As Baltimore burned this week, the political right’s chattering class seized on the specter of civil unrest to make the case for more police, more guns and a more liberal use of force. Every broken window and burned-out building becomes a prop in their theater of the absurd, in which a rotating cast of characters takes turns rationalizing police repression.
“[T]his is why the police have militarized,” tweeted Red State’s Melissa Clouthier, adding, “Lawlessness begs for more force.” Then there were the choice words of ex-police officer and Fox News contributor Bo Dietl: “The word should go out on the street if they are going to assault cops … the cops will use deadly physical force and do what they have to do to bring peace back to that community.”
Never mind that the use of deadly force against black bodies was the spark that set off the protests in the first place. Never mind that the Baltimore Police Department showed up to a high school student walkout in full riot gear, armed for battle and ready for war. Never mind that wave after wave of nonviolent civil disobedience, from Brooklyn to Baltimore, has been met with paramilitary tactics and military-grade weaponry in the years since Occupy Wall Street.
Beyond the constitutional and moral questions raised by this type of protest policing, there is also the empirical question: Does it even work?
New interviews with 80 participants in the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements suggest that such policing may be having the opposite effect of the one intended. As I note in my new book, “The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement,” tactics aimed at combating “violent radicalization” tend to have a radicalizing effect on protesters and an escalating effect on police encounters. Crucially, they also have a chilling effect on nonviolent forms of protest, leaving little space for anything but confrontation.
Take the case of Oakland, Calif., which was the scene of some of the worst violence during the Occupy protests of 2011-12, and again during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last fall following the Michael Brown verdict. It was only when the Oakland Police Department moved in on the protesters in military formation, firing “less-lethal” weapons and tear gas into the crowd, that some of the more militant elements in its ranks took to rioting.
Or, by way of contrast, take the case of New York City last fall, where, after years of policing protests with aggressive, repressive tactics, officers were finally ordered to stand down. While the demonstrations were disruptive, no doubt, shutting down major bridges, roads and tunnels, they were anything but violent. The only outbursts of aggression occurred in the context of “kettles”—where police box protesters in — and unprovoked arrests, which invariably trigger tensions and emotional reactions. We can expect to see more of those in the wake of Wednesday’s crackdown in Lower Manhattan.
To be sure, there are always going to be those who show up to protests raring for battle. Some of them, as the Internet has taught us, may be undercover police officers or agents provocateurs. Others may be self-styled revolutionaries who preach a diversity of tactics against what they believe to be illegitimate institutions of private property and state power. But these elements are inevitably in the minority at mass protests like the ones in Baltimore.
The more common scenario is one in which ordinary people take to the streets as a last resort, when other avenues of action have been closed off to them, and when they have no other means to be heard. When they are denied even this — their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble in public — they have one of two options available to them. They can give up and go home, or they can hold their ground and see what happens next.
What happens next tends to follow an all-too-predictable script. The police will either kettle a crowd of demonstrators or attempt to disperse them by any means necessary, whether with batons, rubber bullets, sound cannons or tear-gas canisters. The use of force on an unarmed crowd — especially one drawn from an already traumatized community — tends to foreclose the possibility of nonviolent action, because you can’t demonstrate peacefully while you’re under attack, and, at worst, invites a violent response. Protesters and police become locked in a logic of escalation.
There is always a basic asymmetry of power in the encounter between protesters and police. But power does not equal legitimacy, and police departments across the country are facing an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy. Under such conditions, many people will find it rational to rebel — not least, young people of color in poor and working-class communities like Freddie Gray’s, who have long been familiar with the illegitimate use of force.
Under such conditions, if police and public officials were really interested in restoring peaceful order to their streets — rather than responding punitively — they would find it correspondingly rational to stand down. Instead, as we’ve seen in Baltimore, Gov. Larry Hogan opted to escalate by sending in the National Guard.
The solution to the violence in our streets is not more violence in our streets. When it comes to protest policing, less is more.