In a 5,000-seat Iowa venue, I utilised identical crowd control measures to keep supporters away from Vanilla Ice. The Electoral College vote count was slightly more significant. By Jessica Carney I handled the front-of-house personnel at a 5,000-seat arena in Iowa, and I understood — or had hoped — that security at the Capitol is very different from security at an arena. After all, the Capitol Police have a $460 million budget and 2,000 sworn officers, including a bomb squad and a separate biohazard team, an intelligence unit, and a special section dedicated to protecting VIPs, as well as a small arsenal stocked with riot gear, crowd control equipment, and firearms. At most events, I had some signage, a small crew, and some lightweight gates that I could use to remind people where they shouldn’t be.
United States Capitol using little more than those same mobile gates
That’s why, while watching television on Wednesday, I was astounded to see police in some areas of the United States Capitol using little more than those same mobile gates I had — the ones that look like bike racks that can hook together — to keep crowds away from sensitive areas and, later, to push back people intent on accessing the grounds. (On Thursday, a new fence that looks to be constructed of sturdier material was being erected.) That’s the same equipment and roughly the same amount of force I was able to use when a bunch of irate fans tried to get backstage at a Vanilla Ice concert.
One of those gates, emblazoned with a banner supporting President Donald Trump, was later placed in a Capitol hallway in a photo shot after the breach; other cameras showed them being carried and used to achieve the breach itself. That came as no surprise to me: they’re not particularly heavy, and they’re intended to be more of a hint than anything else. They’re designed for crowds that understand and intend to observe fundamental norms; the gate implies “Do not proceed beyond this point.” They’re not going to stop someone from going beyond any particular point if they believe they’re above or beyond the regulations.
Crowds tend to behave in predictable ways
In my experience, no event I worked ever required more than 50 security officers, regardless of the performance or the size of the crowd, because crowds tend to behave in predictable ways. When I explain that even even the most extreme security plans ask for a one-to-one ratio of police to protesters or security to attendees, I’m not revealing any crowd control trade secrets.
There will never be enough police or security at any event to stop people if they all act in harmony; if enough people want to get to Vanilla Ice at the same time, they will. In a regular crowd, social structures and fundamental decency, not lightweight security gates, are what keep everyone but the outliers back.
However, the Capitol Police should not have expected a usual crowd. Their reported intentions, or lack thereof, show that they expected a sizable proportion of this group to follow the regulations and the few officials on hand to enforce them. But why is that?
My perspective as an event planner
Although the staffing at the Capitol appeared to be disastrously light regardless of crowd size — Trans-Siberian-Orchestra-concert light — from my perspective as an event planner, the issue at hand that should have driven more security protocols was the very specific brand of “the rules don’t apply to me” attitude that some of the attendees embraced. It’s a frightening personality trait that becomes much scarier when a substantial part of a crowd is made up of such outliers and others are eager to follow their lead.
Though there are assumptions about who represents the purported rule-breakers, especially in the security community, any smart event designer will tell you it’s not usually who your internalised prejudices assume it will be. Consider my 5,000-person arena in Iowa — and the ushers I worked with. Many of them were retirees who came for the music or to serve their community of music fans. Even though heavy metal music was not my thing, I never had trouble recruiting volunteers to assist as ushers at heavy metal shows. They didn’t dislike working those shows, either, because heavy metal fans in general followed the ushers’ instructions: People stopped standing in the aisles after the ushers instructed them not to. Heavy metal fans, in fact, were kind to one another without being taught, making it an usually pleasant experience to work those gigs.
When there are enough outliers in a crowd, the regular mechanics of crowd control are thrown off; everyone in my industry understands this. Citizens tend to hold each other to particular standards, which is why my 40,000-person town doesn’t have 40,000 police officers, and why New York City’s 8.3 million inhabitants aren’t policed by 8.3 million cops.
Social norms are the threads that hold an event together
More importantly, society together. If everyone starts acting up at the same time, your town’s police force will be overwhelmed.
However, many ushers flatly refused to be scheduled for country events, despite the fact that they vastly favoured the music. They’d learned that some people would come prepared (or even determined) to be kicked out, like the guy who started grabbing at everyone around him just for fun, or any number of people who shouted strings of expletives at my gentle, gray-haired staff when asked to obey the rules, emboldened rather than scorned by the crowd around them. Even if the country music crowd looked more like my ushers’ relatives and family, experience taught them that working a Disturbed event was preferable.