The Cairo of recent weeks has become, once more, an archetypal protest-city. Television footage tells a story of crowded squares, oversized flags and uniformed police that has become all too familiar. "Where are they protesting this time?" I overheard a visibly tired middle-aged man ask as these images appeared on an airport news screen. These goddamn globetrotting protesters, he must have thought.
The fact is that the fiery-eyed, bandana-clad youths walking through Ramses Square may have well been lobbing Molotov cocktails in Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro or Paris. The slogans they carry and the chants they sing in unison change mostly in form while the content remains broadly the same - they call for the same social justice, government accountability and political freedom, just on different posters.
As we attempt to come to grips with the wave of protests sweeping the world, we rely on TV footage and newspaper images to construct our own simple narrative. The narrative goes as follows: here are the protesters, angry at some perceived injustice committed by the government. They are throwing rocks and bricks and Molotov cocktails embedded with their voices, voices which may go unheard if they are unaccompanied by projectiles. And here is the regime, smug, conservative and armed to the teeth with tear gas and stink bombs. It also relies on batons to beat its interests and truths into the protesters.
And here they clash.
This kind of narrative is all too easily constructed by an observer with a Hollywood-induced tendency to root for the underdog. It also provides a very convenient schema for interpreting the protests, made up, as they seem to be, of two relatively static and diametrically opposed forces - one good, one evil. Isn't that how we like all of our stories?
Even the most sophisticated commentators and pundits, however, forget that things are rarely quite that simple. A question that is almost never asked is, at whom are the slogans and Molotov cocktails aimed? No, literally, who are they aimed at?
The answer, of course, is the police. Within the government versus crowd binary, police and riot officers are simply an extension of the former, mindlessly taking orders to beat their fellow countrymen into submission. The problem is that we forget that policemen and policewomen are also just men and women.
And so, strangely, we have never bothered to ask a very obvious question. Why do individual riot officers who may sympathize with the causes of protesters continue to use force to suppress them? How can officers shoot at a protest that they could have been a part of, had they not chosen to become members of the police? They too experience injustices, have families that must be fed and educated and hold opinions on social and political issues.
Reminded of the humanity of those behind the masks and the heavy shields, it is tempting for us then to conclude that another element must be added to our simplistic narrative. But here we must be careful. It is true that the front-line riot officers have shown themselves to be agents of change in their own right - dynamic characters whose individual sympathies and opinions have turned the tide of events. But only very, very rarely.
Students of modern history will be quick to point to the July Days in 1917, when the Cossacks refused to fire at the protesting workers, as a crucial turning point of the Russian Revolutions. The events in Tahrir Square in 2011 may serve as another example, though the involvement of the military makes it more difficult to judge.
Aside from these instances, however, the role of riot police in history seems surprisingly static. Almost without regard to the causes championed by the protesters, riot officers do act as an extension of the regime that signs their paycheques. Why is this so?
Let us first look at why riot officers, even if non-violent in nature, so readily resort to the use of force. In the case where they do not sympathise with the cause of the protesters, there are two explanations. The classical one was offered by renowned psychologist Stanley Milgram who talked about the idea of 'blind conformity', arguing through a set of experiments that there is a rationality to individuality that is somehow usurped by the crowd (the riot police, too, is a type of crowd). This seems only natural: when we talk about crowd mentality, there's an underlying assumption of the loss of rationality.
I spoke to Professor Clifford Stott of the University of Liverpool who explained that according to Miligram's theory, 'individuals in a group act in an agentic state, as an empty vessel through which a dictatorial structure fulfills its aims'. So, one explanation is that they are following strict orders to use force because, in a group, their individual ability to make reasonable decisions is diminished.
But that's all 'a myth', argues Stott along with Professor Stephen Reicher. They claim that, in fact, individuals maintain their rational faculty in a crowd. Instead, Riot officers readily use violence, especially in the developing countries, only when they think the values of their society are in danger of being compromised. In this event, they style themselves as their society's vanguard and thereby justify the use of violence on an individual level. The Revolutionary Guard shot at peaceful protesters following the 1979 revolution because a society they saw as a legitimate was at risk of destruction. Those firing the shots may have been caring family men with hearts of gold but when they were put on the front line with the task of defending their society and its values, they duly obeyed.
