Sociology of crowds

In the last analysis, some people must take responsibility for what happened at the Ultra.  Mass poverty set the stage for the tragedy, and mass media commercialism made it happen.  For the purpose of assigning liability, the legal system cannot avoid attributing motive and allocating blame. In search of better forms of solidarity, we cannot avoid pointing out its connection to poverty.

But, in another sense, the Ultra tragedy is nobody’s fault in particular. If we step back a little, we may view the killer stampede as the objective result of a phenomenon that is little understood. This is the phenomenon of the crowd.  Crowd behavior is unpredictable.  The study of crowds alerts us to the gulf that separates conscious personal behavior from delirious collective behavior.

The deaths of 74 people and the injuries sustained by hundreds of others who came to participate in the first anniversary of the noontime program “Wowowee” were accidental.  No one could have foreseen the stampede and the magnitude of the destruction it caused. If people were even minimally aware of the danger the event posed, many would not have come.  The ABS-CBN network would probably not have staged the event outside company premises.  The local government of Pasig would not have issued a permit, and the police would have sent a crowd control unit to monitor the lengthening lines of people.

I watched TV footage of the long queue at Ultra taken just hours before the stampede.  There were many poor people, mostly adult women with haggard faces. But these were not angry faces. The crowd was not a resentful or an unruly one. It was not spoiling for a fight. Indeed it was extremely docile, compared to the massive protest crowd of the poor that gathered at the Edsa Shrine on May Day 2001. Therefore I am not surprised that the guards at Ultra did not anticipate the violent stampede that broke out early Saturday morning.  Like us, they were unprepared for the rapidity with which the crowd had formed.  They could not have known the sheer irrational force a crowd could unleash once provoked.

“The crowd, suddenly there, where there was nothing before,” writes Elias Canetti in his brilliant book, “Crowds and Power”, “is a mysterious and universal phenomenon.  A few people may have been standing together – five, ten or twelve, not more; nothing has been announced, nothing is expected.  Suddenly everywhere is black with people and more come streaming from all sides as though streets had only one direction.  Most of them do not know what has happened and, if questioned, have no answer; but they hurry to be there where most other people are.  There is a determination in their movement which is quite different from the expression of ordinary curiosity.  It sees as though the movement of some of them transmits itself to the others.  But that is not all; they have a goal which is there before they can find words for it.  This goal is the blackest spot where most people are gathered.”

The same stagnant crowd that levels all distinctions while it is intact can violently disintegrate at the moment of discharge: “Everyone shoves, hits and kicks in all directions.”  It is irrelevant to ask who started it all.  “The more fiercely each man ‘fights for his life’, the clearer it becomes that he is fighting against all the others who hem him in….Neither women, children nor old people are spared: they are not distinguished from men.  Whilst the individual no longer feels himself as ‘crowd’, he is still completely surrounded by it….The individual breaks away and wants to escape from it because the crowd, as a whole, is endangered.  But, because he is physically still stuck in it, he must attack it.  To abandon himself to it now would be his ruin, because it itself is threatened by ruin.  In such a moment, a man cannot insist too strongly on his separateness.  Hitting and pushing, he evokes hitting and pushing; and the more blows he inflicts and the more he receives, the more himself he feels.  The boundaries of his own person become clear to him again.”

This morbid account summarizes what basically happened at Ultra last Saturday.  The crowd had acquired a life of its own, sweeping aside and trampling upon the bodies that stood in its path.  Gertrudes Mendoza-Grantham, a 73-year-old grandmother from Antipolo who had brought some of her children and grandchildren with her, recalls what it was like:  “The sound was really so loud.  I was shouting: Help! There are dead people here.  But they didn’t stop. The dead were stepped on.  The others pushed on, and the gate was halfopen.”

But, what is equally remarkable about the Ultra crowd – which Canetti’s analysis seems to overlook — is the presence in the middle of that collective frenzy of some individuals who kept their senses and performed acts of selflessness.  Marissa Graboso, 35, remembers a man who scooped her 7-year-old son, passed him to others, who then carried him away from the throng.  The same person also saved the children of Vilma Catabang.

The stampede occurred very fast, almost like a momentary madness descending upon a community.  It collected its toll, then left as swiftly as it came. People remember quickly coming back to their senses, pausing, and instinctively helping those who had fallen.  But for the presence of mind of the faceless heroes in that crowd, more people would have perished, especially the young children who were wrenched from their elders.

Such is the delirium that can grip a crowd.  It is a blind force that mocks all reason.  We need to understand it more so that we might begin to forgive one another and ourselves.


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