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The Cop & the Crowd

Kristian Williams

Police fear crowds. Crowds are dangerous, especially for authorities. Crowds are unpredictable. They allow for anonymity, or the feeling of anonymity, and thus breed courage. And, with any crowd worthy of the name, the police are certain to be outnumbered.

The need to control crowds is a permanent feature of political authority, but it presents a special set of problems in alleged democracies. The difficulty is especially acute when crowds gather for an explicitly political purpose. Open repression may have unfavorable political repercussions, and neutrality or acquiescence are not options for anyone who wants to remain in power. The question remains, always, how to control the crowd, not whether to do so.

This is not a matter that anyone who is politically active can afford to ignore. There has recently been a perceptible shift in the level of police response to large demonstrations, beginning with the WTO protests in Seattle. In the year since then, riot gear has become a fairly common sight. Police seem increasingly ready to use tear gas and less-lethal munitions. And, in connection with any significantly large event, pre-emptive arrests and no-protest zones have become almost standard. It is with this in mind that we must proceed, considering the various ways this problem has been addressed in the United States over the past 40 years, with reference to the broader social forces which have shaped the policing of protest during that time.

The History and Theory of Crowd Control since the 1960's

There are two modes of response available to police when confronting crowds. They carry the names "escalated force" and "negotiated management" (McPhail 50). "As its name indicates, the escalated force style of protest policing was characterized by the use of force as a standard way of dealing with demonstrations. Police confronted demonstrators with a dramatic show of force and followed with a progressively escalated use of force if demonstrators failed to abide by police instructions to limit or stop their activities." (McPhail 53). Such force could take different forms. Sometimes, arrests quickly followed any violation of the law, or even occurred where no law had been broken. These arrests were forceful and were often used to target and remove "troublemakers." Other times, police would use force in lieu of arrests, either to disperse the crowd or to issue summary punishment against those who disobeyed their orders (McPhail 53). First amendment rights were generally ignored (McPhail 51). "Well-known demonstrations in which police used the escalated force approach include those in the Birmingham civil rights campaign (May 1963), the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, and the confrontation between student protesters and National Guard soldiers at Kent State University (May 1970)" (McPhail 50-51).

The differences between escalated force and negotiated management are clear. Under the negotiated management model, "Police do not try to prevent demonstrations, but attempt to limit the amount of disruption they cause. . . . Police attempt to steer demonstrations to times and places where disruption will be minimized. . . . Even civil disobedience, by definition illegal, is not usually problematic for police; they often cooperate with protesters when their civil disobedience is intentionally symbolic" (McPhail 52). Under negotiated management, arrests are used only as a last resort, and only used against individuals who have clearly violated the law (McPhail 53). Force, likewise, is kept to a minimum. Rather than trying to disperse the crowd, the police plan so as to contain it.

With this management model, police focus on preventing a disturbance, rather than responding to one. They do this by negotiating with protest organizers, by reaching agreements on elements such as the route of the march, by regulating demonstrations through a system of permits, and by encouraging organizers to provide their own marshals and exercise discipline over the group as a whole.

Negotiated management was designed to correct for the excesses and shortcomings of the escalated force model. Following the urban riots of the 1960's, several commissions were set up to study the disturbances, their causes, and the police response to them. Most prominent among these were the Kerner, Eisenhower, and Scranton Commissions. All three bodies found that police actions against crowds often exacerbated, and in some cases provoked, the civil disorder. Consequently, they advised a number of changes take place in police handling of demonstrations. The Kerner Commission, for instance, recommended a strategy emphasizing manpower over firepower, prevention over reaction, and increased management and regimentation of the police.

What strikes the contemporary reader about these reports is the apparent schizophrenia of them all. They decry social injustice with criticisms of racial discrimination, prison conditions, and the plight of the urban poor. They push for greater inclusivity at all levels for society. But they also denounce the activities by which attention was successfully brought to these problems and change affected. The Eisenhower report explicitly denounces civil disobedience and the Scranton report insists that those responsible for campus unrest be disciplined. These reports push for rigorous adherence to Constitutional guarantees of free speech and the like, while at the same time offering precise instruction on the means of limiting, containing, and controlling protests.

It is tempting to read such documents as well-intentioned but politically naive defenses of the rule of law. But, rather more appropriately, one might also understand them as handbooks for social managers and others responsible for controlling dissent. Taken as such, their advocacy of civil liberties and the principle of minimal force reflect the sophistication of the liberal approach to repression. Negotiated management was an innovation in the means of crowd control, but the basic aim remains unchanged. Both negotiated management and escalated force represent a defense of the status quo.

Seattle: A Turning Point

Given this background, it is easy to see why the Seattle police were ill-prepared for what happened at the WTO protests in November of 1999. According to the Seattle Police Department's After Action Report police planners adopted a negotiated management strategy early on and failed to consider contingencies which would make other options necessary. Despite well-publicized plans to disrupt the WTO conference, the police decided to "Trust that Seattle's strong historical precedents of peaceful protest and our on-going negotiations with protests groups would govern the actions of demonstrators" (Kimerer 18).

In this, they were twice disappointed. Not only did radicals refuse to play the game by its usual rules, even respectable protest groups were unable to keep their members in line. Hence, when police changed the route of the permitted AFL march, hoping to keep union members away from the downtown disturbance, they were surprised when several thousand of the marchers ignored the marshals, left the route, and joined the fray (Kimerer 40).