These explanations seem intuitive enough. But it is significantly harder to understand why riot officers would use force against a crowd of people whose grievances they share. This phenomenon must be particularly familiar to rulers of authoritarian regimes, in which front-line riot officers can easily identify with the injustices decried by the protesters (often from personal experience).
How-to guides written for the riot police hold some clues. Running through new and old riot police literature is a common thread: the importance of discipline. A British brochure from 1943 explains that 'any major crowd disorder is seen as a failure on the part of the government. So the first step... is to create a situation where the police are apparently losing control, where law and order is breaking down'. The only way to maintain control, it suggests, is through a show of discipline. Other brochures talk about discipline along similar lines, claiming it is the only way to avoid displaying weakness to a mob.
Professor Stott argues that this discipline is, in fact, the reason individuals in the police do not defect. The focus of such institutions, he posits, is on 'creating groups of people who are going to follow orders under extremely high levels of stress'. Much of the officer training is aimed at making them prepared to maintain their allegiance to the structure in situations where their friends will get hurt or die. 'Their entire identity is about that and it is profoundly difficult to overcome this cultural norm', he says. The focus on discipline creates an environment where the individual police officers tend to have a strong commitment to being police officers and therefore not identifying with a crowd of protesters.
Probably the most effective method of maintaining this discipline is by emphasising the danger a crowd presents to riot officers. The idea here is that if officers perceive crowds as inherently dangerous, it will be easier for them to ignore their slogans and exercise violence. Interviews with riot officers conducted in 1998 reveal that, without exception, officers consider that, in a riot situation, hesitation may cost them their life.
One constable's description of the murder of Keith Blakelock, a riot officer during the 1985 Tottenham Riots, is particularly telling: "Have you ever been told what the aim of that Keith Blakelock thing was? Their aim was to kill him, chop off his head and put it on the end of a spike to taunt the police with it. They couldn't get it off, they were trying to machete his head off. It turns my guts". Stories like these create within the police a very clear, if simplistic, mentality: 'If I might be killed, who can argue with the use of force?'
Building on the officers' fear for their own wellbeing, the training is designed in a way that reinforces the us-versus-them division. Underlying all officer training, for instance, is the assertion that the primary danger is to get isolated from their colleagues. This is a strategy that has strong symbolic and practical implications: it unifies the police while homogenising the protesting crowd in the eyes of the individual officers. Officers are taught, whether consciously or not, to treat the crowd as a singular entity with violent tendencies that may overwhelm them if left unchecked.
Even the equipment is designed in a way that makes the distinction starkly obvious. The uniforms help draw a very clear visual distinction between the two camps. Full riot gear can sometimes obscure the quality and breadth of vision for riot officers, making it difficult to identify individuals. In this way, it strengthens the view of the crowd as unitary, violent and oppositional. Riot fighting tactics and weaponry, like tear gas, by their nature do not attempt to discriminate between one type of demonstrator and another. If the non-violent elements of a protesting crowd cannot be picked apart from the violent ones, the entire crowd must then be diagnosed as violent and, therefore, dangerous to the riot officer.
Considering the systemic pressures that come to bear on an average riot officer, it is hardly surprising that largely non-violent crowds get well acquainted with the choking smell of pepper-spray bullets and the uncontrollable writhing and squirming that tear gas offers. The front-line police officers may have well agreed with the cries for social justice and accountability that resounded in Taksim, Tahrir and the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg. Yet their group discipline, their sense of personal danger and of 'separateness' from the crowd allowed them to step beyond their personal boundaries and act on behalf of the state (or society - depending on your perspective).
The point here is not just to uncover the mechanics or psychology of front-line riot police. Rather, it is to show that behind every social and political turn are many historical actors; actors whose scripts are dictated by complex societal forces and whose lines are ever-changing. It is tempting to look for the simple story, the one with easily-recognised heroes and villains. But if we want the truth, we have to remember that life sometimes is more complex than fiction.