Transcript

158:

Mob Mentality
Transcript

Originally aired 05.05.2000

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And to start today's program, I just have to play you a recording of this television ad from Canada, an ad so popular in Canada that people chant this ad in bars. It's made the front page of every major paper in Canada, all their nightly newscasts, the Canadian heritage minister played it for a group of Americans in Boston this week to explain Canadian cultural identity. In the ad, a young man walks onto a stage before a huge maple leaf flag, goes to a microphone, taps it meekly, and begins.

Canadian Man

Hey. I'm not a lumberjack, or a fur trader, and I don't live in an igloo or eat blubber or own a dog sled. And I don't know Jimmy, Sally, or Susie from Canada, although I'm certain they're really, really nice. I have a prime minister, not a president. I speak English and French, not American. And I pronounce it about, not aboot. I can proudly sew my country's flag on my backpack. I believe in peacekeeping, not policing, diversity, not assimilation, and that the beaver is a truly proud and noble animal. The tuque is a hat, a chesterfield is a couch, and it is pronounced zed, not zee, zed. Canada is the second largest land mass, the first nation in hockey, and the best part of North America. My name is Joe and I am Canadian.

Ira Glass

Near the end of the ad, the product flashes on screen, Molson's Beer, which in Canada is not called Molson's. It's called Canadian. Brett Marchand is vice president for marketing for Molson's Canadian, and even he is surprised at the reaction to the ad.

Brett Marchand

People are doing things like standing and cheering in theaters when it's been shown. We played it in hockey arenas, and 20,000 people have cheered like they've just won the Stanley Cup. If you've been in one of those arenas or been in a theater and seen how people generally have reacted, you can't help but think, gee, something's going on here. There is now spoofs all over the place. In fact, there was a double-page spread in one of the national newspapers yesterday that had a picture of our actor in the middle of it and written up spoofs all around him.

Ira Glass

I think someone forwarded one to me, it's I am Pakistani. Hello, my mom doesn't have a dot on her forehead and my dad doesn't wear a turban. I don't live in a grass hut or eat curry every day or own a flying carpet. And I don't know Rabindra, Priya, or Akshay, though I'm sure they're very, very nice. I have a military dictator, not a prime minister. On and on and on, down to, Pakistan's the second-largest safe haven for the politically displaced, the first nation of cricket, and the most corrupt part of South Asia. My name is Khan and I am Pakistani.

Of course, every ethnic group in Canada is weighing in with its own version of the ad. People feel misunderstood, people feel overlooked, and to have a call to arms that, on the one hand, gives you the thrill of being in a cheering mob yelling we are number one, while, on the other hand, is simply just kind of a joke, that is a very appealing package. You get the pleasure of being in a mob without the threat of mob violence, of rising totalitarianism, of rampaging and rioting. There is a deep part of most of us that takes pleasure in being in a crowd, a real crowd, I mean. A mass of people that is thinking and feeling the same thing at the same time, jumping to its feet as one unit, yelling for a cause, or a team, or a band, or whatever. Today on our program, the pleasure of being in a mob, the terror of being in a mob altogether.

Our program today in three acts. Act One, Among the Thugs. Bill Buford joins a mob as it riots, and he writes, I felt weightless. I felt nothing would happen to me, I felt anything might happen to me. Act Two, One Tin Soldier Rides Away. What happens when a teacher in a small town in Connecticut turns a class of seventh graders into an angry mob on the rampage? Act Three, The Hissing of Winter Lawns, in which Alix Spiegel explains how a 21st century mob may be different than its predecessors. Stay with us.

Act One. Among The Thugs.

Ira Glass

Act One. In 1984, Bill Buford set out to try to understand the soccer hooligans who were rioting in ways large and small on a regular basis after soccer matches in England. He drank with them, went to matches with them, got to know them, and his account of his time with them, called Among the Thugs, is this remarkable document. As Buford points out, since ancient times many people have written about the behavior of mobs, but they were almost always outsiders, frightened observers standing outside the action. Few people have written from the perspective of someone caught up in the violence. And by the time he is done, you understand that the thrill of being in a rampaging mob is as hardwired into us, as basic to us as a species, as the ability to love.

Bill Buford agreed to come onto our program and read an excerpt from his book, a scene in which he goes with 257 fans of the soccer team Manchester United on a trip to Italy to see their team play. There is a phenomenal amount of drinking. Some supporters are arrested. On the buses to the stadium, they urinate out the windows, they moon the Italians, they scream obscenities at the Italians, they threw bottles at the Italians. And finally, an Italian boy responds a way that I think many people would after this kind of assault. He answers in kind. He throws a stone back, one stone.

Bill Buford

The effect on those inside the bus was immediate. To be, suddenly, the target came as a terrible shock. The incredulity was immense. Those bastards, one of the supporters exclaimed, are throwing stones at the windows. And the look on his face conveyed such urgent dismay that you could only agree that a stone-throwing Italian was a very bad person, indeed. The presumption-- after all, a window could get broken, and someone might get hurt-- was deeply offensive.

