10 August 2011

The creature was a party of boys, marching...

One of my sharpest and funniest memories of English class in secondary school was studying Lord of the Flies, in which one of my friends read almost an entire passage in a monotone, much to the obvious annoyance, however suppressed, of our (brilliant) English teacher.
'The rules!' shouted Ralph, 'you're breaking the rules!'
'Who cares?'
Ralph summoned his wits.
'Because the rules are the only thing we've got!'
But Jack was shouting against him.
'Bollocks to the rules! We're strong — we hunt! If there's a beast, we'll hunt it down! We'll close in and beat and beat and beat — !'
I say it was almost wholly in a monotone. It wasn't entirely so. My friend rose from his monotone to roar 'Bollocks to the rules!' and then slipped back into his previous flat delivery. Comedy value aside, I loved the book and our study of it, often thinking that whatever about his other work, Golding achieved something special with that Lord of the Flies, showing just how thin and frail our veneer of civilization can sometimes be.Part of the sheer force of that passage, so burned into my memory by my friend's take on it, was how drastically it showed Jack having cast aside the very fabric of civilization that he had so chauvinistically championed earlier on:
'We've got to have rules and obey them. After all, we're not savages. We're English, and the English are best at everything.'

'You knew, didn't you? ... I'm the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?'
I couldn't help but follow the coverage of yesterday's Mancunian riots -- and those elsewhere in England, both yesterday and over the previous days -- with an air of some disbelief. Leaving aside the question of why the rioting is happening, I've been amazed at the police's complete failure to get to grips with the situation. Water cannons and rubber bullets aside, the police are, as it stands, perfectly well-equipped to deal with what's being going on.

What do I mean? Well, broadly speaking, riot control aims towards one of two possible outcomes, these being dispersal and confinement.
  • Dispersal is usually the preferred outcome, with the unity of the mob being shattered so that a rout begins and the rioters flee home. 
  • Confinement isn't really desirable, because that means locking an angry mob into one place, which can endanger officers, but sometimes it's the only real option; it entails establishing a cordon around the mob, and then pulling the cordon tight. We've all heard of 'kettling'. Well, that's what kettling is: it's riot control tactics aimed at confining a mob.
The viral rioting that's spread across England over the last few days is such that dispersal tactics are basically useless. The mobs we've seen haven't been standing their ground. They've not been facing off against police, hurling molotov cocktails or such; rather, in the main, they've simply marauded along streets, smashing shops and vehicles, looting, plundering, and occasionally mugging as they've gone. It's wild and dangerous Lord of the Flies stuff, but it's not the behaviour of a unit inclined to stand and fight. These mobs aren't solid; they're fluid beasts, even gaseous ones. There's no point using water cannons against swarms that are happy to run away and ransack somewhere else... unless you're trying to drive them into a specific spot.

I know, this sounds like it's straight out of Sun Tzu, but there you have it. He knew stuff.

Kettling tactics, on the other hand, could work very well with swarms like these, assuming they're not quite as technologically savvy as people seem to be making out, with all their ridiculous hysterical claims about Blackberries and Twitter. I'm sure technology's playing a role in summoning the troops, but I seriously doubt it's being used -- in any serious way -- to coordinate them. It's possible, but unlikely. Besides, insofar as it is being used, it'll leave a huge trail of electronic footprints that'll result in vast numbers of arrests.

Take, for example, yesterday afternoon's ransacking of Oldham Street in Manchester's Northern Quarter, which you can get a good view of from this distressing video. Now, I know there are reports of there having been 2,000 or so youths rampaging through Manchester, but from looking at the video I very much doubt that there were more than 300 on Oldham Street -- perhaps as few as 200.

... the fence that hemmed in the terror and made it governable
In any case, the important thing isn't numbers. What's most important, from the point of view of crowd control, is how narrow Oldham Street is. Streets like this are ideal for confining rioters in.

I'm pretty confident that 120 police could have caged this horde in a matter of minutes, providing they divided up sensibly, and coordinated their movements properly. That's assuming they wanted to, of course, and I'll get to that.

This is pretty much how I'd envisage the situation at the start. Let's say there are 200 or so looters on the street -- there may have been more, but it wouldn't really matter in this context. The 120 Police are divided into three groups, a western group to move up Tib Street, a central group to block Oldham Street, and an eastern group to move up Lever Street.

