On October 1, 2022, riots in the football stadium in Malang, Indonesia, turned into a deadly tragedy that according to official sources killed more than 130 people. The finger was quickly pointed at the police, as their actions were said to be the cause of the conflict. But is it really that simple? We can only learn from this disaster if we gain insight into all the underlying factors that played a role.
In most disasters and crises, a certain event can be identified that directly gave rise to the incidents that followed. For example:
– Fire in Club Colectiv in Bucharest (Romania) in 2015, lit by the band’s pyrotechnics, caused the ceiling and a pillar to catch fire and produce heavy smoke, a disaster that killed 64 people.
– A crowd crush on New Year’s Eve in 2015 in Shanghai was incited by crossflows on a stairway leading up to a viewing platform. This resulted in people falling down the stairs and collapsing into each other. 36 people lost their lives.
– The organization behind the Love Parade in Duisburg in 2010 states that the incorrect police intervention in the congested crowd entering the site was the trigger for 23 fatalities.
In all cases, further investigation shows that more factors than just the immediate cause contributed to the gravity of the incident. At the Colectiv nightclub, fire investigation showed that the club only had one exit, extremely flammable soundproofing materials, and overcrowding. As a result, strict inspections were conducted at a national level.
In Shanghai, crowd control concerns had been expressed leading up to the event resulting in the cancellation of at least one of the light-show festivities. However, word had not reached all the revelers, so people still showed up.
The Love Parade has opened the eyes of many to the risks associated with free events that have great appeal. The risky design of the walking routes to the event location is also often used as a learning point from this drama (and there are many more).
About cause and guilt
When we focus on direct causes of a disaster, the problem seems simple and therefore the solution could also be simple. Media reports then quickly point to the “culprits” that can be identified and a day or so later it is no longer news. What we remember is what we have heard in the media. Prof. dr. Dr. G. Keith Still points out that in disasters involving a crowd, the crowd itself is often blamed by mentioning deaths by a “stampede” in reports. In basic terms, a stampede is a herd of runaway animals responding to their flight reflex and spare nothing and no one. For example, on May 31, 2022, various media spoke about a “Church fair stampede” in Nigeria, in which 31 people were said to have been killed. The cause was attributed to the visitors who arrived too early because they wanted a good spot at this “shop for free” charity event. However, the competitive behavior of these visitors partly seems to be triggered by the nature and structure of the event.
Disasters like this often have many underlying causes. Research after disasters regularly shows that these causes have been overlooked in advance, under-recognized or perhaps sometimes consciously accepted. This root cause approach is easy to understand if we take the example of the Titanic. What killed so many people in the Titanic disaster? The immediate cause was, of course, a collision with an iceberg. But there was much more to it. The ship was sailing too fast, had too few lifeboats and life jackets, the weather was bad, a warning about the iceberg was ignored and in the end, in all this confusion, a fatal steering error was made. How, then, could these conditions arise on a ship that was the most luxurious cruise liner of its time? It actually all started with the idea of the ‘unsinkable ship’: “God himself could not sink this ship!”.
Malang, 1 October 2022: tear gas
During the match between Arema and Peresebay Surabaya, on October 1, 2022, at the Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, East Java, things went completely wrong. After supporters stormed the field in anger at their team’s loss, police intervened with tear gas. A fact-finding team of government officials, football experts and security experts concluded on October 14, 2022 that the police’s use of tear gas was the leading cause of death in this stadium disaster, which killed more than 130 people. Reports have previously stated that the World Football Association FIFA has banned the use of tear gas in football stadiums (which is incorrect, because FIFA can at most make an “urgent recommendation” to the public authorities, but has no direct control). Yet this argument was widely used here. This quickly pointed the finger at the police as “culprit” for this disaster.
What we don’t know yet is whether this tear gas itself was so deadly, or was mainly a trigger that created this disaster. The composition of the gas is currently still being researched. In any case, the work of the research team has already yielded more insights. For example, the police deployed on the spot would have had no knowledge about not using tear gas in these circumstances (in a full football stadium with a certain wind direction and force). The tear gas would also have been used abundantly and indiscriminately.
Nevertheless, it can be concluded with caution that the tear gas itself was in any case not the only cause of death during this tragedy. For example, the Guardian already indicated on 2 October that many victims were crushed when rushing to one exit. This gives rise to the expectation that, as with other crowd incidents, many victims probably also fell here due to falling over, compression, and the loss of the ability to breathe. According to Reuters news agency, the police themselves also indicate that the cause of the deaths lies in the narrow passages through which people had to flee. Reuters also indicates that the stadium would have admitted more visitors than was allowed. The investigation team itself points to the national football association: it would have been negligent in checking compliance with the rules.
According to Reuters, this association has also recently announced that it will form a task force to improve crowd control and safety measures in stadiums. In contrast to Europe, Indonesia, still has fenced grandstand sections, which can result in an explosive mix of compression and reduced escape route capacity when overcrowded, with a looming crowd disaster.
The use of corrosive substances such as tear gas in a crowd has often resulted in casualties. Another well-known example is that of the Public Viewing of the Champions League final on June 3, 2017 in Piazza San Carlo, in the center of Turin. Here, a gang of pickpockets are said to have injected a corrosive substance into the public in order to cause panic and use the opportunity to rob people. Three people were killed and more than 1,600 others were injured. Many were injured by being pushed over and falling into the broken glass that lay on the ground. According to various media, the reaction in the crowd at the time was particularly intense because people thought it was a terrorist attack. Also here, several factors played a role.
Insight and understanding
The disaster at the Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang deserves a thorough analysis. Only if insight is also gained into the underlying causes can we really understand what could have gone so wrong here and what can be learned from it. Unfortunately, examples such as the stadium disaster at Hillsborough (1989) and the Love Parade in Duisburg (2010) show that the insights into how various factors played a role in the occurrence of the disaster do not always lead to a very clear picture of the question of guilt. Yet every factor that has contributed to such disasters deserves a thorough evaluation. Because every factor that can be removed could possibly prevent such a serious turnover in the future. We will continue to follow the developments!
In summary, it appears from the public sources surrounding the stadium disaster in Malang that the attention in further analyses will have to be focused on:
- The safety aspects of safety in football (including crowd management)
- The methods of tackling supporter violence
- The strategic and tactical action of the police in a packed stadium
- Training the police in “football policing”
- Close access control to prevent overcrowding
- The escape route capacity of stadiums
- Checking compliance with the rules of the national and international football association