And everyone became very, very angry. Looking around me, I realized that I was no longer surrounded by raving, hysterically nationalistic social deviants. I was now surrounded by raving, hysterically nationalistic social deviants in a frenzy. And anything that came to hand-- bottles, jars of peanuts, fruit, cartons of juice, anything-- was summarily hurled through the windows. Those bastards, the lad next to me said, teeth clenched, lobbing an unopened beer can at a cluster of elderly men in dark jackets. Those bastards.

When the buses of the United supporters pulled into the cool evening shadow cast by the Stadio Comunale, a large crowd was already there waiting for the English. Somehow the match started, was played, ended. And while it could be said that there was no single serious incident, it could also be said that there was no moment without one. Things were coming at us from the air. Not just bottles and pieces of fruit, but also long sticks, the staff of the event's flags, firecrackers, and smoke bombs. Several people were hurt, and one supporter was taken away to the hospital.

And then when the match ended, everything started moving at great speed. Everything would continue to move at great speed for many hours. I remember that riot police started kicking one of the supporters who had fallen down. I remember hearing that Sammy had arrived and then coming upon him. He was big, well-dressed with heavy, horn-rimmed glasses that made him look like a physics student, standing underneath the bleachers, his back to the match, an expensive leather bag and a camera hanging over his shoulder, having just come from France by taxi. I remember some screaming. There had been a stabbing, I didn't see it. And with the screaming, everyone bolted, animal speed, instinct speed, and pushed past the police and rushed for the exit. But the gate into the tunnel was locked and the United supporters slammed into it. It was impossible to get out.

Throughout this last period of the match, I had been hearing a new phrase. It's going to go off. It's going to go off, someone said, and his eyes were glassy as though he'd taken a drug. If this keeps up, I heard another say, then it's going to go off. And the phrase recurred. It's going to go off, it's going to go off, spoken softly. But each time it was repeated, it gained authority. Everyone was pressed against the locked gate and the police arrived moments later. The police pulled and pushed in one direction and supporters pushed in another, wanting to get out. It was shove and counter-shove. It was crushing, uncomfortable. The supporters were humorless and determined. It's going to go off. People were whispering. I heard, watch out for knives. Zip up your coat. I heard, fill up your pockets. I heard, it's going to go off. Stay together. It's going to go off.

I was growing nervous and slipped my notebook into my shirt up against my chest and buttoned up my jacket. A chant had started. United, United, United. The chant was clipped and sure. United, United, United. The word was repeated, United. And through the repetition, its meaning started to change, pertaining less to a sporting event or a football club and sounding, instead, like a chance of unity, something political. It had become the chance of a mob. United, United, United, United. And then it stopped. The gate had been opened and the English supporters surged forwards. And when they emerged, they came out very fast with police trailing behind, trying to keep up. They came as a mob with everyone pressed together, hands on the shoulders of the person in front, moving quickly, almost at a sprint, racing down the line of police-- helmet and shields and truncheons-- a peripheral blur.

The line of police led to the buses. But just before the bus door, someone in front veered sharply and the mob followed. The police had anticipated this and were waiting. The group turned again, veering in another direction and rushed out into the space between the two buses. It came to a sudden stop. And I slammed into the person in front of me, and people slammed into me from behind. The police had been there as well. There were about 200 people crushed together, but they seemed able to move in unison like some giant, strangely coordinated insect. A third direction was tried. The police were not there. There were no police anywhere.

What was the duration of what followed? It might have been 20 minutes. It seemed longer. It was windy and dark and the trees, blowing back and forth in front of the street lamps, cast long, moving shadows. I was never able to see clearly. I knew to follow Sammy. The moment the group broke free, he had handed his bag and camera to someone, telling them to give them back later at the hotel. Then Sammy turned and started running backwards. He appeared to be measuring the group, taking in its size. The energy, he said, still running backwards, speaking to no one in particular, the energy is very high.

He was alert, vital, moving constantly, looking in all directions. He was holding out his hands with this fingers outstretched. Feel the energy, he said. There were six or seven younger supporters jogging beside him. And it would be some time before I realized that there were always six or seven younger supporters jogging beside him. When he turned in one direction, they turned with him. When he ran backwards, they ran backwards. No doubt if Sammy had suddenly become airborne, there would have been six or seven younger supporters desperately flapping their arms trying to do the same.

The younger supporters were in fact very young. At first, I put their age at around 16. But they might have been younger. They might have been 14. They might have been nine. I take pleasure even now in thinking of them as nothing more than overgrown nine-year-olds. They were nasty little nine year olds, who, in some kind of prepubescent confusion, regarded Sammy as their dad.

At one moment, a cluster of police came rushing towards us. And Sammy, having spotted them, whispered a new command, hissing that we were to disperse. The members of the group split up, some crossing the street, some carrying on down the center, but some falling behind, until they'd got past the policeman whereupon Sammy turned around, running backwards again, and ordered everyone to regroup. And the little ones, like trained dogs, herded the members of the group back together.

