I managed the front-of-house staff at a 5,000-seat arena in Iowa, and I understand that security at the Capitol is a lot different than security at an arena — or at least, I had hoped it was. After all, the Capitol Police have a $460 million budget and 2,000 sworn officers — which include both a bomb squad and a separate hazmat unit, an intelligence unit and a special unit just for protecting VIPs — as well as a small arsenal that contains riot gear, crowd control gear and plenty of weapons. At most events, I had some signs, a small staff and some lightweight gates I could use to essentially remind people where they weren't supposed to be.
That’s why I was floored on Wednesday when, glued to my television, I saw police in some areas of the U.S. Capitol using little more than those same mobile gates I had — the ones that look like bike racks that can hook together — to try to keep the crowds away from sensitive areas and, later, push back people intent on accessing the grounds. (A new fence that appears to be made of sturdier material was being erected on Thursday.) That’s the same equipment and approximately the same amount of force I was able to use when a group of fans got a little feisty and tried to get backstage at a Vanilla Ice show.
A photo taken after the building was breached showed one of those gates, adorned with a flag supporting President Donald Trump, later left in a hallway of the Capitol; other videos showed them being carried and used to effect the breach itself. That was no surprise to me: They aren’t all that heavy, and they’re designed as more of a suggestion than anything. They’re intended for crowds that understand and plan to follow basic rules; the gate means, "Do not go past this point." They’re certainly not going to keep someone from going past any given point if people think they’re beyond or above the rules.
In my case, not a single concert I worked, ever, regardless of the act or the size of the crowd, required more than 50 security personnel, because you can generally expect crowds to behave in typical, predictable ways. I'm not revealing any trade secrets of crowd control when I say that not even the most extreme security plans call for a 1-to-1 ratio of police to protesters or security to attendees.
Many members of the mob who marched on the Capitol clearly telegraphed their intentions in advance; some, terrifyingly, had even professed they were ready to die for the cause.
There’s not ever going to be enough police or security at any event to stop people if they all act in unison; if enough people want to get to Vanilla Ice at the same time, they’re going to get to Vanilla Ice. Social constructs and basic decency, not lightweight security gates, are what hold everyone except the outliers back in a typical crowd.
But the Capitol Police shouldn’t have been expecting a typical crowd. Their reported plans, or lack thereof, indicate they were expecting a pretty large percentage of this group to act with a basic respect for the rules and the minimal number of officers there to enforce them. But why?
Many members of the mob who marched on the Capitol clearly telegraphed their intentions in advance. Some, terrifyingly, had even professed they were ready to die for the cause. Importantly, some professed this before they arrived. And yet, the Capitol Police appeared to plan for a mostly courteous crowd (and local law enforcement continue to say they had no idea what was openly being planned).
The failure of those in charge to realize this crowd would be destructive was astounding.
It's truly unclear what those in charge of security were thinking when they opted for a minimal security contingent in the midst of such an important event.
Although the staffing at the Capitol appeared to be disastrously light regardless of the crowd size — Trans-Siberian-Orchestra-concert light — from my perspective as an event planner, the issue at hand that should have driven more of the security protocols was less the size of the crowd and more the very specific brand of “the rules don’t apply to me” attitude that some of the attendees embraced. It’s a scary trait in a person that gets exponentially scarier when a large proportion of a crowd is made up of those outliers and others are willing to follow their lead.
Though there are stereotypes, especially in the security community, about who embodies the supposed rule-breakers, any good event planner will tell you it's not always who your internalized prejudices think it's going to be.
Take an example from my 5,000-seat arena in Iowa — and the ushers with whom I worked. Many of them were retirement age and there for either the music or to serve their community of music lovers. I never had a problem finding volunteers to work as ushers during the heavy metal shows, even though heavy metal music was decidedly not my ushers' thing. But they didn’t mind working those shows because heavy metal fans, as a whole, listened to the ushers' instructions: When the ushers told people not to stand in the aisles, people stopped standing in the aisles. Heavy metal fans, in fact, displayed a certain amount of courtesy toward each other without being told, making it a generally pleasant experience to work those shows.
But many ushers outright refused to be scheduled for country shows, even if they far preferred the music. They'd learned that some people would come prepared (or even determined) to get kicked out — like the guy who started grabbing at everyone around him, just because he wanted to, or any number of people who shouted strings of expletives at my gentle, gray-haired staff when asked to obey the rules, emboldened rather than scorned by the crowd around them. Even if the country music crowd dressed more like my ushers' friends and family, experience showed them they were better off working a Disturbed show.
The staffing at the Capitol appeared to be disastrously light regardless of the crowd size — Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert light.
When there are enough outliers in a crowd, it throws the normal dynamics of crowd control off; everyone in my business knows this. Citizens tend to hold each other to certain standards — which is why my 40,000-person town does not have 40,000 police officers, and why the 8.3 million people of New York City aren't policed by 8.3 million police officers.
Social norms are the fabric that make an event run smoothly — and, really, hold society together. There aren’t enough police in your town to handle it if everyone starts acting up at the same time.
But given the clear furor among a contingent of Trump supporters over the election results, the violent incidents at the December protest over those election results and the clearly stated intention of some people to engage in wanton destruction and violence on Wednesday as part of their protest, it's truly unclear what those in charge of security were thinking when they opted for a minimal security contingent in the midst of such an important event. They must have assumed, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the crowd would police itself; that assumption about conservative protesters must clearly never be made again.
But having made it once, they've also increased their risks for every event in the near future. Their weak spots, chokepoints, blind spots and backup lines of defense — as well as their faulty assumptions about what kinds of crowds they can trust to follow the rules — are now clear to anyone who wishes to make a more concerted assault on the seat of our democracy.