Police, provocation, and protest

Bad policing poked an old open wound in American life, one that had suffered continual poking and scratching over the past few weeks, months, years, and turned thousands of people out into the streets in protest.

Protestors demonstrate in Columbia, S.C. on Saturday in response to the recent killing of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement.Bad policing of the understandably angry public reaction to police violence will keep people protesting, and increase the damage to all of us.

If most people thought the police officer who knelt on the throat of George Floyd for nearly 10 minutes was a rogue cop who would be swiftly punished, they would not have poured out into the streets of Minneapolis when Floyd’s death was not followed by immediate arrests and indictments.

If people across the rest of the United States thought that racialized police violence was limited to Minneapolis, protests would not have spread across the country.

Outrage about the almost casual killing of George Floyd was the trigger for protests. Demonstrators called for arrests and criminal charges but, judging from the signs and chants and statements, they want much larger reforms, not only in the criminal justice system, but in the larger political and economic world.

People will march when they believe its necessary and potentially effective in getting what they want. If there’s an easier and more direct way to influence policy, most people will opt to take it.

Now, there are people in the crowds who want to press for reforms. There are also people who believe that the economic and political system is so corrupt that reform is impossible. Now and virtually always, most people want to avoid violence–but not everyone.

Once masses of people turn out to exercise their free speech rights, police need to protect themselves, the marchers, and bystanders. Police need to help and protect peaceful protesters, while isolating and containing violent actors–including police and counter-demonstrators.

This is a tough job, but police should enjoy the advantage of superior equipment, training, and coordination. They face the additional challenge of showing that gratuitous police violence, like the killing that spurred the protests, is unacceptable.

Many of the early police responses to the difficult challenge of maintaining public safety give marchers every reason to believe that racism is a feature, not a bug, in the police and criminal justice system:

Driving a police car through an unarmed crowd (New York City).

Violently throwing a smaller person to the ground (New York City)

Tear gassing or pepper spraying unarmed protesters–including a member of A Los Angeles police officer prepares to fire rubber bullets on Saturday, May 30, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd, who died while handcuffed in police custody in Minneapolis on Monday, May 25. [RINGO H.W. CHIU | AP]Congress (Columbus, Ohio).

Firing rubber bullets on distant crowds (Los Angeles).

Targeting journalists, particularly Black journalists, with arrests, bullets, or gas (Minneapolis).

Ripping the mask off a black man whose hands are raised to pepper spray him in the face (New York City).

If there’s a strategy behind these harsh responses, it’s to make protesting so difficult and dangerous that people will be scared to come out. It’s harsh, fundamentally undemocratic, and very dangerous. It’s also unlikely to work.

Certainly, it’s the approach embraced by the president of the United States, who, cowering beneath the covers of layers of secret service protection, bragged about the “ominous weapons,” “fierce dogs,” and agents eager for action.

The language and the action all work to polarize further a deeply divided population.

But some police officers and departments have tried to treat the protesters with respect and sympathy.

Officers in Santa Cruz joined their chief in kneeling (on  the sidewalk–not  a football  field  or  a person)  to  express  their  own  Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson high fives a woman who called his name as he marches with protestors of police brutality and in memory of George Floyd on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Flint Township. Protestors marched along Miller Rd. In Flint Township before ending up at the Flint Township Police Department Headquarters where they were met by police in riot gear. Swanson deescalated the situation by asking one of the protesters what he wanted of them. They replied to walk with us and so he did with some of his deputies. "We're on the community's side. Al we had to do was talk to them and now we're walking with them. Everybody wins. The cops in this community, we condemn what happened. That guy's not one of us. You have police officers here that do it everyday for the right reasons. We're asking people just to trust the police. Trust us tonight we're walking with you. We prove it by our actions," Swanson said. "When I look at that all the good we do in the community across the nation can be destroyed in on act. We were the heroes a week ago so we're going to get back on the hero platform and treat people right. Give people a voice." protest  against  police  violence.

The Genesee County Sheriff asked protesters how he could support their efforts, and at their invitation, joined the march in Flint, Michigan.

In Kansas City, officers joined the marchers, holding signs protesting police View image on Twitterviolence.

Police chiefs in Atlanta and Houston have made a point of going out to talk to demonstrators–and to listen to them, expressing support for their concerns, and promising to help them demonstrate safely.

To be sure, gestures of sympathy won’t convince all the marchers that the police are really committed to the cause, but such efforts make it harder to mobilize large numbers to fight, break windows, or attack cars.