I trotted along. Everyone was moving at such a speed that, to ensure I didn't miss anything, I concentrated on keeping up with Sammy. I could see that this was starting to irritate him. He kept having to notice me. What are you doing here, he asked me, after he had turned around running backwards, doing a quick head count after everyone had regrouped. He knew precisely what I was doing there. And he had made a point of asking his question loudly enough that the others had to hear it as well.

Just the thing, I thought. [BLEEP] off, one of his runts said suddenly, peering into my face. He had a knife. I dropped back a bit, just outside of striking range. I looked about me. I didn't recognize anyone. I was surrounded by people I hadn't met. Worse, I was surrounded by people I hadn't met who kept telling me to [BLEEP] off. Nobody was saying a word. There was a muted grunting and the sound of their feet on the pavement. And every now and then, Sammy would whisper one of his commands. I remember thinking in the clearest possible terms, I don't want to get beaten up.

And then Sammy, having judged the moment to be right, suddenly stopped. And abandoning all pretense of invisibility, he shouted, stop. Everyone stopped. Turn. Everyone turned. They knew what to expect. I didn't. It was only then that I saw the Italians, who had been following us. In the half-light, streetlight darkness, I couldn't tell how many there were, but there were enough for me to realize-- holy [BLEEP]-- that I was now unexpectedly in the middle of a very big fight. Having dropped back to get out of the reach of Sammy and his lieutenants, I was in the rear, which as the group turned, had suddenly become the front.

Adrenaline is one of the body's more powerful chemicals. Seeing the English on one side of me and the Italians on the other, I remember seeming quickly to take on the properties of a small helicopter, rising several feet in the air and moving out of everybody's way. There was a roar, everybody roaring, and the English supporters charged into the Italians. In the next second, I went down. A dark blur and then smack. I got hit on the side of the head by a beer can, a full one, thrown powerfully enough to knock me over.

As I got up, two policemen, the only two I saw, came rushing past. And one of them clubbed me on the back of the head. Back down I went.

Directly in front of me, so close I could almost reach out to touch his face, a young Italian-- a boy, really-- had been knocked down. As he was getting up, an England supporter pushed the boy down again, ramming his flat hand against the boy's face. He fell back and his head hit the pavement, the back of it bouncing slightly. Two of the Manchester United supporters appeared. One kicked the boy in the ribs. It was a soft sound, which surprised me. You could hear the impact of the shoe on the fabric of the boy's clothing. He was kicked again, this time very hard, and the sound was still soft. Muted. The boy reached down to protect himself, to guard his ribs, and the other English supporters then kicked him in the face.

This was a soft sound as well, but it was different. You could tell that it was his face that had been kicked and not his body, and not something protected by clothing. It sounded gritty.

Another Manchester United supporter appeared, and another, and then a third. There were now six, and they all started kicking the boy on the ground. The boy covered his face. I was transfixed. It was as if time had dramatically slowed down and each second had a distinct beginning and end, like a sequence of images on a roll of film. Two more Manchester United supporters appeared. There was no speech, only that soft, yielding sound. Although sometimes it was a gravelly, scraping one, of the blows, one after the other. The thought of it, eight people kicking the boy at once. At what point is the job completed?

A policeman appeared, but only one. Where were the other police? There had been so many before. The policeman came running hard and knocked over two of the supporters. And the others fled. And then time accelerated. No longer slow motion time, but time moving very fast. We ran off. I don't know what happened to the boy. I then noticed that all around me, there were others like him, others who had been tripped up and had their faces kicked. I had to sidestep a body on the ground to avoid running on top of it. In the vernacular of the supporters, it had now gone off. With that first violent exchange, some kind of threshold had been crossed, some notional boundary. On one side of that boundary had been a sense of limits, an ordinary understanding, even among this lot, of what you didn't do. We were now someplace where there would be few limits, where the sense that there were things you didn't do had ceased to exist. It became very violent.

I caught up with Sammy. Sammy was transported. He was snapping his fingers and jogging in place, his legs pumping up and down, and he was repeating the phrase, it's going off, it's going off. Everyone around him was excited. It was an excitement that verged on something greater, an emotion more transcendent. Joy at the very least, but more like ecstasy. There was an intense energy about it. It was impossible not to feel some of the thrill. Somebody near me said that he was happy. He said that he was very, very happy, that he could not remember ever being so happy. And I looked hard at him, wanting to memorize his face so that I might find him later and ask him what it was that made for this happiness, what it was like. It was a strange thought. Here was someone who believed that at this precise moment following a street scuffle, he had succeeded in capturing one of life's most elusive qualities. But then he, dazed, babbling away about his happiness, disappeared into the crowd and the darkness.

The group crossed a street, a major intersection. At the head of the traffic was a bus. And one of the supporters stepped up to the front of it and, from about six feet, hurled something with great force-- it wasn't a stone. It was big and made of metal, like the manifold of a car engine-- straight into the driver's windshield. The sound of that shattering windshield, I realize now, was a powerful stimulant, physical and intrusive. Crossing this intersection, traffic coming from four directions, supporters trotting on top of cars, the sound of this thing going through the windshield, the crash following its impact had the effect of increasing the heat of the feeling. I can't describe it any other way. It was almost literally a matter of temperature.

