“What is a crowd?” Excerpt from Among the Thugs by Bill Buford.

THESE ARE THE things that are said about crowds.

A crowd is mindless.

A crowd is primitive; it is barbaric; it is childish.

A crowd is fickle, capricious, unpredictable. A crowd is a dirty people without a name (Clarendon). A crowd is a beast without a name (Gabriel Tarde). A crowd is a wild animal (Alexander Hamilton, Hippolyte Taine, Scipio Sighele). A crowd is like a flock of sheep (Plato), like a pack of wolves (Plato), like a horse—tame when in the harness, dangerous when set free. A crowd is like a fire burning out of control, destroying everything in its way, including finally itself (Thomas Carlyle). A crowd is in a fever, in delirium, in a state of hypnosis (Gustave LeBon). A crowd reveals our Darwinian selves, primal hordes suddenly liberated by the sway of the pack. A crowd reveals our Freudian selves, regressing to a state of elemental, primitive urgency. A crowd killed Socrates; a crowd killed Jesus. A crowd kills—in the Bastille, at the Commune, in front of the Winter Palace, in the streets of Vienna, down a dirt road in Mississippi or Soweto.

And who do we find in a crowd? Trouble-makers, riff-raff, vagrants and criminals (Taine). The morbidly nervous, excitable and the half-deranged (LeBon). The scum that boils up to the surface of the cauldron of a city (Gibbon). Both honorary barbarians (Hitler) and the vulgar working class who want nothing more than bread and circuses (Hitler). We find people driven by the impulses of the spinal cord and not the brain (LeBon). We find people who have abandoned intelligence, discrimination, judgement, and, unable to think for themselves, are vulnerable to agitators, outside influences, infiltrators, communists, fascists, racists, nationalists, phalangists and spies. We find people with a thirst for obedience (LeBon), an appetite to serve (Freud). A crowd needs to be ruled. A crowd needs its patriarch—its despotic father, chief, tyrant, emperor, commander. It wants its Hider, its Mussolini. A crowd is like a patient to a doctor, the hypnotized to the hypnotist. A crowd is a rabble—to be manipulated, controlled, roused.

A crowd is not us.

Whose metaphors are these? They come from Freud, Burke, the historians of the French revolution, our nineteenth-century heritage, our newspapers. Who is telling us what a crowd is like? It is not the crowd—the crowd does not tell us its histories; it is the observers of the crowd, listening to each other as much ‘as to the shouting outside their windows: Edmund Burke, removed in London, weighing the gravity of a revolution that he sees only through other people’s eyes. Hippolyte Taine, preparing lectures in Oxford, where he reads in the English papers of the violence of the Commune and fears for his family and his property in Paris. Gustave LeBon, the ‘father of crowd theory’, eleventh-hour sociologist, effortless plagiarist, lifting passages from Scipio Sighele, Gabriel Tarde and (inevitably) Hippolyte Taine (it is possible that the only crowd seen by the father of crowd theory was in Paris on a shopping day). Freud, two years after the great crowd massacres of the Great War, the streets outside his window already alive with the sounds of restless nationalism and anti-Semitism, advancing his own theories about the crowd and its leaders, based (inevitably) on the work of the ‘justly famous’ Gustave LeBon.

The history of the behaviour of crowds is a history of fear: of being a victim, of losing property, of a terror (and of the Terror) so powerful that it needs a name—to be accounted for, distorted into intelligibility, made safe. The history of the behaviour of crowds is one of explanations. It has given us the politics of violence and its sociology. It has provided us with the models of revolution and the ego-ideal. It has shown us cause and effect, the details of oppression, the brutalities, the injustices, the prisons and the torture, the price of bread, the loss of land, the inequities of exploitative taxation, the mechanical contrivances and contraptions of a dehumanizing modernity. Crowd theory makes sense of the crowd and its violence, as if, as in a scientific experiment, the right conditions could and always will produce the same results. Crowd theory tells us why—relentlessly, breathlessly, noisily, as if by shouting the reasons loudly enough the terror can be explained away. But crowd theory rarely tells us what: what happens when it goes off; what the terror is like; what it feels like to participate in it, to be its creator. I have a recent photograph depicting a crowd incident in the seaside city of Split in Yugoslavia. I will describe it.

