POLITICS

How We Respond To Protest

09/09/2013 10:12 am ET
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In a post at the "Occupy Police" blog, former Madison, Wisconsin Police Chief David Couper writes . . .

Since the days of the the labor and civil rights movements and through the era of the protests against the war in Vietnam, we seem to have learned very little about the best way for government officials to respond to those who disagree with them.

This is a sad situation in a country such as ours which professes the values of freedom and justice that it does . . .

In my BOOK I talk about how police should approach and respond to these protests:

“In a democracy, police have a very complex role compared to what is expected of the police in other systems. The power of the state must be balanced with the rights of an individual; other systems have no balance requirement—only to use the power given them by the state. Uniquely, police in a democracy don’t exist solely to maintain order on behalf of the state, but also to assure that the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen are protected in the process. “This is never more evident as when a totalitarian state responds to public protest. In this instance, the goal of the police is to prevent or repress, not facilitate, protest. We see that in today in Syria, China, and other less-than-democratic governments. In these instances, the very act of disagreeing with the government is illegal and subject to police action . . . "

Early in my police career, I began to re-think the role of police and protest after I had witnessed and participated in too many that had gone wrong:

“I was beginning to see that proximity mattered, being close was safe—just like on the beat. Get close, talk, stay in contact. The further the police positioned themselves from people in the crowd, the greater the chance the crowd would depersonalize them; to see them as objects and not people. Therefore, getting closer to the people, whether in managing crowds or patrolling neighborhoods on foot, seemed to be a good basic strategy that needed to be experimented with”

So, that’s what I did when I came to Madison. For over 20 years, we in Madison responded to anti-war rallies, civil rights demonstrations, student block parties, and other mass gatherings without substantial incident. How did that happen? We developed what today is being called the “soft approach” (see the recent work of Dr. Clifford Stott at the University of Liverpool. What Stott and others found is that dialogue and liaison are effective police strategies in crowd situations because they allowed for an on-going risk assessment that improved command-level decision-making. Using this strategy, there was a better outcome because it also encouraged ‘self-regulation’ in the crowd and thus forestalled the use of unnecessary force by police during moments of tension.

For my own book on the rise of police militarization in America, I talked with former Washington, D.C. Police Chief Jerry Wilson, who headed the department in the early 1970s, a time that saw quite a bit of civil unrest.

Wilson believed that an intimidating police presence didn’t prevent confrontation, it invited it. That didn’t mean he didn’t prepare, but he put his riot control teams in buses, then parked the buses close by, but out of sight of protesters. Appearances were important. In general, instead of the usual brute force and reactionary policing that tended to pit cops against citizens—both criminal and otherwise—Wilson believed that cops were more effective when they were welcomed and respected in the neighborhoods they patrolled. “The use of violence,” he told Time in 1970, “is not the job of police officers.”

Go into a protest expecting confrontation, and that's what you're likely to get. As Couper indicates, the default response to protest today is overwhelming force. Consider this ostentatious police presence at one of the recent strikes by Walmart workers, in a photo posted by Twitter user @RahwaOA:

walmart

In fact, the more important the event, the more influential the people at the event, and the more far-reaching and consequential the decisions they'll be making at the event, the more likely it is that the city where the event is being held will use more force to keep protesters as far away from the decision makers as possible, where they're unlikely to be heard.

Consider the massive police presence and unconstitutional police actions at the at the 2009 G20 summit in Pittsburgh, for example. Or the crackdowns on the Occupy protests. Or at the last several major political conventions, like the 2008 RNC in Minneapolis, the 2008 DNC in Denver, or the 2012 DNC in Charlotte. A few weeks ago, a TV producer for a cable news show asked me from what movie the image on the front of my book was taken. In fact, it was taken from the 2012 RNC in Tampa, Florida.

If your politics happen to lie to the right of the typical Occupy or political convention protester, don't think it can't happen to you. In 2008, Maryland State Police paid out $385,000 for the illegal arrest of anti-abortion activists at a rally in Harford County. Or look at the the massive, violent police raid on the home of gun rights activists and anarchist rabble rouser Adam Kokesh earlier this year.

And all of this of course is precisely the opposite of how the First Amendment is supposed to operate. Of course, even the American founders wasted little time in striking at the heart of free speech, beginning with the Alien in Sedition Acts in 1798. And violent response to protest is nothing new in America, whether it's the long history of violent strikebreaking at labor protests, the televised assaults on protests at the 1968 DNC in Chicago, or the infamous National Guard massacre in 1970 at Kent State University.

But the current template for protest -- to show up in full riot gear on day one -- goes back to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. Initial reports suggested the protesters were violent and out of control from the start, and that the city was woefully unprepared. In truth, while the protesters did engage in civil disobedience, they were overwhelmingly nonviolent. There was some property damage, but even the vandals, looters, and anarchists never turned violent. There were no fatalities, and fewer than 100 injuries. The most serious injury was broken arm.

If anything, the city may have been over-prepared. The cops had been given hundreds of hours of training, and may have gone into the event with the mindset that violence was inevitable. A Seattle City Council investigation later found that the police who handled the event were panic-stricken from the start, and had been put on edge by exaggerated crowd estimates and unfounded rumors, such as that protesters were throwing Molotov cocktails. (This wasn't true.) In 2004 the city of Seattle paid out a financial settlement with 157 protesters who had been illegally arrested. In 2007 a federal jury found that the city had violated the Fourth Amendment rights of 170 more.

For my book, I also interviewed Norm Stamper, Seattle's police chief during the WTO protests. Stamper now calls the crackdown one of the worst mistakes of his career. “We gassed fellow Americans engaging in civil disobedience,” Stamper says. “We set a number of precedents, most of them bad. And police departments across the country learned all the wrong lessons from us. That’s disheartening. So disheartening. I mean, you look at what happened to those Occupy protesters at UC Davis, where the cop just pepper sprays them down like he’s watering a bed of flowers, and I think that we played a part in making that sort of thing so common—so easy to do now. It’s beyond cringe- worthy. I wish to hell my career had ended on a happier note.”

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