We moved on. A bin was thrown through a car showroom window. There was another loud crashing sound, a shop, its door was smashed. A clothing shop, its windows were smashed, and one or two English supporters lingered to loot from the display. The city is ours, Sammy said. And he repeated the possessive each time with greater intensity. It is ours. Ours. Ours.

What happens when a crowd goes over the edge or the cliff? The metaphors, though hackneyed, are revealing. This is the way they talk about it. They talk about the crack, the buzz, and the fix. They talk about having to have it, of being unable to forget it when they do, of not wanting to forget it ever. They talk about being sustained by it, telling and retelling what happened and what it felt like. They talk about it with the pride of the privileged of those who have had, seen, felt, been through something that other people have not.

Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences, and for those capable of giving themselves over to it, it's one of the most intense pleasures. I felt, as the group passed over its metaphorical cliff, that I had literally become weightless. I had abandoned gravity, was greater than it. I felt myself to be hovering above myself, capable of perceiving everything in slow motion, and in overwhelming detail. And for the first time, I'm able to understand the words they use to describe it. That crowd violence was their drug. What was it like for me? An experience of absolute completeness.

Ira Glass

Bill Buford reading from his book Among the Thugs. He is the literary and fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine. Coming up, class warfare seventh grade-style. That is, when seventh graders become an angry mob. That and more in a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

[MUSIC - "MAIN TITLE (THE GODFATHER WALTZ)," NINO ROTA]

Act Two. One Tin Soldier Rides Away.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, the pleasure of being in a mob and the terror of being in a mob. We have arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, One Tin Soldier Rides Away. We tend to believe that it's other people who will be susceptible to the lure of the mob, not ourselves. Karen Bernstein doesn't feel that way because of something that happened to her in the seventh grade in rural Connecticut. It's the incident she remembers more than anything else that happened that year in school. 26 years later at her class reunion, this incident sparked the most animated conversations. So she went back and interviewed her former classmates and her teacher.

Karen Bernstein

I have before me a Xerox of a teacher's private lesson plan. It's dated September 24, 1973. It's handwritten in the neat, cursive script if my seventh grade social studies teacher, Mr. Les Levitt. It's titled, Course on Totalitarianism. It reads, objective, I want the students to realize how a person or a small group of people can hypnotize a large group of people into following them. Rather than run away from the fear and danger, I want the students to experience all of the emotion, fear and terror firsthand. By providing such a learning experience, I hope to provide the students with enough information to avoid such a situation in the future. Method for achieving objective, a simulation of a totalitarian takeover as a class project.

Mr. Levitt was the most popular teacher at Shepaug Middle School where this all happened, probably the youngest. He was hip, perhaps a little on the hippie side. He had long sideburns and wore aviator glasses and bell bottoms. And we loved him. One day in class, he told us we had rights, that we should have a voice in how the school was run, that we could eat without a lunchroom matron telling us where to sit. When I tracked him down, Mr. Levitt remembered it this way.

Les Levitt

I had planned to do something nice and easy, maybe a couple of days or a week. I started on the project and started to get them into kind of a rebellious mood. And I said, maybe what we ought to do is we ought to be able to write a bill of rights or something like that for students. And then I remember telling them a little bit about protesting Vietnam. And they said, were you one of those protesters, Mr. Levitt? I said, yeah, I was protesting. Oh yeah, I wore the armbands and everything.

I'll never forget it. I was standing there and I was just looking at them, and they were just so attentive. And it just came upon me like, wow. I could really do something here, because everybody is so into it. Why not carry it a step further? So with Mr. Levitt, we made armbands. We also created a flag, like the flag from the movie Billy Jack. Then the school administrators commenced a series of repressive actions, all designed to rile us up.

The head of the social studies department banned the flag and the armbands in a bluntly worded edict, demanding their immediate destruction. We countered by sending a letter to the principal demanding that he allow our new armbands in school.

Female Classmate

And I remember going into the classroom and having Les Levitt start chanting whatever it was that we were, some power chant.

Male Classmate

He got up on the end of the desks and walked around the desks on top of the desks. And he stopped in front of me. He bent down. And he said, do you think that my walking on the desks is strange?

Karen Bernstein

Let me read to you for a second from a letter that you signed around September 27 or so, so three or four days into the experiment itself. I guess we're demanding, at this point, that armbands be allowed worn and that flags go up. And at one point, you say, regarding tradition, the flag and the armbands are our tradition. We are exercising our rights under the Declaration of Independence. We suggest you read the document, especially the second paragraph.

Female Classmate

Which meant we would have had to have read it in order to cite it.

Karen Bernstein

The principal wrote us back saying, regarding tradition, you are on pretty shaky ground on this point. Whoever heard of a two week old tradition? But who am I to quibble? Go, go and fly your ugly flag. And how about an appropriate song to go with your flag? My title suggestion? "It's a Grand Old Rag."

Les Levitt

So he's responding back by playing the bad guy, reinforcing the enemy.