The SPD offered this analysis of their mistake: "While we needed to think about a new paradigm of disruptive protest, we relied on our knowledge of past demonstrations, concluding that the 'worst case' would not occur here" (Kimerer 3).

Such blindness is a typical fault of police agencies. Equally typical is the panic that follows a defeat‹a panic felt not only in Seattle, but around the country, resulting in the sudden shift in police tactics at demonstrations nationwide. "Changes and learning processes of the police are initiated by an analyses of problematic public order interventions, that is, the police learn from their failures. . . . The importance of the body of past experience, however, seems such that it prevents the police from anticipating change. Tactical and strategic errors in confrontations with new movements and protest forms may trigger off a relapse into an antagonistic protest policing style" (della Porta and Reiter 30).

The response from the authorities has sadly lacked imagination. In general, the analyses of the police defeat in Seattle fall into roughly two categories‹those that defend the negotiated management model, and those that urge a return to escalated force. The Seattle City Council's WTO Accountability Review Committee defends negotiated management; the R.M. McCarthy and Associates report (commissioned by Mayor Paul Schell) makes the case for escalated force. Neither document is surprising given the history of this debate, but it is worth considering their arguments as they represent the current positions on each side.

The McCarthy and Associates report was written primarily by three retired law enforcement officers from New York and Los Angeles. In it, they discuss the planning, preparations, and execution of the SPD's WTO operation, attributing its failure to the weaknesses of the negotiated management model. They argue that "Had a restrictive safety zone been established, protest areas designated outside of the zone, and additional personnel from other agencies been planned for and deployed in a pre-emptive manner on November 26, the results would likely have been different" (132). They specifically recommend the early deployment of National Guard troops on "training" status, citing the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention as historical evidence of the efficacy of such a move (38).

In sum, the McCarthy report suggests that the police state established in response to the demonstrations should have been set up in advance. In fact, it argues that the police response didn't go far enough. "The review team believes the decision to allow any previously scheduled marches or demonstrations to proceed after violence had erupted was unwise" (59). Furthermore, they urge the removal of language in police policy suggesting that crowds be moved or dispersed "peacefully," and suggest adding explicit instructions that police make as many arrests as possible (129-130).

Luckily, elected officials are likely to find such draconian policies difficult to stomach. The City Council's review committee referred to the McCarthy report as a "crude and unsatisfying" document (WTO 13), and reached almost entirely opposing conclusions. Rather than pressing for a more forceful response, the City Council's committee concluded that the SPD's operations were often senseless, and better left undone. "Members of the public, including demonstrators, were victims of ill-conceived and sometimes pointless police actions to 'clear the streets'" (WTO 3). Such an approach, they suggest, is always brutal and often self-defeating. For example, "The unintended consequence of police actions on Capitol Hill was to bring sleepy residents out of their homes and mobilize them as 'resistors.'" (WTO 10). It may have been preferable to have let the crowds mill about in the streets, and disperse on their own. In advancing this analysis, the Accountability Review Committee echoes the Scranton Commission: "[T]o respond to peaceful protest with repression and brutal tactics is dangerously unwise. It makes extremists of moderates, deepens the divisions in the nation and increases the chances that future protests will be violent" (U.S. President's Commission 2).

While both sides acknowledge that better preparation was needed, the question of what, precisely, the police should have prepared for is hotly disputed. The City Council's committee, while recommending that more officers and better security barriers be used to deter lawbreaking, also condemned the abandonment of civil liberties and the principle of minimal force once the disturbance was underway. They urged, not for more force, but for increased accommodation as a remedy: "It is clear to the committee that demonstrators who sought arrest‹in order to underline their statements of principle‹should have been accommodated by police. Tear gas is a cruel implement to use against persons trying to make deeply felt statements against what they view as injustice" (WTO 15).

Essentially, the City Council's committee thinks the problem was not with the negotiated management strategy, but with its implementation. This may, however, rely on a misconception about the aims of the demonstrators. A great many of those who took part in the direct action did not have any intention of getting arrested. They were there not only to "underline their statements of principle" against the WTO, but to disrupt its proceedings and shut the fucking thing down!

McCarthy and Associates imply that where negotiated management failed on November 30, escalated force succeeded on December 1. If this is true, then the lesson of Seattle ought to be that the negotiated management model is one strategy of control, but that to exclusively rely on it is to court disorder. Escalated force must always be prepared for, as a backup. This is really a community policing model applied to demonstrations: if the Good Cop does his job well enough, the public need never see the Bad Cop. But the Bad Cop must still be there, off stage, in case the Good Cop fails.

What the McCarthy team recommends, and what we've seen to various degrees since Seattle, is to re-establish escalated force as the primary strategy of control. They recommend that the police strategy center on the use of force and that negotiation be used to gather intelligence and clearly outline the boundaries for protest organizers. The idea here is if the Bad Cop is bad enough, he may only need to act in minor or symbolic ways to keep the crowd in line. Negotiation with the Good Cop starts to look more attractive, as does playing by the rules. This, in essence, is the strategy of political terrorism. The threat of violence is made clear at every turn, and a politically useful climate of fear is carefully developed to control the population.


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