The crowd, all men, fills the frame. It consists of Croatian nationalists who have surrounded a tank that has been sent in among army troops to restore order. The photographer, uncredited, is positioned above the crowd—perhaps perched atop a vehicle travelling alongside or else crouched on the balcony of a nearby flat. Some of the protesters are pressed up against the tank, so closely that, panicking, they are having to pull themselves out of its way. They are the only ones moving. The others are still. Their stillness is sudden and compelling. In another context, they could be described as onlookers or members of an audience: their faces have the same expressions—expectant, slack-mouthed, not just judgement but the act of judging suspended or deferred—that we are used to seeing in any sporting crowd, waiting for something to happen. Or not. They, too, are waiting for something to happen. Or not.

Five men have just climbed on to the tank. There is a sixth man, out of view, about to leap on board—we see only his arms extended as he reaches out for support—and another, a seventh, still on the street, who is afraid of being left behind and is prepared to climb on from the front. The others are more circumspect and have avoided the gun turret, knowing that, to disarm the tank, they would have to do it from the rear, as though coming up behind a snake and grabbing it below the head. The men are neat and clean-shaven, except for one who has a moustache. He was the first to reach the top of the tank, although he is now being pulled back by his jacket—the seam joining the sleeves is starting to come undone—by a man who is eager to get to what he has in his hands. It is the head of the tank commander. The man with the moustache has reached down into the tank and pulled out the commander by his head: his hands cover the commander’s face—his thumbs are pressed deep into his eyes—and he is yanking him out by his chin. It is possible to complete the metaphor: having taken the snake from behind the head, the man, wanting to disarm it properly, has now reached into its mouth to pull out each one of its fangs.

A brave act? Or a crowd act?

The newspaper reports that one soldier died in Split that day. We can imagine that the fatality was the tank commander. As I write, there are accounts of terrible killings in Yugoslavia—dismemberments, a disembowelment. We are accustomed to the journalist’s scrutinies of the excesses of human conduct; they provide us with the material of our entertainments, the stuff of our newspapers, our television news, our films. We have no illusions about the potential depravities of our nature, except that rarely, despite our modern sophistication, do we admit that these depravities are genuinely our own: yours, mine. We know how the mob behaves, once in a frenzy. But, even today, the mob is not us. It is easy to dismiss an incident of crowd violence in Yugoslavia; it is an unstable state; it is not ours….


It is worth re-examining the photograph from Yugoslavia.

I am intrigued by what I continue to find. I note that the men are well-dressed—two are wearing fashionable leather jackets; one, a suit and tie—and that it is likely that they have jobs, perhaps well-paid jobs in an office or a shop. I note that they are mature adults—with handsome, attractive faces; one has a stylish haircut. I note the high calculation of their act—coming up behind the hatch and pulling out an armed man. It is bold, but thought out, the risks weighed. Studying this scene on the tank, in medias res, I can infer the order of events that led to it: that the crowd, having surrounded the tank, found itself unable to commit the next act—an unequivocally criminal one, antisocial, lawless—and then one man, the man with the moustache, scaled the tank. He was not a leader, or at least not a leader in the sense that we believe crowds to be governed by leaders. He was not there to cajole, persuade, exhort, enjoin, hypnotize or rouse, and it is unlikely that the crowd would have responded to him if he had tried. Although he will be seen by the authorities as responsible—he is there, after all, in view—he has no influence over the crowd. He is merely the first to cross an important boundary of behaviour, a tacit boundary that, recognized by everyone there, separates one kind of conduct from another. He is prepared to commit this ‘threshold’ act—an act which, created by the crowd, would have been impossible without the crowd, even though the crowd itself is not prepared to follow: yet.

