September 3, 2001
Video Killed the Riot Squad- There was a time, before television and the Internet, when riot control was a lot easier. Most rioters were amateurs and troops, regular police or special riot police generally had little trouble dispersing a mob A few lines of club wielding cops, some tear gas, maybe a water cannon, and it was all over. But then TV came along and potential rioters began to get educated. Seeing what they were up against beforehand, radicalized students began to use their talents to develop new techniques that would trip up the riot police. Unofficial manuals on "how to riot and win" were prepared in many nations and passed around. With the internet, these documents are widely available. This led to an arms race between rioters and riot police.
Over the last thirty years, this has escalated to the point where riot control is a full time job in many nations. France has fifteen thousand riot police in 63 units around the country. These lads are called out about three times a month for one major demonstration or another. But there are riots and there are riots. Most of the action in France is political protests or sports related mayhem. There are semi-pro rioters who travel around from one event or another and these are the lads (the vast majority are men) who provide the riot police with the most trouble. These guys will often come equipped with helmets, gas masks, gasoline bombs, rocks, sling shots and violent intent. The police call them agitators and the terms is pretty accurate.
Normally, the riot police want to deal with a violent situation by using as little force as possible. Politicians don't like to turn on the TV and see riot police citizens. But the agitators know that if they can lay enough hurt on the riot police, they will provoke a charge on the crowd. This will create great photo opportunities and encourage some in the crowd to join in the violence.
The best equipped riot police are well equipped. Typically each man will have a riot helmet with neck protector and visor (with a fluid seal to prevent noxious stuff from dripping onto the face.) The helmet often contains a radio (receive only for most of the troops.) They wear waterproof flame resistant overalls or uniform, to provide protection from gasoline bombs. They have padded high wrist riot gloves to give some protection from thrown objects or clubs wielded by rioters. They wear high leg combat boots with steel toecap and anti-stab soles (as protection from sharp objects on the ground.) They usually carry a gas mask as well. Over the uniform are worn shin, knee, forearm, elbow and groin protectors. Flack jackets are often worn for additional protection. They carry a transparent, shatter proof shield. Most riot police will be armed with a riot baton (a thin, three foot club, reinforced with metal). Plastic handcuffs, pepper spray, a high intensity flashlight, smoke and stun grenades are also carried by most troops. Some are armed with shot guns firing rubber bullets. Other have tear gas guns. Some snipers will be armed with rifles, if it is suspected that there will be firearms in the crowd. Armored vehicles with water cannon and searchlights are also found in some countries.
The tactics used are several thousand years old. Basically, it's several lines of riot police advancing shoulder to shoulder to force back the crowd. They use a special step, bringing the right foot down hard, and then making another noise by dragging the left foot a bit. The sound is unnerving. Some riot police add another ancient sound effect by rhythmically banging their batons on their shields before they begin marching. When troops are used for this sort of formation, they sometimes advance with fixed bayonets. The sight of a wall of soldiers advancing with bayonets on the end of their rifles, plus the thud and scrape of their boots must cause the crowd to flee. If not, the troops will rarely use their bayonets on unarmed civilians. Thus the switch to batons. Clubbing civilians is rather more acceptable than sticking them with bayonets.
An increasingly frequent problem arises when the crowd will not flee. Over the last few decades, many agitators have equipped themselves for fighting. The hard core rioters will throw rocks and gasoline bombs to try and break the police line. If they can do that, then some will go in with their own wooden batons or iron bars and fight it out with the police. It often gets worse, when men with guns move among the unarmed civilians (especially women and children) and then open up when they are so close they can't miss. This is a particularly popular tactic with Somalis. In one case, two dozen UN peacekeepers died as a result of this sort of thing. Palestinians sometimes use this approach as well. But the Palestinian gunmen have to be careful, as the Israelis know what's coming and have snipers ready to take out armed men in the crowd and Israeli riot police use rubber, plastic and real bullets freely if it appears there might be a fire fight.
The solution to this is to develop a non-lethal weapon that will disperse a crowd before they get within a hundred meters of the riot police. Beyond a hundred meters, gunmen in a crowd have a hard time getting a good shot at the distant riot police. Only the United States has such a device (a directed energy "searchlight" that causes a burning sensation in the skin of rioters) to deal with this, and they refused to sell it to Israel. So the Israelis are developing their own device that produces a similar effect.
Rioters, especially those driven by political or religious beliefs, are quick to adapt to new weapons, equipment and techniques used by riot police. This has produced something of an arms race as governments put more effort into developing more novel and (hopefully) effective "non-lethal weapons." But, we should all remember that, for thousands of years, no new weapon has been around too long before someone came up with a way to counter it. Television and the Internet have speeded up that process, leaving the riot police still using the ancient "get their first with the most" tactic, and battle tactics that have changed little since the bible was written.