Karen Bernstein

And what was our reaction?

Les Levitt

Oh, you were livid. I mean, you were livid. And the more we drew you into this, the more you lost sight of what was going on around you.

Karen Bernstein

We were at war. And Mr. Levitt organized the class into a strict military hierarchy. A few of the most popular and well-adjusted kids were tapped to be members of the elite inner council. Others were freedom police, some were runners for the inner council. Mr. Levitt became General Levitt. He created intricate wall charts listing each student's rank and duties. We took these ranks very seriously and real competitiveness started between us.

Les Levitt

OK, takeover tactical. September 24, the flags are put up. 26, demands made to Glenn to wear armbands.

Karen Bernstein

I asked Mr. Levitt to read me his master plan, the timetable of everything that he wanted to happen.

Les Levitt

September 1, freedom police take over the lunchroom supervision. Oh, that was terrific. We demanded that we were going to take that over and we stormed the lunchroom and said, everybody out.

Female Classmate

The thrill of being in this mob of seventh graders is that you belong to this group. You're part of this thing that you believe so intensely. Everybody looked at us in school and we were somebody. We weren't just lowly seventh graders that nobody ever talks to.

Les Levitt

On the 3rd, demands made to have to have the matron in the lunch room eliminated, whoever that was. And then on the 5th, we had a victory rally because we had actually won this. We made further demands for freedom.

Karen Bernstein

What were we trying to do? That's like the big burning question.

Female Classmate

That's what's scary. In my recollection, I can't even remember what we were fighting for. I just remember the unity was there and that it was something different. And we were trying to change the situation.

Karen Bernstein

Yeah, but what was the situation? To a bunch of 12-year-olds, what was the most disillusioning aspect of being in Connecticut at age 12?

Female Classmate

I know.

Les Levitt

Then we put flags and emblems everywhere in the school. On the buses, you name it. They were all over the place. And then the demands that the flags be in every room and that all the students-- all of them-- wear armbands. The whole school would have to wear armbands. Not only were we going to just take over the seventh grade, we were going to take over the whole school here.

Female Classmate

There was never a point at which I stepped outside of that and said, what's going on here? I had been signing all sorts of unbelievable manifestos about the things that we demanded that the principal put into place. I used to say that one of the most valuable lessons I learned from it was never to sign anything you don't read. I said that for a long time until I stopped to think about it. And then I realized that at the time, even if I had read that, I would have signed it anyway.

Les Levitt

The next week here, demand for a middle school student to be principal. And my escape and the rally in the planetarium, and the assembly to announce our takeover of the middle school.

Karen Bernstein

On a humid October Friday, the experiment finally ended. It was morning, and runners for the inner council came around to all the seventh grade classes, Paul Revere-like, with urgent messages and confirmation of the rumors we had already heard. General Levitt's about to be fired. The inner council has been arrested and held in the principal's office. Now is the time for all good seventh graders to come to the aid of their classmates.

All over the school, kids who had never failed to turn in a homework assignment or even disobey authority in any way decided to skip their next class and overthrow the school. I don't remember exactly how we all ended up in the planetarium, but in a spectacular display of our underground network and peer bond, it worked. And by the next period change, over 100 kids stood before General Levitt with armbands on, flags and drums poised for battle. He stood before us dressed in his father's World War II officer's coat and he gave us the speech of our little lives.

Les Levitt

I said, your plans to take over the lunch room, the plans to take over the school, they're in danger now, because a lot of people found out. I'm in trouble. They're going to come and get me. And you've got to protect me against them, because if not, then everything is going to go down the drain. And I said, the inner council has been arrested. And I don't know what's going to happen to them. But we can't allow anything to happen to them. And the only way we can do it is if we all stick together, stay together, and you protect me, and then they can't do anything with 100 kids.

Karen Bernstein

General Levitt finished his speech and went into hiding. And we took matters into our own hands.

Female Classmate

We said the chant. We went out running through the mall area. There were other students. People were just looking at us, thinking, what is going on? And I remember heading towards the principal's office, getting in there and hearing crying and screaming. And I remember looking into the office and seeing [? Kathy ?] McDonald hiding underneath the desk.

Female Classmate

And then we staged a sit in Principal Glenn Anderson's office, his outer office. And he came out and was like, you have got to stop. And we just sat there and ignored him. And you have to understand, for a 12-year-old girl like myself, this was just incredible. I had never done anything against any elder in my life.

Karen Bernstein

And then something unexpected happened. Levitt showed up, obviously not arrested. We were shocked. Then he did something even more unexpected. He saw Glenn Anderson, our principal, the man we'd been fighting for weeks, the man who had arrested the inner council, public enemy number one. And Mr. Levitt crossed over and stood next to him. And his body language changed. He deflated from messianic revolutionary to small town social studies teacher. The principal read an announcement over the PA system, saying that this had all been a simulation, an experiment, a hoax.

Female Classmate

It was like falling off a cliff.

Female Classmate

I just remember sitting back in my seat thinking, I can't believe I let myself be so controlled by these people, and just feeling so used and so taken advantage of.

