The power of the crowd: From John Wesley & James Baldwin to the crime busting commuters of Waterloo station

Crime busting commuters & the mysterious power of crowds at Waterloo Station from Samira Ahmed on Vimeo.

When producer Caroline Hughes suggested we make a Something Understood programme for Radio 4 about the power of crowds I was a little wary. I’ve never liked being in a crowd; not in a pop concert or a stadium. But I’ve always loved observing their dynamics and feeling the power of emotion that comes off a crowd united in a mood and a cause. As a reporter I’ve covering the strikes and mass marches against pit closures in 1992, against the Iraq War a decade later, against government spending cuts, and in the most memorable contrast, reported for The Guardian, on a cheerful crowd of Hare Krishna devotees in Trafalgar Square a few days after the violence of the 1990 Poll Tax riots. They were protesting against the proposed closure of their temple with Hindu chanting and a handout of condensed milk sweets. The temple, incidentally, won in the end, but it took a while.


The programme draws on the power of the crowd with the help of some of those memories. But it starts in a crowd that I’m part of every day – the commuter crowd coming into London’s Waterloo station from the Home Counties. By passenger journeys through its turnstiles it’s the busiest station in the whole country. You can watch their Lowry-esque Brownian motion from the gallery over the concourse, and in the programme I recount the story of how two heroes emerged from the fluid black cloud of besuited office workers, to tackle a criminal suspect with their umbrellas and briefcases, as he ran full pelt down the concourse towards us. Once brought down and picked up by the police chasing him, I watched our two unlikely crime fighters smile, shake hands and merging back into the crowd once more.

My favourite novelist Arnold Bennett, that great observer of crowds and lover of the big metropolis, features too, with a reading from his Paris journals.

Crowd psychologist Stephen Reicher sends his students out from the University of St Andrews everywhere from football matches to the Kumbh Mela Hindu festival, that draws millions of pilgrims to a single location, to study the workings of crowds. In our conversation he challenges the psychological labelling of the “madness” of crowds, pointing out that the theory emerged at the end of the 19th century when working class men and women challenged the men in power.

BEATLES HYPNOTISM 1965La Foule – the crowd – is female in French. And we have Edith Piaf’s eponymous song about a lustful encounter in a mass of revellers. And Reicher notes how often the crowd is labelled with slurs made of femaleness: hysteria, fickleness. In more recent decades, it’s interesting with what horror the authorities have regarded the phenomenon of the female pop fan crowd since Sinatra, Elvis and The Beatles.

John Wesley faces the mob at Wednesbury

John Wesley faces the mob at Wednesbury

Of course the crowd can bring madness. I chose two remarkable accounts of mob violence: John Wesley, the 18th century founder of Methodism often faced threats for his “revolutionary” new Christianity. In his journals he  described his encounter with two different mobs sent to lynch him in 1743  in the Black Country town of  Wednesbury. He was grabbed by the hair and dragged through the streets but managed to calm both crowds and secure his release, purely by the power of his words.

The son of a preacher, James Baldwin, gives a very different and moving account of the aftermath of the 1943 Harlem riots in New York City, which broke out the day of his father’s funeral. In describing the destruction wrought, Baldwin observed how the anger of his fellow African Americans was turned inwards on its own neighbourhood. By coincidence shortly after I finished the programme the New York Times ran a fascinating piece about why, 90 years after his birth, this eloquent chronicler of identity and culture has been disappearing from American school reading lists.

You can listen to The Power of the Crowd on Something Understood Radio 4 Sunday May 11th 6am or 1130pm and on i-player after.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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