Every crowd has a threshold; all crowds are initially held in place by boundaries of some kind. There are rules that say: this much, but no more. A march has a route and a destination. A picket line is precisely itself: an arrangement of points that cannot be crossed. A political rally: there is the politician, the rally’s event, at its centre. A parade, a protest, a procession: there is the police escort, the pavement, the street, the overwhelming fact of the surrounding property. The crowd can be here, but not there. There is form in an experience that tends towards abandon. I have described the relentless physicalness of the terraces and how they concentrate the spectator experience: that of existing so intensely in the present that it is possible for an individual, briefly, to cease being an individual, to disappear into the power of numbers—the strength of them, the emotion of belonging to them. And yet again: it is formlessness in a contrivance of form. Being a spectator is an insistently structured experience: there is a ticket that confers exclusivity; there are gates that govern what is possible here, inside; what is not possible there, outside. The demarcations are reinforced by the architecture itself. The face that a stadium, of uniform concrete or brick, presents to the outside world is blank and unexpressive: nothing is said, nothing admitted. The face that it presents to itself is an enclosure of faces—faces packed as tightly as bodies will allow, design at its most expressive: everything is possible here. Outside, one experience; inside, another; outside again, and the crowd experience, like the match which governs it, is terminated: there is an ending, closure, a point when the crowd can be designated as having ceased to exist. In every crowd, there is something—with form—to contain the inherently formless nature of the crowd itself, to control what is potentially uncontrollable.

And when the threshold is crossed, the form abandoned?

There in the streets of Tottenham I watched the faces, concentrating, as moment by moment everyone tried to build up the confidence or the intensity or simply the strength of feeling that would allow them to step over the high boundary that separated them from where they wanted to be. The idea was, figuratively, literally, historically, an act of transgression: to step (gressare) across (trans) what was forbidden to cross. Everything militated against crossing it. Every act of every day, every law that had been learned, respected and obeyed, enforced and reinforced, every inculcated custom of conduct, was preventing them from finally taking the step.

Again, the photograph in Split. The man with the moustache has been followed up on to the tank by five or six others. These men are not LeBon’s morbidly nervous, half-deranged masses nor are they Gibbon’s urban scum; they are ordinary, ordinarily responsible members of society, except in this one crucial respect: they have now done what is not done and cannot return to the orderly crowd standing round watching them. Having crossed this line, they are now outside the civilization they have left behind. On the face of one, the man pulling at the jacket of the one with the moustache, wanting also to get to the tank commander, is a look of terrible excitement. It is not panic or fear or anger or revenge. It is exhilaration.

There cannot be many moments in a person’s life when what is civilized ceases to be, when the structures of continuity—job, shelter, routine, responsibility, choice, right, wrong, the state of being a citizen—disappear. English, the great mapping language of imperialism, has no verb which is the antithesis of to civilize, no word to describe the act of un-making the rules that citizens have made. Our lives do not admit the prospect, are organized to exclude it. Our day consists of patterns of conduct that hold us intact. My place in a civilized society, my place as a citizen, derives from an arrangement of agreements and routines. My day is heavily patterned: I wake, pee, eat, shit, shower, dress, travel to work, write my letters, make my phone calls, pay my bills, attend to my diary, drink coffee, pee, talk, lunch, run errands, catch my train, arrive home, have dinner, drink, pee, am entertained, fuck, pee, clean teeth, sleep. I have a house, a shelter. I leave it in the morning and return to it in the evening: it is there—a material fact, not simply reassuring but reinforcing in its familiarity. I own it by virtue of an agreement between me, my place of work, the bank and the law of the land. I am a collector, not in a refined sense but a fundamental one—my photographs, my articles of clothing, my pieces of furniture (arranged so), my library of books (arranged so), my friends and loved ones (arranged so), my idea of my life made smooth and comfortable by regular use, my papers, my work, my idea of me. I surround myself with things, prop myself up with property, fill up my space with stuff: I personalize it; I make it intimate, I make it mine.