Female Classmate

It was kind of devastating to me that here I'd been tricked or fooled by the very person I was suppose to respect.

Female Classmate

Then they went on to explain to us that this was a very positive thing, that we'd really learned from this experience, and we can take this with us. But it just didn't matter. Nobody wanted to hear that at that moment.

Karen Bernstein

For months after the totalitarian experiment ended, parents and school officials argued over it. The local press kept it alive. The school board held public hearings that became like a circus, featuring every local interest group, the back to basic parents, the back to Earth parents, the Christian fundamentalists. In the end, Mr. Levitt was allowed to keep his job and more than two decades later, all the classmates I spoke with said that they were glad it happened to us.

Female Classmate

How would I be different had I not gone through that? I think I would probably have taken a longer time to see my own dark side. I'm actually happy that I was able to see it at a young age, when I couldn't do much damage. But I think we all have a dark side. And so the lesson here for me, this is the kid who on every level was a kid who had been well-raised, respectful, worked hard, wanted to please her parents, wasn't rebellious, tried to be a good sister. I was a kid who was what you want all, I think at that point, kids to be. And yet, I was the perfect little fascist. I was the perfect little Nazi. That's what's scary about it, that it can take all of the good potential and harness it for evil without you having any sense at all that you've lost your way.

It didn't scar me for life. It didn't traumatize me beyond that first day. I got over it. I bounced back. You move on. And you just try to put it into perspective. And we then moved right away into the study of the rise of fascism in Western Europe. And there's no comparison, obviously, to studying the rise of fascism in Western Europe after having been a fascist.

Karen Bernstein

John Maloney is now a therapist working with teenagers who are in gangs. He says he'd never run a simulation like Mr. Levitt did.

John Maloney

I'd probably worry about how kids are handling it and not saying anything about it. I don't know. Not all of us are as durable as everybody else, you know what I mean? I'd feel responsible until the day that-- I don't know when I could feel that I undid it if it were negative.

Karen Bernstein

Many of my classmates wondered what had happened to Mr. Levitt. One of the most surprising discoveries when I had caught up with him was that at the time of the experiment, he was only 22. It was his first job. And of course. Who else but a 22-year-old would try something so brazen? Not long after the simulation, Mr. Levitt quit teaching, went to seminary and into the ministry, which he just recently left. These days, he's remarkably young looking. No gray hair, though a certain energy he used to have has faded. He told me he's lost his sense of mission. He seems unsure of himself. When I asked him if he'd do a simulation like the one he tried on us again, he said, no, probably not.

Les Levitt

It was tough. It was really hard to do, let me tell you that. It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, because I thought I was going to be doing it as a teacher, who had taught everybody a valuable lesson. When I saw your faces and when I told you, I felt I'd let you down, that I had duped you, I had tricked you, I had totally used you in order to teach you a lesson. And I can remember going home and just being up most of the night. And it was very, very difficult.

Karen Bernstein

I am 38 eight years old now. My personal experiment in peer group conformity continues. It comes and goes. And I remember Mr. Levitt's experiment now and then in odd moments. When I see someone preaching to a crowd, I'm suspicious. And the more magnetic the speaker, the more suspicious. The truth is, I loved those three weeks in 1973. I had felt a swell of belonging and then a chill. That is the victory, I suppose.

Ira Glass

Karen Bernstein is a producer for public television in New York.

[MUSIC - "ONE TIN SOLDIER (THE LEGEND OF BILLY JACK)," COVEN]

Act Three. The Hissing Of Winter Lawns.

Ira Glass

Act Three, The Hissing of Winter Lawns. What happens when a crowd converges over something they strongly believe in for weeks and months in front of television cameras that never go away? To what degree do the cameras change the character of being in a crowd? A few days before Elian Gonzalez was seized by federal authorities, reporter Alix Spiegel went to the lawn of his home where activists camped out 24 hours a day. In the evenings, the crowds would swell and there'd be choreographed protests and prayers for the TV networks. Media savvy, everyone knew the appropriate things to say to reporters. But in other ways, Alix Spiegel reports, they were like any political gathering.

Alix Spiegel

When I arrive at 1:00 in the morning, there are about 40 people awake and milling around, swapping stories and guzzling soft drinks like neighbors at a Sunday barbecue. The first person I meet is a man in a lawn chair. He's got a portable CD player in his lap and his earphones on, and he's grooving to some music. His name is Javier and he takes me on a tour.

Javier

It looks like a refugee camp.

Alix Spiegel

All the truly committed have the seats in the front. To the right of the police barricades, under a blue tarp strung between street signs, are the hardcore supporters who have been here from the beginning. In a similar place of honor, on the opposite side of the street, the survivors from the Bay of Pigs. And then there are the cheap seats. The street, the sidewalk, the driveways. This is where Javier sleeps. He's been here 10 days. He came, he says, with a sleeping bag, a few changes of clothes, and his CD player. Abandoned his home and job and family to come and protect little Elian.

