also had control of the time. They knew when the SONA speech was to start and they were also the ones who could start and stop the pressure against the rallyists.

Looking at all of these points we can see that it was the police who had control of many of the points for crowd control. That the altercation happened puts into question how the police managed the scene. A more sinister interpretation is that it was pre-meditated and deliberate.

The situation could have been avoided had the Quezon City government approved the permit to hold the protest at Batasan and let the people vent their frustration on the ever increasing prices of basic commodities and goods, the lack of jobs and the spiraling poverty in our midst.

Sadly, these confrontations, and denial of rights, are bound to continue happening unless the reasons for protests disappear with a strong domestic economy based on national industries and agrarian reform.

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