In an era marked by escalating activism due to societal polarisation, special events attract individuals eager to leverage a prominent platform for their causes. Media reports frequently highlight protests taking centre stage at corporate, academic, sports, and cultural events. Protests can come in all shapes and sizes and at any public event. In recent times, for example, the London theatre show Les Misérables was disrupted when Just Stop Oil protestors mounted the stage during the production forcing that show to be cancelled costing the theatre £80,000.
The ‘friendly threat’ of activism poses a new challenge for security firms, and it’s gradually crept in over recent years. This new breed of protest happens seemingly without warning and needs managing carefully. In events such as theatre productions, concerts, or sports events and even as we have seen at political conferences and the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, activist protestors can disrupt and take centre stage. But the question then arises; how to do you prevent and manage such protests?
Here, Simon Alderson, CEO of First Response Group, explores the various ways in which security firms can contribute to the effective management of activist protests at events and the ways protests can be most effectively controlled.
Spot the threat
The ‘friendly threat’ that activists pose to event disruption is often incredibly difficult for security firms to spot. Although security measures maybe in place such as body searches and checkpoints, activists often can get around these, by for example, wearing protest t-shirts under clothing or concealing banners and often small items such as glitter or glue that they use in protests. A balance always needs to be struck between how intrusive searches are and therefore, especially at large events, it is almost impossible to ensure that these protestors are stopped before getting in. Furthermore, activists often employ diverse tactics, making it difficult for security teams to predict and counter their strategies effectively. From mounting stages, to running on sports fields to throwing glitter or paint, the nature of the protest and form it may take cannot always be certain, however effective security firms can mitigate these protests when they do occur with good planning.
The widespread use of social media in organising protests also amplifies the speed and reach of activist movements, making it challenging for security firms to stay ahead of developments and adapt their strategies in real-time. Part of the solution is to monitor social media conversations to spot when a protest maybe planned and therefore put mitigation techniques and protocols in place.
However, despite the difficulties, I have seen in my experience that event security has undergone significant transformation, surpassing the conventional roles of uniformed officers, access control, and incident response. Present-day event security professionals operate as strategic thinkers, employing intelligence-driven risk-based models to proactively address threats by identifying and rectifying gaps and vulnerabilities. Successful event security planning adopts a comprehensive approach, encompassing the physical safeguarding of individuals and assets from explicit threats of terrorism and violence, as well as safeguarding the brand and reputation. There are ways we can mitigate if not prevent these protests from occurring.
This approach includes meticulous protest planning, as mishandling a protest can not only overshadow the intended event but also be the sole memorable aspect, indeed, the desired purpose of the protestors.
Contingency planning for both planned and spontaneous protests is often lacking in event security strategies. Even when protest planning is included, key elements may be overlooked or inadequately addressed. Before delving into the strategies for effective protest management, it is essential for security officers to comprehend the context and motivations behind the demonstration. A comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand can aid in developing a nuanced approach that respects the rights of protestors while maintaining public safety. A well-coordinated strategy is vital for successful protest management. Security guards should collaborate with local police, emergency services, and relevant stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan that addresses potential risks and challenges. Coordination ensures a unified response and facilitates the efficient deployment of resources to maintain public safety.
Moreover, a proactive approach to security is essential in managing protests at events. Security firms can work closely with event organisers and local authorities to conduct thorough risk assessments, identifying potential flashpoints and vulnerabilities. By understanding the dynamics of the crowd and anticipating potential issues, security teams can implement preventive measures such as crowd control barriers, access control points, and security checkpoints. The goal is to create an environment that deters disruptive behaviour and fosters a sense of safety for all attendees.
Effective communication is also a cornerstone of successful event security. Security firms can facilitate open lines of communication between event organisers, police, and protest organisers when they are known to be present. Establishing a dialogue helps in understanding the expectations and concerns of all parties involved. Regular dialogue can help build trust between security officers, police, and protestors, leading to a more cooperative atmosphere. Clear communication channels can also be instrumental in disseminating information about safety measures and potential changes in the protest dynamics. Security companies can also utilise communication technology to ensure seamless coordination during the event. Timely and accurate information exchange is crucial for responding promptly to emerging situations.
It is also vital that security personnel undergo specialised training to handle protests in a professional and respectful manner. Training programmes should cover conflict resolution, de-escalation techniques, and an understanding of legal boundaries. The ability to defuse tense situations through effective communication and understanding can prevent confrontations from escalating into violence. Training programmes should focus on cultural sensitivity and the psychology of crowds, enabling security personnel to make informed decisions under pressure.
Advanced surveillance technologies can assist security firms in monitoring the crowd and identifying potential threats. CCTV cameras, drones, and other monitoring devices can be strategically deployed to provide real-time insights into the crowd’s behaviour. This allows security teams to detect and respond to unusual or suspicious activities promptly. The use of technology also contributes to the documentation of events, aiding in post-event analysis and the identification of lessons learned for future security planning.
Respecting the right to freedom of expression is a fundamental aspect of protest management. Security guards must be trained to distinguish between peaceful assembly and acts that jeopardise public safety. Proportional responses to potential threats, avoiding the use of excessive force, and protecting the rights of protestors contribute to a more positive and cooperative environment. Security firms must operate within the framework of the law and respect individuals’ rights to peaceful assembly and free expression. Understanding the legal parameters of managing protests is crucial to avoid unnecessary confrontations and legal consequences.
Striking a balance
The effective management of protests at events requires a comprehensive and balanced approach from security firms. The goal is to strike a delicate balance between maintaining public safety and upholding the principles of free expression, fostering an atmosphere where diverse voices can be heard within the bounds of civil discourse creating an environment where citizens can express their views without compromising public order. A thoughtful and respectful approach to protest management not only safeguards democratic principles but also fosters trust between security officers and the communities they serve.