In the morning I see him again. And again, he's got on his earphones and he's grooving to his music. So I ask what he's listening to. And he tells me it's a song by Mr. Phil Collins, which reminds him of little Elian. He says that since he arrived, he's listened to this song well over 70 times. Whenever he's feeling down or overwhelmed by the 24-hour vigil, and that he also likes to play the song for the other supporters on the street. He says that often when he plays the song for the other supporters, their eyes will fill with tears. This makes me curious, so we sit down on the sidewalk and he presses the earphone of his CD player to my microphone and sings along.

Javier

[SINGING] Now stop your crying, it will be all right. Just take my hand, hold it tight. I will protect you from all around you. I will be here, don't you cry.

Alix Spiegel

A few days ago, Javier was taken to jail for attempting to break down a police barricade. And the other supporters, who had known him less than a week, raised almost $1,000 to bail him out. It's easy to find this kind of ad hoc solidarity here. It's also easy to find sentimentality, melodrama, and paranoia. Several people, I'm told, have made out their wills, expecting to die in front of the TV cameras on Elian's lawn.

Javier tells me that there are dangers all around. Four days before the feds seize Elian, rumors circulate in the crowd that Janet Reno is hiding out in Miami. They say she only pretended to board a plane and fly back to Washington, but in actual fact, landed the plane close by and is now stationed somewhere inside the city limits. There's another rumor that the feds have been practicing stealing little Elian away in a big white van disguised as a plasma unit. They will sedate him, probably with gas, and deliver him to his father, who will take him back to Cuba where he will eventually be killed.

I hear that Elian will be killed from six different people, people anxious for me to understand why it's so important to be vigilant, even when that means being on guard against one another.

Male Supporter

You can see when people's eyes are [WHISTLES]. They're not really listening, they're not all there. They can't say the national anthem, they can't say the Cuban anthem. And some people act like they're with us. And when they're saying the anthem, they're not saying it, they're mumbling it.

Female Supporter

It's a matter of fact. A couple of days ago we had two of them. They were laughing and they were telling us that they were tourists. As a matter of fact, one of them tells me that he just came a couple of days from Havana and his other friend came from Cleveland, Ohio. And he came to pick him up. And they were going to do the South Beach scene. And they heard about Elian and came over. I said listen, guys. I was born here. My husband is a military man. If it looks like an agent, if it smells like an agent, you guys are an agent. And you look the part.

And he says, look, I've got a driver's license. I said, you really think that we're that ignorant here? These are not just people who got off the boat, for god's sake.

Alix Spiegel

Our conversation is interrupted by a press conference. For some reason, as soon as the cameras begin to roll, Javier pops up and makes his way behind a stripe of yellow police tape, through the private yard of the neighbor directly across the street from Elian's house and into the restricted press area. I follow him and observe, as he crouches behind a cameraman, pulls out a pad of paper and a pen, and starts scribbling notes. He is pretending to be a reporter, using the pen and paper as props, occasionally raising his hand as if he's going to ask a question.

I'm so busy watching him that it takes a full 10 minutes before I realize that I, myself, am being watched. A Cuban woman with long black hair is spying on me as I spy on Javier. I catch her eye, and she signals for me to come over, which I do. She wants to know exactly what Javier thinks he's doing. So naturally, I ask her why she wants to know.

Rita

I'm concerned because everyone is being observed as far as any kind of conduct to provoke violence or disorder, because we don't want that. And this individual has done that. And he was taken to jail, and we took him out. We bailed him out with our own money. And now he's out. And he's got a lot of unexplainable and mysterious sources and phone calls.

Alix Spiegel

You're afraid that he's like some kind of plant. And people have been talking about the possibility that he is?

Rita

Yeah, I was called yesterday. In the afternoon I was called to make sure that I just keep an eye on him, that's all. See what he's doing.

Alix Spiegel

Her name is Rita. She left her baby son with her mother two months ago, and has been sleeping in a lawn chair under a tarp in front of the barricade every night, waiting for the feds to come. She tells me that the people who asked her to keep an eye on Javier are part of an organization. She can't tell me very much about it, not even its name, only that 7,000 people are involved and that they're all good people who don't want to cause any trouble.

Rita

How can I explain this? We're trying to filter the bad people out. We don't want anybody, especially anybody sent by Castro.

Alix Spiegel

So you think that Javier might be sent by Castro?

Rita

That's still under speculation. But yeah, sure. Many people have come here that are sent by Castro.

Alix Spiegel

As Rita whispers, Javier emerges from the press conference. He's laughing and congratulating himself on his hoax as Rita approaches and casually starts up a conversation. She tells him that she goes to college at Miami Dade.

Javier

That's fantastic.

Rita

I'm studying human behavior. and? I'm very good at it.

Javier

Because I love kids.

Rita

You seem very educated in what you're doing. I really admire that you came here and everything. I can't believe you went to jail for this cause.

Javier

I wasn't interested in going to jail. If that guy hadn't grabbed me, I wouldn't have gone to jail. I was going to cut those two [UNINTELLIGIBLE] chains.

Rita

Why were you going to cut them?

