In light of the deadly racist terrorism in Charlottesville, and the police response that seems to have exacerbated it, I’m bumping up this post on law enforcement and the increasing violence from racist/alt-right/pro-Trump supporters at protests:
Recently I organized security for this event, where a considerable right-wing counter-protest caught law enforcement (LE) flat-footed, even though there was ample warning that it would occur. Thanks to incredible crowd discipline from our attendees, the efforts of our trained de-escalators, and some luck, the event remained mostly peaceful. Since then, we have been talking with the ACLU (who provided observers) and the three LE entities involved, about what could have been done differently to improve the situation. We want, if possible, to avoid such chaotic situations in the future, and we don’t want to trust in luck for our safety.
These meetings have not been encouraging. I don’t want to paint all law enforcement with one brush. Every agency is different, every state and city is different, and every officer is different. But looking at law enforcement as a structural element of state power, my experience confirms that, at best, we need to avoid relying on police to prevent violence at political events. At worst, we need to be prepared for law enforcement to actively enable, and provide cover for, right-wing violence at such events.
In my interactions with LE about disruptive counter-protest, I consistently encounter the following rhetorical maneuvers:
Both-siderism: LE (some agencies more than others, but all of them to some extent) consistently conflated our event (a few hundred mostly older people with signs calling for impeachment, a U.S. Congressman speaking, etc.) with violent antifa protests at pro-Trump actions. They kept bringing up aggressive behavior they said “our side” had engaged in at our event, which had demonstrably not happened–but which probably had happened at the anti-Sharia rally that took place at the same location two weeks prior (I witnessed that event from the antifa’s counter-protest area). They also seemed deliberately obtuse about distinguishing one aggressive incident from another–we would bring up one, specific interaction, they would say they hadn’t witnessed it, but counter with some other interaction they did witness, and then talk about the ramifications of THAT interaction. I suspect this mindset may have contributed to the paralysis at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, where police in riot gear surrounded the park and then proceeded to watch as white supremacists and counter-protesters beat each other.
Generally, LE seem strongly inclined to fall back on the “you’re all a bunch of squabbling children” defense, which justifies inaction on their part. In some conversations, it was difficult not to read their claim that they had to avoid “taking sides” as a convenient way to allow abuse and bullying.
First Amendment Universalism: As the ACLU representative made clear to us, the state has the power to restrict the time, place, and manner of people’s speech. State actors are supposed to do this in the interest of public safety, which is of course open to interpretation.
The focus of most of my questions to LE was on separating parties in conflict. This is the easiest, most effective way to interrupt and prevent violence and increase safety (our volunteers are trained to create distance as a way to de-escalate tension). It is entirely possible to create distance between parties without infringing anyone’s First Amendment rights. Yet every time I brought up the possibility that LE might have done something to increase distance between attendees and counter-protesters at our event, they reframed my question as a free-speech issue: “We can’t remove someone from that area because they have a First Amendment right to be there.”
This despite the fact that they DID create barriers and separation at certain points–DPS troopers used bike cordons to great effect at two points below the steps the Capitol, yet created no barrier at all around the back of our stage, where counter-protesters continually infringed on our reserved space, attempted to commandeer the mic, and took other obviously provocative actions. I pointed out that the RESERVED space, earmarked for our group’s event and message, was clearly an area that counter-protesters would enter for the express purpose of disruption and conflict. That seemed to me to be ample justification for excluding counter-protesters from the space, in the interest of public safety. It would infringe the First Amendment rights of counter protesters no more than does the policy of allowing the space to be reserved in the first place.
I should mention that we had a county Constable working the event who agreed with that logic, and did order counter-protesters out of the reserved space. No other LE entity did so, however.
Over and over again, LE officials react to my questions about separation as if I am asking them to arrest or banish counter-protesters. No matter how often I try to explain that I am concerned about aggressive, escalatory behavior, and the threat of imminent interpersonal violence (which I’m trained to identify, and I sincerely hope they are too), I’m told, “But they have a right to speak just as much as you do.” At one point I called attention to this argumentative tactic, saying, “You know, every time I ask why you made no effort to separate parties in conflict, you respond as if I am asking you to silence one of the parties. That’s not what I’m seeking. Do you realize that you’re responding to a question I did not ask?”
If you’ve ever been to marriage counseling, you can probably guess how well that observation went over.
At one meeting, when the LE officers present kept insisting that “both sides” at our event were seeking confrontation and contributing to the potential for violence, I asked, “So, has ANY pro-Trump organization come to you, like we have, to request a meeting, and ask what they could have done differently to make the event less chaotic and more safe?” The response from the State Preservation Board representative (who approves permits for use of the Capitol grounds) was, “Your point is well taken.” From the LE agents, silence.
This left me with the distinct impression that LE will use the First Amendment and false equivalence arguments as cover for choices they are making that enable right-wing intimidation and violence.
Goalpost Shifting: I always try to clarify what specific behaviors LE are looking for at the event to indicate imminent violence. After all, perhaps the reason we disagree on when to intervene is that they know more about micro-signals of aggression, or maybe they have assembled a list of behaviors warranting action based on past incidents. I asked about different things that I would interpret as signs of imminent interpersonal conflict: Pointing fingers in someone’s face. Speaking/yelling closely enough that the target can feel the breath/is being spit on. Outthrust chests. Violent hand gestures. Would any of that, I asked, have prompt them to intervene? For this event, the ONLY thing LE would consistently say they’d intervene upon witnessing was a shove or a punch.
So we gave them these photos of a counter-protester shoving and punching one of our attendees, and asked why no action was taken.
The response was that the attendee had provoked the counter-protester.
Notice the shift: They had not previously said (because it would make no sense) that they would only intervene to stop UNPROVOKED violence. But that became the reason they hadn’t intervened when we provided evidence.
There is much more to be said about the strengths and limitations of tactical non-violence, and the role of state violence in civic protest. For example, did you know that even Howard Zinn advocated the use of state violence? It’s true. In 1964, appalled by the murderous behavior of southern whites, Zinn called for “the forceful intervention of the national government, to smash, with speed and efficiency, every attempt by local policemen or politicians to deprive Negroes (or others) of the rights supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution.”
For now, I’ll just say this, to every person with even the vaguest interest in seeing peaceful protest bring about change in this country: Don’t be fooled into thinking “our side” must “utterly reject violence.” The violence of the state already underpins our every action in the public sphere; we are complicit in it, and we are at risk from it. It’s not about well-behaved citizens earning fair treatment. It’s about entrenched power structures justifying unfair treatment. So be leery of anyone calling for a quest–or a competition–for perfectly non-violent behavior. We will never be non-violent enough to disabuse racists of their “both sides do it” ethos. It’s too convenient a cover for racism.