I confess I missed the great Washington IMF/WTO riots, having been called away by matters more urgent than another set of teenagers exercising their hormones. Maybe I’ve been derelict. I gather that the city still stands, so maybe the teenagers also were derelict. By word of mouth, I’ve heard reports running from a view that the police did a splendid job, to the view that they massively violated civil and constitutional rights and were no end lawless. The former seems a closer to truth.
Anyway, regarding demonstrations and cops, a few thoughts:
I did get a chance to watch a demonstrator or two preparing for the IMF business here, and heard accounts of preparations made for it in other states. It looked to be exactly like the protests of the Sixties, with which I had considerable experience as an observer. There were the same righteousness, fervor, sense of incandescent moral superiority, desire for excitement, blank ignorance, and obvious confusion of capitalism with their parents.
There were the usual undertones of desire for a brawl. By vowing to shut down governmental functions, protesters can of course be assured of a brawl should they actually try to do it.
One kid told me of being offered a free ticket from the West Coast in exchange for a promise to get arrested. The demonstrators had gas masks, sure evidence of wanting to push things to a fight. Organizers were quoted, accurately I would guess, as saying that they wanted not a demonstration, but a riot. There are good reasons for this. Riots are more fun. They vent more bottled-up anger at the unsatisfactory nature of life. And they get more attention that peacefully walking around with misspelled placards.
The job of the police is to keep the demonstrators from causing too much trouble until they get bored and go away. An excellent way to do this is by intimidation. Large numbers of cops in riot gear are intimidating. Later this is packaged by some of the media as fascism and overkill, because there was after all not much rioting. It works.
At another riot in Washington ages ago, I watched maybe a dozen cops suddenly arrive to block a street to a (at the moment) fairly peaceful group of demonstrators. A face-off occurred. One of the protesters in the back of the mob, where I was, picked up a bottle and started to throw it at the police. I grabbed his arm and made dire remarks about the future configuration of his face if he pursued the effort.
His idea — again, I knew the class of people well — was, if he was lucky, to hit a cop in the face. The cops might then charge the crowd, which might then begin throwing more bottles. A stand-off would become a fight. People would get hurt. Meanwhile the guy throwing the first bottle would have slipped safely away. Thus was it done.
From a cop’s point of view, riots can be frightening. To watchers on television, the police may look powerful, armed, the embodiment of force and authority, the heavies in the situation. Often they aren’t.
Crowds are themselves intimidating. Even standing on a darkened street corner in a bad neighborhood, with a dozen people angry about an arrest gathering on all sides, is distinctly uncomfortable. Make it a dozen cops and three hundred angry demonstrators in a park, and it’s worse.
The cops know that if the mob really wants to overpower them, it can. Hostility is intense and palpable. Adrenaline flows heavily on both sides. Tempers become short. If protesters start throwing bottles or bricks, which happens, and the cops don’t have shields and visored helmets, the choice becomes to attack or retreat.
If a cop gets hit with a brick, and he’s spitting blood and teeth, the other cops will in all likelihood charge and beat the stuffing out of people. Maybe they shouldn’t. (On the other hand, maybe they should.) But they aren’t hairdressers. This the organizers want.
The trick is to prevent the situation from degenerating to violent chaos. Superior force is an important key: If the protesters see that they can’t win, they won’t try. I think, but can’t prove, that scary-looking riot gear helps. So does rain, if you can get it. Demonstrators typically are willing to get gassed for moral causes, but not to get wet.
Then you avoid overreacting to provocation, grit your teeth, and wait for the kids to have to go back to school.
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