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When are police aggressive — and when are they respectful — toward Black Lives Matter protesters?

The neighborhood — along with leadership — makes a difference

A demonstration last week in Los Angeles after a guilty verdict was announced at the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

On April 20, Americans waited for the jury’s verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd last year. Local officials across the country, including in Minneapolis, prepared for a not-guilty verdict that could set off angry protests. Governors deployed the National Guard to support city police. In a message to potential protesters, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a news conference right before the verdict: “Don’t test us. We are prepared.”

When protests erupt, many observers pay attention to the protesters — how they behave as a group and as individuals. Some local officials and political commentators portray protesters as looters seeking revenge or making mischief.

But how police behave toward protesters is just as important, if not more so, in determining how protests will go. In examining last year’s Black Lives Matter protests right after Floyd’s killing, my research finds that at first police treated protests in different neighborhoods quite differently — although their response was soon unified.

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How do police react to protesters?

During last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, some police and other security officers used highly aggressive tactics. In Portland, Ore., federal agents detained protesters in unmarked vans. In Buffalo, police shoved a 75-year-old protester to the ground, as seen in a video that went viral. As recently as this month, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order forbidding Brooklyn Center, Minn., law enforcement from using physical force and arresting journalists covering protests there. Police in the Minneapolis area have recently used aggressive tactics — including firing rubber bullets, punching and shoving people to the ground — that injured dozens of protesters. ­

­Last year, the Chicago Police Department was among those using aggressive tactics. Numerous protesters alleged rampant physical and verbal abuse by Chicago police against demonstrations last summer.

How I did my research

To understand when and where police used such tactics, I conducted an ethnographic study exploring how officers responded to Black Lives Matter protests in Chicago beginning May 30, several days after Floyd’s killing, and ending June 13. Chicago has the second-largest municipal police department in the United States and a significant history of police misconduct. I attended 11 protests in four neighborhood clusters in Chicago: South Side, North Side, downtown and West Side, selecting neighborhoods dominated by different socioeconomic and demographic groups. My goal was to observe whether police treated protesters differently based on a neighborhood’s predominant race, class and location in the city.

Following political scientists Joe Soss and Vesla Weaver, some scholars have begun using the term “race-class subjugated” to describe economically disadvantaged communities of color. The term focuses attention on how race and class interact in the lives of the racialized poor. Indeed, I found that police responded quite differently to protests in the predominantly White and upper-middle-class North Side of Chicago than in the city’s race-class-subjugated neighborhoods such as those clustered on the South Side — at least at first.

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Location mattered

During the first three days that I observed protests, policing tactics varied noticeably by location in the city. Just a few days later, these differences had diminished.

On Chicago’s predominantly White and wealthy North Side, hundreds of protesters gathered in a racially diverse crowd. A minimal number of police attended, and they stood by without interfering as those protesters sat in the streets of major intersections and blocked traffic. Organizers gave their speeches in peace.

The picture had been quite different a day earlier on the South Side. There the police decided when the protest would end and moved in with force at that moment. As soon as the protesters approached Hyde Park, home of the University of Chicago, police cars flew down the street. Officers jumped out of their vehicles, formed a line and assumed a ready stance with batons in hand. The message was clear: Leave now, or we will hurt you — a message reflecting the overall sentiment of local leadership in the city. At that time, Lightfoot (D) was giving speeches portraying protesters as violent and saying looting was spreading “like a wildfire.”

However, after three days, police began behaving similarly no matter where the protests were. I saw fewer officers in riot gear and more on bikes. My theory is that local elected officials or the Chicago police superintendent ordered the department to de-escalate and approach protesters with more respect and uniformity.

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As protests continue, how will police respond?

While Chauvin was convicted of murder, the killing of Black and Brown citizens by police has continued, often captured on video. In recent weeks, a police officer fatally shot Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center; another fatally shot 16-year old Ma’khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio, shortly before the Chauvin verdict; and in Chicago, an officer fatally shot 13-year old Adam Toledo. As each of these came to light, more protests erupted.

In response, many Republican-led state legislatures are considering — and at times passing — bills that would give police more power to arrest and detain protesters. Florida’s new “anti-rioting” law increases penalties for people who participate in violent protests, in ways that would make it easier for police to clamp down on demonstrations. The law is being challenged in court.

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Looking at where states are passing laws that would penalize protesters, my research suggests that context matters for how police respond. When mass protests occur again, we can expect location to matter in the first days of citywide demonstrations: Police are likely to be more hands-off in well-off, majority-White neighborhoods and harsher in neighborhoods dominated by poor people of color.

However, my research suggests that we can expect these differences to dissipate later on. Police may at first have the impulse to treat the privileged with care while cracking down on the racialized poor. Whether they correct that may be up to state and local governments.

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Monique Newton (@cvo_monique) is a PhD student in political science at Northwestern University studying Black political behavior and urban politics.