I prefaced my first post on this subject by noting that I have been a participant in many protests in my adult life. The causes have differed widely, including opposition to various wars, support for civil rights, rejection of pipelines, and dissent against the election of a sexist and racist president. Almost all of them were non-violent, marches and gatherings with signs and speeches in the hopes of attracting media attention. The first major event I was involved in, however, was not. More on that later. The reality of protests is simply that there is a range of possibilities, and that that there are likely to be violent people among both the protesters and the police.
Current practices among protesters are to scatter monitors throughout a crowd to watch for violent individuals and to redirect their actions to non-destructive ones. The appearance of objects thrown at the police from the crowd shows that this is not always effective. Likewise, the police strategy is primarily to form lines to keep a protest crowd corralled and to avoid any excessive force. Recorded incidents of unnecessary use of rubber bullets, batons, and hand-held pepper spray by individual officers shows that this, also, is not always maintained. In any event which involves two or more oppositional groups, especially when emotions are inflamed, behavior can be difficult to control.
Another common response to protests, violent or not, is the one that has been recommended recently by President Trump and his allies. This is the myth of “dominant force” as an effective deterrent. The president’s solution was made clear when he tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” and told the National Guard leadership to “dominate” the streets. In the history of protests, strikes, and other demonstrations, massive force has been the response of choice for centuries. The United States has repeatedly broken up demonstrations by having the police (or the Pinkertons or the Cavalry) fire guns directly into the crowd. Largely because of public backlash the most deadly such methods have been gradually reduced during the past fifty years. However, the president’s attitude, like the actions of many individual policemen, shows that in some circles the concept of severely punitive controls is still attractive, and still viewed as potentially effective.
One of the first protest actions I participated in was a set of demonstrations in Berkeley, California, in May of 1969, during the height of the opposition to the war in Vietnam. It was focused not on the war, although that was part of the background. but on a specific local issue. It was the People’s Park Riots. The University of California had bulldozed a residential block a few hundred yards south of the campus and wanted to develop it into high-rise student housing. While they delayed, however, the lot became a popular site for anti-war activists and others to hold meetings, and members of the community had spent significant effort cleaning it up and planting grass and flowers. A confrontation ensued when the university tried to fence off the lot, with protesters facing off against police and county sheriff’s deputies. Two very controversial politicians became involved; President Richard Nixon and California Governor Ronald Reagan. The police were using batons and tear gas to help them disperse the crowds. The county deputies also used shotguns loaded with “OO” buckshot. Governor Reagan defended their firing such weapons even after a bystander had been killed and 128 citizens hospitalized. This obviously inflamed the situation.
On the street, however, the tactics of both sides became clear, and the results didn’t bode well for the “law and order” forces. The uniformed officers moved in groups defined by rows of men shoulder-to-shoulder, concentrating on occupying territory by slowly and forcefully pushing protesters backward. Their opposition, however, moved quickly and in a fluid manner. One portion stayed within view of the uniforms. Another set of individuals kept more distance, advancing only to throw objects. Still others broke up into small mobile groups that went off in many directions. The amount of firepower was overwhelmingly in favor of the authorities, but the contrasting tactics were reminiscent of the revolutionary war, when the British Redcoats employed the mass formations and rigid lines of European war against a guerrilla army that briefly attacked from covered positions and then rapidly melted away. The police managed to control a few central blocks, but the larger goals of disbanding or arresting the protesters was largely a lost cause. The carnage certainly didn’t encourage protesters to quit and go home. The demonstrations continued for a week, with daily disturbances and some property damage, and in the end the university capitulated, turning Peoples’ Park into a permanent public space that still exists today.
It is important to review this distant event because it has similarities to many of the demonstrations and riots that have occurred since. Television coverage shows that the forces trying to control protesters are once again attempting to establish territorial boundaries, often after almost all the potential vandalism there has occurred. While they do this, massing in relatively static or slow-moving formations, clumps of demonstrators flow rapidly away from them into side streets and small bands of vandals and looters rampage through nearby neighborhoods. The police weapons of choice are now tear gas and batons, as before, and hand-held pepper spray and what are referred to as “rubber bullets”. The two new tools are technically non-lethal, an improvement over guns and buckshot, but can cause significant damage. As could be expected, though, the police tactics are no more effective in achieving their goals than they were in 1969.
The lesson of Peoples’ Park is also directly relevant to the myth of dominant force. Could a more aggressive and deadly use of force put a stop to protests and destruction? The answer is no. The fact is that if our newly militaristic police forces were augmented by the National Guard or, as President Trump suggested, by the (illegal) use of full-time military troops, and even if they were allowed to use lethal force, their efforts would be largely ineffective, and even counterproductive. There would be casualties, of course, but it would do little to stop any vandalism or looting, and it would actually strengthen the resolve of the protesters. Trump’s folly might even be remembered for decades, in the way that the 1969 killings at Kent State have lived on. Any police chief who follows his suggestions might reflect on the fate of Frank Rizzo, “legendary” mayor and police commissioner of Philadelphia, now remembered primarily for the patterns of police brutality, intimidation, and disregard for constitutional rights that he encouraged. During the week of June 8th this year, a South Philadelphia mural depicting Rizzo was painted over and his statue on the steps of the Municipal Services Building was damaged, set on fire, and finally removed.
Dominant force sounds logical. It has an appeal to “law and order” types who seem to believe that protesters do not deserve to be listened to or treated in humane ways. It definitely has a strong appeal to white supremacists who believe that minority people are threats and do not deserve to be full members of our citizenry, and do not merit the ordinary protections of out constitution. It clearly is attractive to President Trump, who also displays an affinity to despots and totalitarian societies and an evident animus toward anyone who opposes him. It is a simplistic philosophy that equates protests with misbehavior that deserves immediate punishment, and that assumes protesters will respond to strong punishment by cancelling their plans. It is not only incorrect, but it is distressingly similar to the philosophy that has informed most of the police killings that have inspired these recent protests in the first place. The proper response to protests against extra-judicial police punishment is less punitive behavior, not more.