In a New Yorker article this week titled “Crush Point: When large crowds assemble, is there a way to keep them safe?” writer John Seabrook retells the chilling events of November 28, 2008.
On that date, at a now infamous Black Friday “doorbuster” sale, Long Island Wal-Mart employee Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death, losing even his tongue to the thronging crowd as they surged forward in pursuit of hot deals, slashed prices, and one-time opportunities to secure electronics and more from the world’s biggest retailer at ACT NOW discount rates.
Seabrook relays other shocking crowd deaths, numbering into the hundreds, as ever more people, drawn by promotional hype, religious pilgrimages and music festivals, crowd into small spaces for mass events whose sponsors are often ill-prepared to handle large gatherings.
In the literature on crowd disasters, there is a striking incongruity between the way these events are depicted in the press and how they actually occur. In popular accounts, they are almost invariably described as “panics.” The crowd is portrayed as a single, unified entity. But most crowd disasters are caused by “crazes”—people are usually moving toward something they want, rather than away from something they fear.
The tale of just how people die in these events—either trampled to death, or dying vertically as all of the air is squeezed out of their lungs— is graphically displayed in Seabrook’s article in an accompanying picture from a 1989 Sheffield, England soccer match where ninety-five people drew their last breaths while squeezed against a chain-link fence.
Reading these real-life horror stories, I couldn’t help feeling an equation to the building tensions in the world today, many of which have no release valve.
Our government leaders and media outlets, unwilling to talk about peak oil, prevaricating on the human causes of climate change, and slavishly devoted to corporate masters are wittingly or unwittingly creating a similar bottleneck of converging forces. As that continues, will we see more crowds moving toward justice, recompense, a refill of their denied meds, food, fuel, or answers? Will they rally to follow or denounce a leader, whether demagogue or legitimate? What kind of crowd chaos will we have then?
With a true unemployment rate hoovering near 20% in the US, and prices on everything going through the roof, a great mass of people are already getting the squeeze. Some may suffer horribly or even die as untenable economic strains slowly build unabated.
And build they will, waiting to explode. This might manifest as crowd unrest in unlikely places, or as compounding problems of socio-economic decay with a more chronic and inescapable presence.
The thing is, when those doors bust open, it’s not just one poor and lowly worker who will bear the brunt of society’s unsolved predicaments. And it’s not one isolated crowd at one single event, tragically commemorated and then forgotten as we report on the next grotesque display of our consumer fixations.
In reality, so many more things stand to get squeezed into oblivion, unleashing various forms of mass chaos, if our leaders and people alike don’t take a moment to, as the hipsters say, “check yourself before you wreck yourself.”
— Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice