People don’t stampede – they die in crushes

Crowds at the funeral of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin

Crowds at the funeral of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin

The BBC have reported online on another tragedy from India where a number of people have been crushed in a crowd, this time attending a funeral. The report states:

Funeral stampede kills 18 in Indian city of Mumbai

At least 18 people have been killed and more than 40 injured in a stampede in India’s western city of Mumbai.

Local officials say the incident happened when thousands of mourners gathered at the home of a Muslim spiritual leader who died on Friday.

Reports suggest people were crushed after the gates of the house where the body of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin were kept were closed.

There’s more and better information from the UK’s Independent newspaper:

Mumbai police commissioner, Satyapal Singh, said the tragedy happened when the gates leading to the spiritual leader’s house were closed. Many people were crushed with no way to escape.

Mr Singh said crowd management around the Syedna’s house was poor, and the police were badly overwhelmed by the huge number of mourners. “We didn’t think the crowd would be so great,” he added. “Also, it’s an emotional occasion when police cannot take harsh measures to push back the crowd.”

Most of the deaths were due to suffocation, according to reports. “The roads were narrow … it led to suffocation. It was difficult for the people to breathe. Some people fell unconscious. Gates were closed, after which some people fell on each other,” Mr Singh was quoted as saying in The Times of India.

These crushing injuries arising from too many people in too small a space, with no way out and the pressure of more people behind them, are exactly the same as caused the deaths and injuries in the Hillsborough disaster of 15th April 1989, in which 96 people were killed and 766 injured.

What is reported in this present case is crushing injuries and deaths caused by too many people in too small a space. People killed or hurt in crowds are injured by crushing, or crowd pressure, or trying to flee violence, or running to get to the excitement. None of this is “stampeding”. The BBC use the word predominantly about dark-skinned people or foreigners and would easily recognise the inappropriateness of the term, say, for the Hillsborough victims.

The dictionary on my desk (the Penguin English Dictionary 2002) gives the following definitions:

stampede1 n 1 a wild headlong rush or flight of frightened animals. 2 a sudden mass movement of people.

stampede2 v 1 to run away or rush in panic or on impulse. 2 to panic (animals) into rushing headlong, or (people) into doing something precipitately.

People are not mindless animals, and I, personally, don’t like the projection of animal behaviours onto human beings when doing so over-simplifies the facts or our understanding of them. Least of all I like it when simplistic and dramatic words are used as journalistic attention-grabbers which assume the ignorance of their readers.

Using the term “stampede” also blames the innocent victims rather than the lack of crowd control, which is the responsibility of civil authorities and event organisers – real problems are ignored once the innocent can be blamed.

Crowd dynamics are complex, but every fule no that too many people in too small a space, or a crowd’s movement being impeded by a barrier, will result in people getting hurt. None of this is stampeding.

Arguably, there are cases where crowds are running. Think of fans trying to get to the front of a concert or shoppers into the January sales once the doors are open. They’re not stampeding; they are rushing to get to the front. Or people running away from violence or danger; that’s called “fleeing” and the verb gives some indication of rational behaviour in response to a threat. In cases like these, or where a moving crowd cannot stop for the pressure of the people behind, anyone who falls will likely be trampled and lost. But, again, it’s not stampeding.

Fundamentally, the western media uses the term simplistically to describe the behaviour of large numbers of brown people, preferably in India where the media like to characterise crowd tragedies in this way. That makes it racist language that they would not choose to use for white people in similar circumstances.

I’ve written about this previously, without complaining to the BBC or other media. This time I did contact the BBC and will let you know if I get a response. UPDATED 03/10/2015: Of course I didn’t get a response.

(The photograph is taken from the Independent’s website where it is unattributed)

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One thought on “People don’t stampede – they die in crushes

  1. Pingback: The Hajj disaster and why it’s not a stampede | Patrick Mackie

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