21st century democracies are characterized by widespread general public awareness and involvement in the decisions and actions of the authorities. Expressing opinions publicly and organizing demonstrations are accepted ways to influence decision makers or to protest against events that have occurred. Such demonstrations against the decisions and actions of authorities, as well as protests against the social and economic situation and against failures of state mechanisms, are commonplace. They are especially expected in times of social and economic upheaval and fear about public health as can be seen currently during the global fight against COVID19. The tools used today to fight this virus – restrictions on movement to the point of local closure, severe restrictions on hospitality and tourism, prevention of public performances and events, closure of educational and cultural institutions – naturally create enormous pressure on those engaged in these industries, and prevent them from earning a living. This pressure is felt by the entire population who are forced to change their lifestyle. At the same time, while the virus is still causing widespread disease and threatening to spread exponentially, there is a heavy and increasing burden on the state’s medical and social support systems, with no real ability to strengthen its infrastructure, resources or manpower due to a lack of required resources, time and attention.
Paradoxically, there are sectors that have not been significantly affected and are even profitable; the world stock markets have been affected only marginally if at all and commercial companies have continued to distribute profits to shareholders.
The current situation, which is forecast to continue for at least a year, is expected to cause the world economy to go into a temporary recession and possibly a continuing economic downturn that in turn will send many people into poverty, especially those working in services and industries prohibited from functioning. The state authorities can be expected to be blamed by the citizens for their economic situation. The affected population, who until this pandemic were the backbone of the middle class in the Western world, is being pushed into a life of poverty through no fault of its own. During the first part of the pandemic, most countries in the Western world have supported their affected populations extensively, to the point of almost full payment of their pre-epidemic wages, but this situation is not expected to continue for much longer and it is clear that broad adjustments are needed in both occupations and wage levels.
The above phenomena are expected to create heavy pressure on the authorities who will have difficulty meeting people’s needs and later this could deteriorate into demonstrations, disturbances, riots and loss of the authorities’ control over entire populations (as has happened more than once in democracies). Civil disturbances that stem from economic and social disagreements are nearly always emotionally charged and therefore also prone to spiraling out of control and degenerating into vandalism and violence.
The primary goals of the protesters will usually be to protest injustices in relation to:
- Law enforcement including police brutality, the enforced closing of businesses and restrictions on movement.
- Community services including the inability to provide social services or proper medical services.
- Political reasons such as distrust of political leadership perceived as unfit, unable to gain control of the situation or cynically exploiting it to their advantage.
The desire for protest is of course amplified by cultural differences, which can lead to a search for a scapegoat to fuel hostility and mistrust. One example of this was the suggestion that the Orthodox Jewish community in New York was guilty of spreading the virus. Other examples are profiting at public expense or the representation of the virus as a “Chinese” virus by the US president and the accusation that the Chinese authorities aided the spread by hiding vital information while at the same time trying to steal the formulas for vaccines being developed in the USA.
Taking advantage of the situation created during the current pandemic, there are radical activists who manipulate protesters by incitement, turning them into a mob of rioters while directing their feelings of frustration and resentment against a chosen target, be it a political figure, public institution, ethnic minority, police force or any other group or object. Activists use print and social media to connect with potential audiences and motivate them to engage in activities – mostly illegal – in order to advance their political, social, or other goals, without having a direct personal connection to the event, all to increase their potential for violence, vandalism and manipulation of the audience.
Protest leaders, on the other hand, can also calm the situation down with their speech, by planting “agents of influence” and even attendants in the crowd in order to calm people and also to locate provocateurs and isolate them from the demonstration.
The crowd as a whole is subject to manipulation during public disturbances and thus may pose a threat to law enforcement. Protesters usually tend to obey the law, but emotional stimuli and the sense of fearlessness that results from being part of a crowd, can cause protesters to become addicted to impulses, act aggressively and release their anger. When protesters are stopped by police or security guards, they can be expected to redirect their anger in different ways, such as vandalism, making the crowd a hostile and unpredictable threat. Crowds want to be guided and can be frustrated by confusion and uncertainty. Thus, leadership can profoundly influence the behavior of a crowd of protesters. The first person to address an audience authoritatively is likely to be the leader. Radicals may take advantage of this to take control. Panic, which is quickly contagious, affects crowd behavior and their ability to act logically. Frantic and irrational behavior can endanger not only the protesters but also those around them. The crowd may panic when it senses danger, and in trying to avoid arrest or being hurt by demonstration dispersal methods there is always the risk of injury or crushing as they seek routes to escape the area.
Disruption of public order and violent demonstrations can quickly degenerate into civil disobedience that is defined as “a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies” (John Rawls, Civil Uprising). Civil disobedience is manifested in relatively quiet but well-organized acts of refusal, built mainly on refraining from carrying out actions required by the government, such as refraining from entering a closure, refraining from paying taxes, general strike and the like, but can also lead to more active actions such as violent demonstrations, burning tires or vehicles, roadblocks and so on.
Possible Outcomes of Public Disorder (Risks)
We propose to examine the results of the threat of public order disturbances on several separate levels: at the state level, at the local / municipal level, and at the private level of each business, factory or complex. While the list of phenomena and events can be the unified and identical for all three levels of impact, the practical results and impact of these phenomena on a business or complex are likely to be completely different from their impact at the municipal or state level. The Black Lives Matters movement, which gained momentum following the assassination of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by police in Minneapolis USA, led to demonstrations and disturbances in public order that effectively degenerated into vandalism throughout the United States and elsewhere around the world. Entire areas were closed in several cities and a military emergency was declared for a short time to take control of the robberies and vandalism that caused much destruction. These incidents were primarily a protest against the discrimination of blacks by the police and the murder of George Floyd, but they joined the general dissatisfaction with the authorities’ management of the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the weaker parts of society particularly hard (in their minds as a result of the authorities’ helplessness). It can be assumed that we have not yet seen the full impact of this movement on American society and it is quite possible that it will even degenerate into a civil uprising that will also affect the entire USA during the election period.
