Stampedes, Pandemics, and Freedom of Assembly

On any given day, if you google the word “stampede,” you’ll find a variety of search results.

Rodeo festivals and exhibitions are often referred to as stampedes. Such events often make the local news. Particularly when they’re cancelled or postponed.

During an economic meltdown, you’ll often witness a financial stampede into safer investments. Ones deemed less risky and less volatile. Savings accounts, CDs, treasuries, money market accounts, fixed annuities, and so on and so forth.

When large groups of animals gather in herds, like during the annual migration of the wildebeest along Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, they tend to travel in a chaotic mass.

Believe it or not, human beings share similarly biologically ingrained herding instincts. When people experience “collective panic” or an “extreme impulse to physically move away from a fixed location” (for whatever reason), the vast majority will react instinctively and aggressively maneuver with seemingly reckless physical abandon.

On April 10, 2020, it might have been Good Friday in Nairobi, Kenya. But it wasn’t “a” good Friday. Thousands gathered at a food distribution center. When the crowd grew desperate and unruly, police fired tear gas, resulting in a mass panic and ensuing human stampede. The result: two fatalities and countless injuries.

Conventional wisdom is often the by-product of sociological behavior and deductive reasoning. Hence, it’s reasonable to conclude that during the social distancing campaigns of the Coronavirus pandemic, there will be fewer human stampedes. The general consensus is that when 6-7 people occupy the space of one square meter, the crowd functions as a fluid mass. Intense physical pressure makes it virtually impossible to breathe. Contrarily, if people make a conscious effort to separate themselves by 6 feet or more, they’re far less likely to get trampled or crush asphyxiated. Hmm, sounds about right.

From a constitutional perspective, when the First Amendment was conceived, the freedom of assembly clause dealt with the ability to petition the government and stage political protests. The constitution doesn’t reference viral diseases and contingency plans for worldwide pandemics.

“Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people to peaceably assemble…”

As you might expect, sometimes there’s a fine line between peaceful assembly and the government’s moral obligation to maintain a safe and secure environment. There’s a reason we call it “keeping the peace.” You just rarely hear about this stuff in the context of officially sanctioned, large, confined crowds. Stadiums, ballparks, arenas, amphitheaters, motor speedways, convention centers, churches, schools… all of them have one thing in common. They’re everywhere right here in the good ‘ol USA. Every state, every big city, every small town.

Of course, all of those aforementioned venues are temporarily shut down. Eventually though, at some point, everything will reopen and our country will get “back to business” and resume a sense of “normalcy.”

Historically, the judicial branch has found it necessary to make restrictions on freedom of speech. Because it’s not an absolute right. The most obvious example being the illegality of shouting FIRE in a crowded theater.

In our current technological age, with the mass proliferation of cell phones and recent introduction of 5G, it might be a wise idea to take a fresh look and reexamine the tenets surrounding freedom of assembly. Specifically, the hypothetical ramifications involving large crowds.

My question is a simple one… considering the predictable climate of anxiety and paranoia, what might happen if someone tries to exploit the wireless disconnect? What if someone tries to facilitate an “artificially generated stampede?” What’s the contingency plan? Hint: there is none. Where’s the mitigation effort? Hint: it doesn’t exist. What’s the current status of education and societal awareness regarding the cellular discrepancy as it applies to emergency venue evacuations? Hint: it’s zilch. It’s zero. It’s nonexistent.

I guess what I’m trying to say… is that just like every other historical disaster (acts of terrorism, pandemics, cyber-attacks, et al.), I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. However, considering the current pervasive, Orwellian atmosphere, what might happen if you inject a dollop of misinformation… or a viral blitzkrieg of cellular terror?

Let’s just say I’m not terribly confident in our government’s current approach. Not to mention the strategic, long-term vision of big business. Or in both cases… the total lack thereof.

Just sayin’.