Dissent in the era of militarized policing

Police outside the 2012 NATO summit. Photo by Michael Kappel I Flickr user m-i-k-e
Nadia Kayyali

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, thousands of people converged on Washington, D.C. to see Barack Obama sworn in for his second term as president. Some of those people were celebrating the inauguration. Some of them were protesters. The Secret Service and FBI is estimated there would be approximately 800,000 attendees, while reports from the White House have now reached one million. Unsurprisingly, security was heavy. However, as a report released by the National Lawyers Guild last week reveals, policing of protest has taken an ominous tone in the last few years. As events such as the inauguration are designated National Special Security Events, and police become more militarized, suppression of free speech has become the norm. As we celebrate the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fundamental contribution to social justice in this country, it behooves us to take a moment and examine where we are as a country when it comes to our right to peaceful protest.

Militarized policing has become the norm. What that means is that modern protest policing has, as sociologist Patrick Gilham describes, shifted from a negotiation and management model to one of “strategic incapacitation.” This is a suite of tactics that deploys three main tactics to prevent the disorder caused by large-scale protests. They include surveillance:

…pre-emptive arrests and less-lethal weapons to selectively disrupt or incapacitate protesters that engage in disruptive protest tactics or might do so, and the extensive control of space in order to isolate and contain disruptive protesters whether actual or potential.

Violence during protests is certainly nothing new. However, for those of us born after the African-American civil rights era and events such as Stonewall, it looks as though the brutality committed by police during that time become less common, at least for a few decades. It seems to have now returned. It may have been years since police released dogs into a crowd. On the other hand, the use of tear gas and other “less-lethal” weapons has become almost common place, as has the sight of protesters bleeding from their heads. Policing today occurs in a completely different social context, but it is clear that it is brutal, and it is militarized.

The NLG’s report emphasizes that, at least for the last ten years, “dissenters are prefigured by the authorities as combat enemies.” Tracing the evolution of this shift back to the WTO protests in Seattle, it emphasizes both the militarization of police and the tactic of demonizing “anarchist” protestors. The militarization of police is, of course, clear to anyone who experienced the tactics used against Occupy protestors. Officers marched in rank, refused to have humanizing conversations with protestors, and used weaponry such as long range acoustic devices, tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bags. They also infiltrated and surveilled Occupy protests.

Why this change? The Chief of Police of Seattle during the WTO protests, Norm Stamper, argues that internal structures in police departments “emphasize bureaucratic regulations over conduct on the streets” and that external political structures have led to the militarization of police forces, most notably the post-9/11 culture of the federal government. Of his decisions to use military-like force in Seattle, in particular tear gas, he notes:

The cop in me supported the decision to clear the intersection. But the chief in me should have vetoed it…. My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose.

There seems to be more happening here than his analysis suggests, however. What we are fighting against today is in some ways more insidious than segregation. What gets people in the streets now is issues like corporate power, racially-motivated immigration laws, and torture that, while it is very real, happens very far away. While the tactics used by the police are ugly, it is easier to write them off as affecting only extreme activists, not “everyday people.” Perhaps because we seem to have become more complacent as a society, it is easier to dismiss the need for mass peaceful protest.

For the future of this country, I hope that is not the case. I hope that we agree that we should have the right to attend a huge event in our capital, like the inauguration, and make our voices heard. I hope that issues like the death of civilians from targeted drone strikes and the deportation of thousands of migrants are real enough for us to see that dissent is essential. While we need not agree with the political motives of those who are facing brutality and suppression as they exercise their First Amendment rights, we do need to stand up for a society where we still have those rights. The legacy of the civil rights movement belongs first and foremost to the African-american community, and it cannot and should not be co-opted. I also am not trying to compare in any way the experiences of freedom riders and bus boycotters to protesters today. They are historically different. That being said, every single person committed to social justice can learn from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who taught us that the government will not change without pressure, and if we are quiet, we are complicit in its worst sins. As Dr. King said:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Originally appeared on the Bill of Rights Defense Committee's People's Blog for the Constitution.