The Heroism of Crowds

My friend, Aaron, took a number of his high school students to the inauguration of Barack Obama this week.  He called last night to talk to me about what he observed as heroism in groups.  I asked him to write something up, and he did.  Coincidentally my friend, Chuck, asked me yesterday what I though about the idea of heroic nations.  Hopefully he’ll send me something too.  Read Aaron’s report below the photo.

Inauguration Crowd

I had traveled throughout the morning to reach the Silver Gate by 5:30am. Once there I noticed (and this would hold true for the remainder of the day) that people were unusually upbeat about being crammed together. Every time the crowd moved or swayed (similar to a school of fish) people would make small amusing statements about our current state. One would realize that they were certainly in someone else’s personal space, and that would be the impetus to becoming acquainted with your neighbor.

While in line, I was surrounded by people of different race, color, creed, gender, nationality, political affiliation, and age. Without exception this was never a cause for stress between us, but rather it proved to be a great reason to learn more about who else was there for this occasion. I specifically met people from Sacramento, Hartford CN, Georgia, and Chicago all while standing in various lines.

Throughout the day I saw three events occur that were less than harmonious. But during and after each event, the self-regulating crowd proved to be the victor. One of these events stands out like a Blue Whale in the Mojave Desert. While leaving the inauguration I witnessed an older African American woman smack a sucker out of a 10-12 year-old boy’s mouth for apparently stepping on her toe. Needless to say this infuriated the mother of the boy, and all three parties began exchanging words. The older woman was swearing at the boy for “kicking her”. The boy was using racial slurs at the woman, and the mother was cursing back at the older woman. But what happened next was astounding. Strangers in the crowd worked their way into this situation, and began to mediate the conflict. A complete stranger stepped in and said: “This is a day of celebration for all of us, we are to be happy…” She then began to inform the older woman that she needed to apologize. Without any prompting another stranger stepped in and began to work with the mother and the boy. Very quickly all parties were encouraged by complete strangers to swallow any ill will they had, and apologize to the correct person. In addition to this, another stranger was speaking on a very child friendly level about why one should not use the language the child had. After this, everyone involved continue to swim through the crowd on their way to the exit.

It is because of events like this, that the Inauguration of Obama was especially great. Millions of people crowded into a very small area, for a very long time, on a very cold day; and yet these people kept their spirits high, their smiles on, and more importantly the reason for being at this location in mind. In every one of the events of potential tribulation that I witnessed, the reason behind becoming the bigger person was the fact that we ALL were there to witness in joy the Inauguration of our Nation’s first African American President.

Almost everyone on this day put the importance of the occasion, before himself or herself. They were more concerned about the larger issues at hand, and not as concerned about personal comfort. They put these things on the back burner for a few hours in order to be part of a group that was joyously watching a historic occasion.

People were taking action when others started to become overly concerned with their own interests, or when others were on the verge of causing problems. Strangers would step in to stop events from escalating without full knowledge of the preceding actions. The crowd would work through positive, nonviolent means to try and resolve any dispute. Some things people in the crowd did varied from attempting to mediate a peace, or simply offering to move into a space between two people who were feuding, thus causing the intervening bystander to have a slightly less advantageous viewing point.

Finally, everyone who attended this Inauguration assumed some level of risk. The trip into DC on bus, plane, and other means put 2 million people onto a select few roads. The Metro was absolutely packed with people. Standing for 8+ hours in a crowd of strangers is not the easiest or most delightful thing to do on a day where temperatures never rose above freezing. But these people all did it for the sake of the Inauguration. Even at a concert or comedic show, there are those who need to be removed for incorrect action, and even violence. From what I saw on this day, and from what the news agencies have reported there were none of things on the day of the Inauguration. The crowd was self-regulating, self-mediating, and more importantly concerned about the good of the whole, rather than the desires of the individual.

This day was absolutely amazing, and I still do get a bit of a rush when I think back to how it felt to be in a crowd of people, who together, simply wished for at least one day to enjoying having hope for the future.

What do you think of the small events Aaron saw?  Is it possible for a crowd (as a single entity) to be doing the small good things that are common among heroes?  I found his story fascinating.  As he said, there were a few other instances of the same phenomenon.

4 Responses to The Heroism of Crowds

  1. Katie January 23, 2009 at 7:04 pm #

    Aaron, this is the best account of the day that I have read! I am so glad that you were there, looking at the event through the heroism lens. In the school where I am observing, I saw similar attitudes and actions of the part of students on Inauguration Day. During their morning MLK Day presentation, students were raptly attentive. While the principal did verbalize that there were not be any behavior problems on “this day,” I believe the weight of the day was felt by the students even without that reminder. The phenomenon that you observed in the crowd made waves in pockets across the nation as people put their trifling arguments aside to witness the moment together.

  2. Christopher January 23, 2009 at 7:59 pm #

    I got goose bumps just reading that! This whole week has felt like a dream.

    Thanks Aaron and Matt for sharing this. I love that picture too by the way.

  3. Chris January 27, 2009 at 12:18 pm #

    Aaron’s keen observations are reflective and evidence of a wealth of research focused on the power of group resonance. Richard Boyatzis, one of my mentors and author of a wonderful book titled, “Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion” highlights the neurological implications on what we could certainly categorize as group heroism. Aaron’s experiences are actually a much more comprehensive example of this process because that day made it easy for others to connect through mindfulness, hope and compassion which was sparked not only by an historic event, but more importantly a President who is able to articulate a vision to glean the focus of others. The omnipotence of this unified feeling and focus was so strong that it surfaced optimism and hope as the norm making the more negative situations like the random parent/son argument recognized not only as out of the ordinary but a potential detractor of everyone’s mindfulness. This is no different than movements, missions, or the every Sunday gathering at Church. I think the connection to Matt’s study on heroic behavior is blindingly obvious and viable for further study.

  4. Matt Langdon January 27, 2009 at 6:13 pm #


    I’m very interested in hearing more about group resonance. I really think heroism is contagious, so I’d like to see how that meshes.