I have so many images for it—this state of being a citizen, of being civilized. I see it as a net that holds me in place, keeps me from falling. I see it as a fabric—a network of individual threads, intertwined, pulled tight—that keeps me warm, that I can wrap around both me and others. I see it as property, a house, a structure, a made thing, walls to keep out the cold, a door to keep out the unwanted, a roof to protect me from the night and its terrible undifferentiated darkness.

But I see it, too, as a weight. I see it as a barrier, an obstacle between me and something I don’t know or understand. I see it as a mediator, a filter that allows only certain kinds of experience through. And I am attracted to the moments when it disappears, even if briefly, especially if briefly: when the fabric tears, the net breaks, the house burns—the metaphors are arbitrary. This line, again; this boundary: I am compelled, exhilarated, by what I find on the other side. I am excited by it; I know no excitement greater. It is there—on the edge of an experience which is by its nature antisocial, anti-civilized, anti-civilizing—that you find what Susan Sontag describes as our ‘flair’ (the word is so attractively casual) for high temperature visionary obsession: exalted experiences that by their intensity, their risk, their threat of self-immolation exclude the possibility of all other thought except the experience itself, incinerate self-consciousness, transcend (or obliterate?) our sense of the personal, of individuality, of being an individual in any way. What are these experiences? There are so few; they are so intolerable. Religious ecstasy. Sexual excess (insistent, unforgiving). Pain (inflicting it, having it inflicted)—pain so great that it is impossible to experience anything except pain, pain as an absolute of feeling. Arson. Certain drugs. Criminal violence. Being in a crowd. And—greater still—being in a crowd in an act of violence. Nothingness is what you find there. Nothingness in its beauty, its simplicity, its nihilistic purity.


About the Violence

I will not describe the violence because what I want to depict is this precise moment in its complete sensual intensity—before chronology allows the moment to evolve into its consequences. What has occurred? What has happened when a crowd goes over the edge—or the cliff: the metaphors, though hackneyed, are revealing.
This is the way they talk about it.

They talk about the crack, the buzz and the fix. They talk about having to have it, of being unable to forget it when they do, of not wanting to forget it—ever. They talk about being sustained by it, telling and retelling what happened and what it felt like. They talk about it with the pride of the privileged, of those who have had, seen, felt, been through something that other people have not. They talk about it in the way that another generation talked about drugs or drink or both, except that they also use both drugs and drink. One lad, a publican, talks about it as though it were a chemical thing, or a hormonal spray or some kind of intoxicating gas—once it’s in the air, once an act of violence has been committed, other acts will follow inevitably—necessarily.

And how would I talk about it?

I think of consciousness as having to be aware of the present on a multiplicity of levels. The human mind is never at rest in the present; it is always roving, recalling, remembering, selecting, adding, forgetting. Sitting in this room as I write my mind is accommodating so many different activities at once: it encompasses this sentence as I write it; it has already composed the next one; it has completed this book and it has, at the same time, not completed it; it has never completed it. It accommodates the state of the kitchen; the sounds of the birds outside; the quality of the light; the items that I must address later in the day—tonight, this weekend, next month, when I am old. It has, over the time it has taken me to write this paragraph so far, addressed my relationship with the bank, with my family; noted the eye make-up that my sister wears on national holidays, recalled a death; lingered upon a sad memory. Human consciousness exists on far more levels than consciousness itself could represent. This is our reality; our humanness: the thousand million stimulants of the moment, the indiscriminate mass of motion that the mind is constantly engaging, disengaging, abandoning, retrieving.

I am attracted to the moment when consciousness ceases: the moments of survival, of animal intensity, of violence, when there is no multiplicity, no potential for different levels of thought: there is only one—the present in its absoluteness.

Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences and, for those capable of giving themselves over to it, is one of the most intense pleasures. There on the streets of Fulham, I felt, as the group passed over its metaphorical cliff, that I had literally become weightless. I had abandoned gravity, was greater than it. I felt myself to be hovering above myself, capable of perceiving everything in slow motion and overwhelming detail. I realized later that I was on a druggy high, in a state of adrenalin euphoria. And for the first time I am able to understand the words they use to describe it. That crowd violence was their drug.

