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Night of the Living Mob

Author: Randall D. Larson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-02-22
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Originally published in much shorter form in our August, 2008 issue.  The issue remains relevant since I wrote this: on July 4,2010 police and firefighters in Alton, Illinois responding to a fireworks complaint were attacked by a crowd of several hundred people who shot large bottle rockets at them; in August 2011, fire crews in Salford and Manchester, England, were attacked by mobs enflamed by riots; on January 9, 2012, Detroit-area firefighters were attacked by a rioting crowd after rescuing two from a house fire.  And on it goes.

I was very disturbed to read a news report last May [2008] about a mob in Milwaukee, Wisconsin who attacked a man after he accidentally hit a 3-year old girl with his car, and then the mob turned on responding firefighters when they arrived at the scene to help the girl.  

The girl reportedly ran into the street in front of the driver, who was unable to stop in time.  When he got out of his car to help her, he bore the brunt of anger from her family.   One woman reportedly even set the child down and concentrating on hitting him instead of caring for the injured toddler.   The man made the reasonable choice to leave his car running and flee the mob, partly, he later said, to save himself and partly to make sure someone called 9-1-1 for the girl.

This isn’t as isolated an example as you might think (or hope).  Do a google search for “firefighters attacked by mob” and “paramedics attacked by mob” and you will perhaps be shocked by the many returns you will get back.  England, in particular, seems to suffer, with reports from London of fire crews being attacked as often as 40 times a week, assaulted by bricks, bottles, and stones as they try to put out fires.  

“In some areas attacking fire crews has become a recreational activity, with very serious consequences,” said the fire union’s general secretary.  The British daily The Guardian reported an incident in which a hoaxer lured Cheshire firefighters to a supposed car fire and, when they arrived, began attacking them with bricks.   In May [2008], the UK’s The Northern Echo reported one fire brigade officer suffered a broken arm and another was hit over the head with a fence post by a gang of 15 thugs at an incident scene. 

Police are perhaps less susceptible to mob violence since they are armed and can usually summon lots of help quick; but they are not entirely immune, and deadly force is not always the correct action to take when countering  a mob gone wild.   A report from March 2008 told of a deputy in Lake County, Florida, attacked and beaten by a mob while investigating a loud party.   A loud party!  Interestingly, his radio reportedly got no reception so he had to call dispatch via cell phone to summon help while fighting off his attackers.  That’s a disturbing fact of another color.

But this incident in Milwaulkee really galls me.  I think anyone involved in public safety will be equally horrified.  This is an appalling example of mob mentality at its worst, a mother’s rage directed at the purveyor of an unfortunate accident, prompting a contagion of violence among the family which quickly grows out of control to the point where the rabble’s violence is directed at anyone who comes on the scene, even firefighters and paramedics arriving to help the injured child.

This is public safety’s version of the soccer riot.  It’s a George Romero gathering of the mindless undead swarming across those arriving to do good.  A feeding frenzy of unabated violence with no rational meaning and no plausible purpose.  The one who really suffers is, again, the injured girl whose wounds lay untended while medical help has to fight off the violence of her family.

I am reminded of thoughts shared with me during my parallel career as a journalist in the field of popular literature.  I’d become acquainted with a writer named Robert Bloch, best known as the author of Psycho, the novel that Hitchcock based his famous film on.  While a terrific writer of psychological thrillers and science fiction, Bloch was also a consummate observer of mankind whose sociological perception and commentary were voiced in many of his macabre mysteries and speculative short stories.  I believe he had it right when he told one interviewer that “people in mass are an enigma.  I’ve never seen anything constructive performed by a mob.  People seem to lose their humanity in a herd.  The baser drives are laid bare.”  Had he still been alive, Bloch could have been describing the Milwaukee incident with these comments.

I’m no sociologist, and my perception comes purely from what I’ve read in the media, which may or may not be telling the whole story.  But it seems to me that public safety responders and their communications colleagues have enough to deal with without worrying about being attacked by the citizenry they are sworn to protect.  I felt the Milwaukee incident had to be a fairly isolated example until I began looking into other reports, especially in England.  Disturbing. 

Another guy I got to know back in the 70s was Dr. Fredric Wertham, a renowned psychiatrist who studied human violence and wrote quite a bit about violence and the relation between violence and mass media, although he was better known as the guy whose morality crusade killed EC Comics (again, another story).  “Human violence is a disturbance, a perversion of human relation,” Wertham told me.  “It is always the result of negative factors in the personality and in the social medium in which the personality develops and functions…”  Wertham actually felt human violence could be abolished, but I’m not so optimistic, especially after reading some of these recent reports.   Violence is at its worst when it’s either justified by religious fanaticism or prompted by an outburst of mob viciousness.  We in public safety should be prompted to proceed with caution.



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