Very quickly, then, the western group would advance up Tib Street, with a 10-strong unit peeling off onto Back Picadilly, a 20-strong one onto Dale Street, and the remaining 20 officers carrying on to Hilton Street in order to blockade Oldham Street from the north. Likewise, the eastern group would move up Lever Street, with a 10-strong unit peeling off onto Back Picadilly and the remaining 20 officers stationing themselves on Dale Street. This would have to be done very quickly, but also as discreetly as possible. No sirens, and staying as far back as they can manage. They need to be almost out of sight; the trick is to establish a silent cordon and then strike quickly.

The jaws of the trap have to snap shut almost instantaneously. The 20 officers at the northern end of Oldham Street should charge down to the junction with Dale Street, and then stop, with the 20 officers on either side of them then falling behind them, forming a wall of 60 officers, 20 wide and three deep. The 40 officers just out of sight on Picadilly would then move into position, blocking the southern end of Oldham Street with a two-deep wall of 40 men, while simultaneously the two 10-strong units on Back Picadilly would advance to close off the narrow exits, each unit being two men deep. There shouldn't be more than a few seconds between the northern and southern manoeuvres.

At this point the cage would be more or less complete, but it would make sense for the central unit to rush as far north as Back Picadilly, which would confine the mob in a still smaller space and allow the Back Piccadilly units to fall in behind the central unit, so that 60 officers would hold the mob to the north, and 60 to the south.

Once confined, it'd be possible for the police to start wading into the mob -- which seems basically unarmed -- and arresting individuals one by one, focusing immediately on anyone trying to break into shops in the hope of carving out escape routes. It'd take time, but it'd be doable.

The only risks to implementing such tactics lie in the possibility of the rioters having scouts of some sort, lads stationed a good way off able to phone their mates and tell them of the police movements. I think it's possible that there may well have been some outliers capable of doing this, but the thing is, even leaving aside how speed would be of the essence in a situation like this and how the police needn't have all started from one point -- it'd be more effective if they converged from several directions -- technology works both ways, and the police have far better technology than the rioters. I'm pretty sure they'd be able to jam phone signals or even have any phone masts in the area turned off, whilst continuing to rely on their own radios.

The white blob represents the rioting mob, with the other markers signifying phone masts
For what it's worth, I'm not plucking these numbers out of thin air. Riot control police are regularly armed with a large shield and with a long baton, designed to be swung; it's equipment analogous to that which was used by Roman infantry, and we know from Polybius and Vegetius that when fighting in close order Roman troops required a frontage of about three feet, though they could hold an area five feet wide when in open order.  Allowing for this, then, I reckon each line of officers on Oldham Street and Dale Street would need to be about twenty men across, with those on Back Piccadilly being five men across.

Now, I'm not saying for one second that Greater Manchester Police are stupid for not having done this. On the contrary, they know this stuff inside-out, so the question then becomes one of why this was allowed to happen.

'Meetings. Don't we love meetings? Every day. Twice a day. We talk.'
It was, quite obviously, a policy decision, and I hope it's one that's discussed in Parliament, as otherwise I can't see there being any point in Cameron having recalled Parliament; surely it's not simply so that left and right can point blaming fingers at each other while Britain continues to burn.

(For what it's worth, and I'm pretty sure that Phillip Blond would argue this way, the fuel for these fires has been laid down by decades of social, political, cultural, and economic errors, these errors having been made by those of all political stances, and quite probably by journalists, academics, and other opinion-formers almost as much as politicians. It won't do for left or right to blame each other; both sides should accept their own errors, whoever well-intentioned they'd been, and start tackling things responsibly.)

The key points seem to lie in police statements in this article. Steve Kavanagh, deputy assistant commissioner of the Met said yesterday that:
'The Met does not wish to use baton rounds but if it gets put into a position that it needs to protect the people and the property and the lives of Londoners, [then] we will do so.[...] We had people as young as 11 being arrested for looting last night. Do we genuinely want to see the police of London using that type of tactic on 11-year-olds? We have to be very careful about what we use and how we're using it.'
That's the problem. What happens if you kettle a gang of a few hundred teenagers and even slightly younger children, and some of them try to escape? I don't think the police want to be wielding batons against kids. They might be savages, but they're still children.


Anonymous said...

Goldman? Hmm. Perhaps you were distracted by the little playacting bollocks.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Heh, thanks for that. May just have been that I was talking about William Goldman, as distinct from William Golding, recently. I refer to the former rather more often than the latter, I fear.