What was it like for me? An experience of absolute completeness.


About a Beating

I had run into a trap. The pretence of a police ‘retreat’, the tear-gas, the hill hiding what was on the other side: it had all been a trap.

I looked round, admiring the details. The street was very narrow, and the houses were built alongside each other, without alleys or passageways. Nice touch. There were no side-streets. It was a corridor of punishment. If I carried on, I would run straight into the police waiting at the bottom; I would be killed. They would not intend to kill me—it would be an accident—but they would do so all the same. If I turned round and went the other way, I would, once I emerged out of the tear-gas, run straight into the other mob of police. I did not think they would kill me—for some reason, I was equally confident about that—but I was certain that they would injure me badly. I did not want to be injured badly. I concluded, therefore, that there was no way out. I was trapped. I was impressed, but trapped nevertheless.

Shit, shit, shit.

I looked back down at the policemen. They were still waiting, leaning forward. I recognized one, an older one, with a round face and woolly eyebrows. He was one of the uniformed superintendents, and I had watched him trying to contain the crowd as it surged down the Via Roma. His face had been memorable—it was humane, sympathetic, expressive, warm. It was a different face now; it was hard and full of hate.


I looked back down the hill. Time, in that punishing, familiar way, was starting to slow down, and I felt I was watching every step each policeman took, and, although I knew they were running with great determination, they didn’t seem to be running very fast. They seemed to be running in water. Their faces were vivid and distinct. Most of those faces were looking at me. I found myself reviewing my prospects again: go forward, get killed; go backwards, get injured. Fly? Can’t fly. Damn, I wish I could fly.

What would you do?

What I did was this: I crossed the street. I wanted to get as far away as possible from the Esso station and the thousand or so supporters crushed into its corner. That was where the police would end up; I could see that. So I crossed the street and got between two parked cars. I took one last look at the police—very close—and got down on all fours (bits of gravel pressed against the skin of my knees), covered my head and curled up into a ball on the ground. I surrendered.

I thought: I fooled them.

I thought: I’ve deprived them of the chance to beat me up. You can’t beat up someone who has surrendered and is lying on the ground.

And then I thought: Maybe they’ll truncheon me once en route to the other supporters. I had been truncheoned before; it stings, but the sting soon goes away.

I noticed three things the first time I was hit. One was the effort to ensure that I was hit powerfully. My head was down but I could tell that the policeman, rather than smacking me once on his way to the other supporters, had come to a complete stop: I could see his boots. He then pulled back his truncheon and paused, aiming his blow. I thought: he won’t do it.

And then I thought: OK, OK, so I was wrong.

Second, the target. It was my kidney. The policeman, I infer, had sized up the situation—fat man on the ground, curled into a ball, head covered with hands, cotton T-shirt rising up the back slightly—and concluded that the kidney, thus exposed, was the most obvious target: that was where he could do the greatest damage.

Third, I noticed that the blow did not sting. It hurt. It sent a sharp impulse of energy—like an electric thread—from the point of impact straight to my stomach.

There was a fourth thing. The policeman did not leave. He hit me again. This, I admit, surprised me. I thought I had fooled them. Then he hit me again. This, inevitably, surprised me less. Then he hit me again. This was no surprise at all. By the time he had hit me five times, I realized that he was not going to leave. He was going to stand over me, taking his time, lifting his truncheon, aiming it and then smashing my kidney. Each blow went to the same spot, the kidney. And each one, I found, hurt just as much as the one that came before it.

There was a fifth thing. Not only was this policeman not going to leave, but he was to be joined by a colleague. This did not make sense—why waste another policeman on me, when there were so many people still to beat up?—but the temptation must have been too great: here, on the ground, showing little resistance, was a perfectly adequate specimen, even if a bit fat. He couldn’t pass it up. The second policeman went for my head. My head was covered by my hands, and I remember thinking: although it hurts having my hands smashed up, I am grateful that I thought to cover my head with my hands because I would not want to see my head smashed up. The second policeman really wanted to see my head smashed up. I infer this from the damage he inflicted upon my hands—each knuckle was colourfully bruised, except for one, which was both bruised and broken. I believe his intention was to smash up my fingers so badly that finally I would pull my hands away—thus exposing an expanse of skull—so that he could then smash up my head. After a while, he gave up on the smashing-the-fingers tactic and took to pulling them away, grabbing my fingers with one hand, while pummelling the intermittently exposed bit of skull with his other.