The main phenomena / risks as a result of disturbances of public order / civil unrest are:
- Disruption of day to day routines and the inability of citizens to lead productive lives combined with the inability of the state to provide essential services to the citizen – thus further deteriorating the situation.
- Damage to the delicate social fabric and exacerbation of tensions between groups in the population to the point of conflict.
- Vandalism causing damage to property, buildings and vehicles by physical harm, by theft and by fire.
- Disrupting the rule of law and the authority of the police through confrontations and challenge, including avoiding the payment of taxes.
- Deterioration of the COVID-19 morbidity – increased spread of the epidemic, prevention of the possibility of the provision of medical assistance.
- Impairment of the ability of medical institutions to provide assistance and harm to medical institutions as a result of frustration or anarchist ideologies.
- Depletion of the authorities’ economic resources as they get funneled into stopping demonstrations, protecting property and quieting the masses. At the same time difficulty in collecting taxes from the protesting citizens can be expected.
- Impairment of the ability of state authorities to rule as a result of civil uprisings – and the possibility of a deterioration to military intervention.
Public order disturbances usually begin with demonstrations that degenerate into stormy protests that degenerate into public order disturbances or riots. The goal of violent and anarchist protesters is to incite the agents of law enforcement to resort to over-enforcement, even to the extent of physical harm, to create an atmosphere that supports and encourages chaos and anarchy in response to “government violence.” Violent and anarchist protesters can use a variety of tactics to provoke and drag law enforcement into violent action – from gross verbal assault, to spitting and dumping garbage and feces, burning garbage cans, displacing and dumping street furniture to firing fireworks, incendiary devices and even improvised bombs.
The purpose of the demonstrators / rioters is to draw public attention to the problems that concern them and that they believe also affect the majority of the country’s citizens. Their primary purpose is to draw attention to their demand for change. If the requested change is accepted in the early stages of the demonstrations, there is a high probability that the riots will not develop, and the demonstrators will return home happy to have achieved their goal. An example of this is the development of the Arab Spring in Tunisia. The “Jasmine Revolution” began in Tunisia on December 18, 2010, demanding a change of government, improved living conditions and human rights in the country. Less than a month later, on January 14, 2011, Tunisian President Zin al-Abdin Ben Ali left the country and went into exile in Saudi Arabia. Power was transferred to the prime minister, who handed it over to the speaker of parliament. The riots continued for a few more weeks until they ended quietly. At the national level, Tunisia became possibly the only successful example of the Arab Spring resulting in an improvement of the citizens’ situation as they had demanded. In the rest of the Middle east, the Arab Spring uprisings led to violent responses by the governments, including the massive use of force by the army while killing many, harming the living conditions and achievements of the civilians – contrary to their aims of demonstrating. In some countries the demonstrations caused a complete collapse of state rule (Libya, Syria) and replaced it with total anarchy or chaos that continues to this day, with the accompanying deterioration in the quality of life and human rights of the citizens of the country. This “solution” as adopted by the authorities in Arab countries is presumably not applicable to democratic countries.
At the state level – the main risk from civil unrest is if a state of general chaos is reached in which local and / or central government does not function as a result of incessant disturbances and the lack of ability to maintain reasonable functioning of the country. Of course this result has intermediate stages, such as physical damage to symbols of government and its institutions to the point of their inability to function, tax strikes, fear of walking in the streets as a result of violent activity by demonstrators and security forces and more.
At the municipal / local level – the main risk is the deterioration of the area into a state of anarchy, causing real physical damage to the property of citizens and businesses in the affected area and the escape of residents to other parts of the country which are continuing to function normally. The phenomenon can start when an area becomes a center for nationwide demonstrations which then degenerate into vandalism, robbery and looting that get out of hand. This may continue while the rest of the country calms down for one reason or another leaving the ground zero area of the demonstrations damaged and unable to recover.
At the private / business level – the main risk is physical harm, robbery and looting during demonstrations in the area, but also the ongoing inability to conduct business in an area that is a regular focus for demonstrations that could continue for weeks or months.
Possible tools for coping
Peaceful and legal demonstrations are fundamental to democracy and therefore, the authorities and law enforcement agencies must do everything in their power to preserve the right to demonstrate and ensure that demonstrations do not become public disturbances or a basis for vandalism, robbery or looting. The main purpose of law enforcement agencies should be to maintain the legal framework of the demonstration. At the state level there are many officials who deal with this issue but at the local and private level very few get involved in these issues on a daily basis. It is important to remember that a relatively small investment in preventative measures and in minimizing the damage can eliminate the need for huge repair bills from the damage caused. Here are some points to consider about how to prepare and deal with public order disturbances on each of the three levels, but especially at the business and neighborhood / factory level:
With the increase in public frustration due to the pandemic, economic repercussions and racism, the threat of public disturbance, vandalism, robbery and looting are real in many cities and businesses in the Western world. Legitimate demonstrations are being held worldwide against the incompetence of the authorities in dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic and the resulting economic situation. We as security professionals must treat this threat in the same way as we treat other threats, analyze the associated risks and prepare the means to minimize the threats and risks accordingly.