Javier

It's a long story.

Rita

Who told you to cut them?

Javier

I can't tell you. And I can't tell you if somebody did tell me to cut them.

Rita

You can't tell me? Why can't you tell me?

Javier

Because everybody is doing what they could for the cause. My job is to cut the chains. That's what I did.

Rita

No one that I know-- and I know everyone here-- told you to cut that chain. Was it Jorge?

Javier

I'll tell you what, when all this is over, I'll introduce you to him.

Rita

That won't helps us, right?

Javier

OK, turn it off for a second?

Alix Spiegel

I scurry off and mingle with the other supporters while Rita and Javier work it out. The next time I see Rita, she's lying down under her tarp with a cloth over her face, nursing a headache. She looks tired.

Alix Spiegel

Rita, hi. How did it go?

Rita

It's OK. I'm just going to observe from afar.

Alix Spiegel

What did he say?

Rita

He just kept explaining and giving excuses. And he was just too jittery. I don't know. I don't want to judge him.

Alix Spiegel

Rita, it turns out, hasn't slept in two days. She's been too busy worrying and wondering when the feds will come.

Rita

And the rest of America is like, oh, come on, we're just sick of this. Just send the boy home. The boy should be with the father. Of course, but they're not seeing the whole story. They don't want to. They're too busy wondering whether their portfolio is going up or down.

Alix Spiegel

The whole story goes something like this. Rita's grandfather was killed by the Castro regime for saying three words, this isn't good. The man who sleeps in the last chair next to hers says he watched his friends and neighbors be machine gunned into the ditch behind his house. The blind woman who stays across the street says she was thrown into a mental institution for dissonant behavior. And it's as if, by saving this one boy, all this history will be redeemed and these people will finally get justice by proxy.

Rita

Look, something mysterious has called me to do this. You have to do this, no matter what. In the past, in the future, you have to do this. Justice has to be served here. And I can not see beyond that. I can not believe that I'm doing this. Remember, I was raised American. I've been here since I was two years old. I should be back with the internet crowd and talking about 'N Sync and all that. That's what I should be doing. But I'm here because I have a calling that's beyond all that superficial ignorance.

Alix Spiegel

So does this feel better to you than anything that you've done before?

Rita

Yes. It makes me feel like I'm alive.

Alix Spiegel

It's certainly true that there's real anger here, present just under the surface, which erupts with little warning at any suggestion of dissent. I'm standing in the middle of the street watching a group in a semicircle mumble their way through a prayer, when a man standing next to the circle pulls out a sign which communicates his sentiment that Elian belongs with his father in Cuba. And this single act has roughly the same effect as throwing a match into a pool of gasoline. Instantly, a mob rises out of nothing and converges on the man. Men and women are screaming and flailing their arms. And literally, within seconds, the peaceful prayer circle has been transformed into a full-blown human tsunami.

Overweight cameramen stream out of the press area, shouldering heavy equipment and flood the mob with TV lights. There is a lot of jostling and noise, but the circle of people closest to the man keep the rest of the mob from actual violence. Through the chaos, the mob somehow chooses a direction. They move the man organically, almost beautifully, down the street to the police cars at the end of the block where they deliver him, minus the sign plus a couple slaps on the head, to police officers who stuff him in a car and speed away.

Before the car has cleared the block, the mob begins to disperse. They wander back towards the rest of the crowd and cluster around TV vans parked on the side of the street to watch the video of themselves now being fed to local stations for the 11:00 news. As they watch the footage, a consensus appears to emerge, a consensus which has little to do with what actually happened and everything to do with how they want what actually happened to play in the media. This is the consensus. The mob decides that it was not a mob.

Male Supporter

We're having our peaceful demonstration, and we're having our prayers, and all of the sudden there's a man with a sign that said Elian needs to go home.

Male Supporter

And we were trying to take him peacefully out, but he resisted. Nobody hurt him, nobody nothing, we just walked him out.

Male Supporter

Together with all the rest of the people, including the men, we saved him.

Alix Spiegel

They repeat this line to any media person who asks. This is, after all, a 21st century mob, a media savvy mob. A mob so conditioned that even in the middle of an authentic expression of rage, they're half-conscious of how that rage will play, are both encouraged and constrained by that consciousness. In other words, a mob unable to entirely lose themselves in the act of being a mob.

In the fading light, I stand and watch the men watch themselves through the open doors of the TV van. They seem mesmerized, in spite of themselves, by the spectacle of their own unchoreographed fury.

Ira Glass

Alix Spiegel is a reporter in New York City.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself, with Susan Burton, Blue Chevigny, and Julie Snyder. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Eric [? Poverston. ?] Eric leaves our program today for greener and possibly more musical pastures. We wish him the past.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

You can listen to our programs for free on the internet at our website, where I strongly urge you to go so you can have the thrill of watching that TV ad we started our program with. www.thislife.org. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister, who runs the site. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who is alert, holding out his hands with his fingers outstretched, saying--

Bill Buford

Feel the energy.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Bill Buford

The city is ours. It is ours, ours, ours.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.