The two policemen were soon joined by a colleague. It was getting pretty crowded, but there were still my shoulders. They became the concern of the third policeman. His real concern, I concluded after examining the bruising, was not the shoulders as such; he was trying to get to the collar-bone. He, too, was trying to move me around with his free hand, so he could get a clear view of his target; it was the snap-crackle-pop sound that he was after, the one the collar-bone makes when it breaks in half.

All of this was exceptionally painful, as would be expected, but my experience of it was different from that of the others who were being beaten up. Their experience was one of simple pain. For me, it was more complicated, because I knew that I would be writing about it. While being beaten up, I was thinking about what it was like being beaten up. I was trying to retain the details, knowing that I would need them later. I thought for instance that this experience was not so different from the one I had witnessed in Turin several years before when a Juventus fan, who had also surrendered, was beaten up by a number of Manchester United supporters. I thought of the fact that I could even think of this coincidence and marvelled at the human mind’s capacity to accommodate so many different things at once. And I thought about that, the fact that, while being beaten up, I could think about the human mind’s capacity to accommodate so many different things at once. I thought about the expenses I had incurred and was grateful that I was going to get something out of this trip after all. But mainly I was thinking about the pain. It was unlike anything I had known and I wanted to remember it.

The beatings went on so long that I was convinced the police would have to stop from exhaustion. But they didn’t let up, and after a while the blows blurred together and became one terribly loud crashing noise. I felt explosions of energy and, up and down my body, a long, protracted sensation of heat. It burned the way a fire burns—hot, hot, hot. I want to say it was a white heat, but only because I was seeing white. My vision was intermittently lost and I saw white flashes. These flashes seemed to emanate from the points where I was hit, as if some network of nerves had become overcharged and was carrying too much sensation.

As the beatings continued, I grew a little worried. I did not think that my kidney could sustain this much punishment and I was resigned to spending the night in an Italian hospital. I noticed that I was breathing very heavily. I was gasping for air but unable to get any. Why did I need more oxygen—what body function, in an experience so inherently passive, was requiring it? The need for air increased; it was imperative; I had to have it. Suddenly I felt that I was going to suffocate, and this made me angry and I stood up and wanted to fight back, but the moment I raised myself up I was hit across the forehead and I blocked one truncheon with my arm but was hit across the forehead again and then on my chin. I was astonished by the intensity of feeling that I saw on the faces of the policemen. It would have been impossible for me to communicate with them, to convey something powerful enough to counter the strength of their hatred. I was not a human being. I was some kind of object, some thing. Strangely, I thought of myself as a fact, one that they wanted to hurt, and I dropped back to the ground and curled up and covered my head, and one policeman went for my kidney, and another went for my head, and another went for my shoulders. I had lost interest in wanting to describe this experience, except that I briefly recall noting that I had lost interest in wanting to describe it. The experience then became something I wanted to end. But it didn’t end. I don’t know how much longer it went on. I don’t know what happened next. I had ceased to be a person writing about it. My next memory is that finally it ended. It was over. It had stopped because there was no one left to beat up.

Afterwards, I noticed little except my pain. I ran round in circles and went from one side of the street to the other. I couldn’t stand still. My body was full of a sharp electric stinging, and I was trying to shake it out but it wouldn’t go away. Slowly I started to take in what had happened.

2 thoughts on ““What is a crowd?” Excerpt from Among the Thugs by Bill Buford.

  1. Pingback: 2012 Stories : The Reading Flow | Gonzo

  2. Pingback: 2012 Stories : Beat Up Life | Gonzo

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