But small numbers of people can do a lot of damage. Windows have been broken, cars have been burned, and stores have been looted.

Reluctantly, I deploy the weak passive voice above because there are different explanations of just who is breaking windows:

Frantic and undisciplined individual demonstrators

“Outsiders” determined to make trouble.

Undercover police and agents provocateurs

Sinister antifa organizers looking to do damage

Right-wing white nationalists hoping to provoke a race war

Good evidence is scarce at the moment, but anyone who knows a little history would be prepared to believe that all of these groups are poking, trying to exploit the moment.

It’s all scary, first, because authorities use violence as an excuse to crack down on civil liberties and impose harsh measures.

Second, because violence gets in the way of addressing real systematic deficits in our criminal justice system.

Third, because we are still in the middle of a public health emergency, and it seems quite likely that the crowds and confrontation will help spread a virus to communities that are already suffering.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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5 Responses to Police, provocation, and protest

  1. northlandiguana says:

    How exactly does this kind of property damage (I reserve the word “violence” for bodily harm done to people, which has been almost 100% on cops and right-wing nuts) “get in the way of addressing real systematic deficits in our criminal justice system”? Right now it seems to be more effectively exposing those “deficits” (or design features) than years of peaceful protest. I’m very much in favor of peaceful protest–when it works. But peaceful protest and nonviolence in general has utterly failed to do so over and over, so what else is there? I suppose an organized insurrection, but that would both be far bloodier and allow the authorities to derail it simply by arresting and/or assassinating its leaders.

    • First, I don’t know just who is responsible for each broken window or fire, and I’ve seen videos online purporting to depict black protesters beating up a white storeowner. I assume a lot of different things are happening in different places. Second, the pictures on television and online will increasingly turn to burning police cars, broken windows, and demonstrators running in and out of closed stores. It’s already happening. Such pictures, however unrepresentative, will be used to justify even harsher policing, and push off the larger criticisms of the police, much less the criminal justice system, much less racial inequality in America. When violent acts, including property destruction, are the axis of polarization, I’m not sure the politics breaks in favor of reform of any kind. (Take a look back to the responses to violence in the 1960s and 1970s, and the ways in which reform has taken place in the past. ) You can rightly point out that the extent of reforms so far have been disappointing–much less than what’s needed. But is that a result of the limits of nonviolence? or is it the disruption of the Rodney King riots? or the failure to build political power in institutions. At this point, I’d be prepared to bet on the political power explanation. My take: dramatic protest works when it turns attention toward the issue and away from the tactics deployed. So far, police have been responsible for the most visible damage to people, underscoring the claims of the demonstrators. But tonight’s news showed looting at an electronics store and burning police cars. The tactics can then overshadow the justice claims. If I’m wrong–alas, it won’t be the first time–show me the times in American history when reforms you consider sufficiently significant have come from violent protest. [Concession: the early 1960s are tricky, because the Watts riots took place at the same time as much nonviolent organizing—but the ideas that translated to policy came from the well-established political organizations.]

      • olderwoman says:

        Cycling back to this, looks like Carl didn’t reply to your reply. I think the “nonviolent is always better” is clearly wrong, just as wrong as “nonviolent never works.” Don’t forget endogeneity: violent protests are more likely when violence has been used on the protesters and violent protests are more likely when nonviolent protest didn’t work. I of course agree about how media narratives play, this is my research project. But you can also see people struggling to control the media narrative. You can see those struggles playing out right now. I think partly because people with significant levels of power and political stakes in the game understand the backlash effect of the “riot” narrative and have an interest in keeping the focus on the “just grievances” narrative. You don’t have to be Black and oppressed to think that out of control police forces that are trying to intimidate elected politicians and side with one partisan view over another are a threat. As corporations are starting to chime in with support for the “just grievances” narrative, I’m seeing leftist complaints that corporations find racism easier to deal with than attacks on their profits.

      • Lots to respond to, but on one point: Nonviolence and endogeneity (context that allows nonviolent movements to emerge). I so admire Erika Chenoweth, Maria Stephan and their colleagues who try, heroically, to find ways to control statistically for context, and I so want to believe–but I’m not there yet. In a less academic way, you can say organizers have to know how to read the room, and match claims and tactics to target audience.

  2. Pingback: Why #JusticeforGeorge spurred a national movement | Politics Outdoors

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