October 24, 2020

Mass Demonstrations – The Never-Ending Struggle to Get It Right

Dear PERF members, 

Last Saturday, I watched the new Aaron Sorkin movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7, on Netflix. It’s set in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the large anti-war demonstrations that took place.

After watching the movie, something struck me. Police agencies have been dealing with large, sometimes violent protests for decades. And over the years, we have learned a lot about how to manage demonstrations more effectively than the Chicago Police Department did back in 1968.

We’ve learned things like developing relationships with protest leaders ahead of time to facili­tate cooperation. Responding to a mass demonstration in gear and with equipment that are proportional to the mood of the crowd. Separating protesters and counter-protesters to prevent violent conflict, and avoiding mass arrests if at all possible. Also, clearly communicating to officers ahead of time what the expectations are, and using social media and other communications tools to keep the public informed.

These lessons are documented in three major reports on the police response to demonstrations that PERF published in 2006, and 2011, and 2018.

But when you look at the violent demonstrations that have occurred in 2020, our reports don’t seem adequate. 

The size, intensity, and quantity of protests we have seen this year are unprecedented. And police for the most part were trained in one set of strategies, but have been encountering a different set of conditions. 

To mention a few of the challenges:

Violence:  The amount of violence we have seen against officers is off the charts.  Often, the fire-setting, smashing of businesses, looting, and violence against officers occur in the late-night hours, after the peaceful demonstrators have gone home. In other cases, violent offenders use peaceful protesters as cover – for example, by hiding behind demonstrators and throwing rocks or other objects over their heads, targeting police on the other side.

Proliferation of violence from one city to another:  Hostile tactics, such as throwing frozen water bottles and fireworks at officers, are seen in one city, and protesters in other locations see the videos and adopt the same actions. Who ever heard of throwing fireworks at the police before this?  But in 2020, it’s become common. So much of this seems very mean-spirited. 

Dwindling options for responding to force:  Watching the Chicago 7 movie, I was reminded of how difficult – and ugly – it can be when police officers go “hands on.” In Chicago in 1968, officers relied mostly on their wooden batons, which resulted in numerous protesters being injured and bloodied. The television images broadcast across the country were not pretty.

So, since 1968 police have tried to find ways to handle demonstrations that minimize the use of force. New, less-lethal tools such as bean-bag projectiles have emerged, but these too have caused serious injuries in some cases.

The most recent development is that some cities are taking chemical agents off the table. But when police need to shut down riots to prevent neighborhoods from going up in flames, chemical agents have been one of the best ways to disperse a crowd.  Just what are the options for police to disperse large, violent crowds in cities that ban chemical agents?

Demonstrations that don’t have organizers:  Years ago, large demonstrations were planned by established civil rights organizations and other groups.  But most of today’s demonstrations happen more spontaneously and organically, through social media. Often, nobody seems to be in charge of the event. So what are police to do when there are no leaders they can work with? What can they do when they are blindsided by multiple acts of violence being committed simultaneously in different parts of a city?

Exhaustion:   Some cities have seen protests every night, or nearly every night, for months on end. So in addition to everything else, officers get exhausted by the 12-hour shifts and cancelled days off, and by the tension of working demonstrations again and again.  In some cases, the constant attacks on the police seem to have resulted in officers losing patience and using unnecessary force themselves.

Often it seems like police just can’t win:  For example, officers respond to a demonstration in regular “soft” uniforms, and they get physically attacked.  So the next day, police show up in protective riot gear, and they’re criticized for appearing militaristic.

Appearances can be misleading:  These days, everyone has a smartphone with a video camera.  But if an officer moves forcefully against someone who threw a rock or a Molotov cocktail a moment earlier, the public may only see video of the officer’s use of force. That video goes viral, and results in a larger, angrier crowd the next night.

The police chief becomes the scapegoat:  It’s difficult to imagine how police can be expected to mount a perfect response to large-scale events that are constantly changing over the course of hours, with relatively small numbers of criminal offenders bent on violence, embedded in crowds of peaceful protesters.  

But somehow, the public – and especially mayors, city council members, and other elected officials – expect police to manage these outbreaks without ever making a mistake – or even making a reasonable decision that turns out badly because the situation was chaotic.

It’s a ridiculous expectation. But police chiefs are getting fired over these incidents, often by mayors who provide no explanation of what the chief supposedly did wrong.  They simply show the chief the door. We’ve even seen mayors go out of their way to humiliate the chief, in order to distance themselves from the police and try to save their own political future. It makes you wonder where these mayors expect to find a new chief to take the job.

It would help if we had more political leaders who would stand up and say that the violence has to stop and won’t be tolerated.

The old strategies that police have learned now seem obsolete and ineffective.  We know how to facilitate peaceful demonstrations, but we’re having trouble managing rioters. 

We need a new set of guidelines. PERF will be addressing this issue in coming months.  PERF will be looking to develop new protocols for the dramatic changes in managing demonstrations that turn violent. What can we learn from what happened in the summer of 2020? What worked, and what didn’t?  What can we learn from international partners in Northern Ireland and elsewhere about defusing violent confrontations? Stay tuned for more details.

In the meantime, I welcome your views and suggestions. Have a great weekend!