The presidentially endorsed “law and order” approach to peaceful political protest that we saw too many times over the past two weeks often flouts the law and it certainly doesn’t keep order. A militaristic “show of force” against peaceful demonstrators is antagonistic and counterproductive, and that’s been proven over and over again throughout American history. I wouldn’t expect President Trump to understand that, since he’s new to this and seems to govern by ego, but American police departments have known for decades that it’s a mistake to attack unarmed, law-abiding citizens. But since the killing of George Floyd, we have seen unprecedented displays of unprovoked violence by law enforcement officers against civilians peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights, including members of the media. And we’ve seen, time and again, how firing tear gas, pepper spray, pepper balls and “non-lethal bullets” at crowds of protesters only escalates conflict and leads to greater damage, more injuries and less trust and support of law enforcement.
In Oakland I was stunned to witness the police reaction to the protests. It’s one thing to go after looters and vandals. They can, and should, be identified and apprehended. But they’re a tiny minority. The vast majority of people protesting George Floyd’s death are just, well, protesting. There’s nothing illegal about that. To the contrary, protest is one of the foundational principles of our country. There’s simply no reason for riot cops to declare a peaceful gathering of Americans, no matter how large or how disruptive it may be to traffic, an “illegal assembly” and then break it up by force. It doesn’t work. It makes people madder. It doesn’t prevent violence, it causes it. It triggers the very thing the police presence is supposed to deter.
Here’s an example: In the summer of 1997, a monthly bike ride through San Francisco devolved into confrontational chaos. For five years, on the last Friday of the month, “Critical Mass” had been bringing hundreds of riders to The City’s downtown, both as a celebration of cycling and a protest of how hostile and dangerous the streets were for bikers. In 1996 and ’97, the events grew larger, with cyclists numbering in the thousands, often blocking major thoroughfares and snarling rush hour traffic. The mayor at the time, Willie Brown, was determined not to let these renegade riders hijack his City. So he ordered the SFPD to enforce the traffic laws and crack down on the bikers. Riot cops set up lines. Bikers were “kettled” on the streets and arrested by the dozens. Clogged intersections became battlegrounds. Some bikers brawled with cops, others with angry commuters tired of stewing in their stranded cars. Bikes were destroyed, their riders hauled away. The evening commute was a mess, downtown a war zone.
Over months of covering these protests, often broadcasting from a bicycle, I observed that left to their own devices, the Critical Massers would block an intersection briefly, whoop and holler, declare victory, get back on their bikes and move on. Only when the police arrived and created conflict by drawing battle lines and ordering the bikers to disperse did the protesters stand their ground and go to war with the cops. The monthly showdowns were increasingly destructive and, for the City, expensive. Why not, I wondered, just facilitate the rides, as the police had done in the past? Stop traffic when the bikes show up, let the cyclists have their way for a few minutes, then escort them on their way? Follow them through town, halt cross traffic so no one gets hurt, but let them make their point without trying to arrest them. Cops could even ride along with them.
Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of their militarized approach, Mayor Brown and the cops eventually returned to those very tactics. Nothing else was working and they came to their own conclusion that they had to try something different. Of course, it was a success. What had been a tense monthly clash became a peaceful celebration, a festival on wheels that eventually attracted families and children and became a mainstream cultural event. The City stopped spending a fortune on overtime, downtown businesses and motorists no longer had their windows smashed and their property destroyed, and over time, the cyclists, and the City at large, won. The bicycle advocates became a powerful political force, and today San Francisco is one of the most bike-friendly cities in America, with hundreds of miles of bike lanes and more in the works (although debate rages on within the cycling community about the effectiveness of Critical Mass, and over the pace of improvements to the City’s cycling infrastructure).
The notion that de-escalation would be more successful than applying force was not new. Countless studies and numerous government commissions had already reached that same conclusion over decades of research.
Yet here we are, a generation later, and America’s urban police departments still see traffic-stopping political protest as an excuse for armed conflict. It’s not. It just doesn’t work. Knocking down disabled people, gassing women and children, punching media in the face, just antagonizes and alienates Americans, and reinforces the message of the demonstrations. Using unjustifiable violence against nonviolent people who are protesting unjustified violence proves the protesters right: “Look, the cops are using violence again, even though it’s completely unnecessary.” Go after looters, sure. Target those who are ransacking Target. When police are attacked, they need to defend themselves. But gassing a peaceful crowd incites vandalism and looting, and galvanizes their allies. Disarmament, engagement and opening a dialogue with protesters defuses tension and prevents the very trouble the cops fear.
In college I took a course on national security policy from Lyman Kirkpatrick, a legendary former high-ranking CIA official. He was a fascinating but intimidating figure. We assumed, my classmates and I, that he not only knew where the bodies were buried, he had buried some of them himself. The course included a unit on the appropriate use of force, and when it was preferable to diplomacy. To our surprise, Kirkpatrick’s lesson was that force is almost never called for, and it should only be used as an absolute last resort. Force, he taught us, is destabilizing and destructive, rarely achieves the desired aim, and in almost every instance, a better result can be obtained through dialogue and diplomacy. Citing his own experiences during World War II and as one of the original officers of what became the CIA, and later leading U.S. intelligence efforts in Asia and Cuba, he taught us that history is littered with costly and avoidable military mistakes. There are exceptions, of course; fighting and defeating Hitler, rather than appeasing him, was inarguably necessary, for example. But a trigger-happy commander in chief might well have ignited a thermonuclear world war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, rather than effect a peaceful result through de-escalation. A show of force, he argued, is almost always a show of weakness, of fear, rather than strength.
Yes, the battles in our streets are on a much smaller scale, and don’t threaten humankind, but the same lessons apply. In the Bay Area, at least, none of the George Floyd protests turned into “riots” until the police lit the fuse. A few dozen opportunistic criminals stealing things from stores is not a riot. It’s a smash-and-grab crime spree. Thousands of panicking people fleeing clouds of toxic smoke, with some induced to turn and fight back, set fires, throw bottles and trash cans and debris at the cops, becomes a riot. And using gas during a respiratory pandemic, when numerous studies suggest it could help spread the coronavirus, is especially dangerous and foolish.
We ask a lot of our law enforcement officers. We expect them to be patient and tolerant, to know when their lives are really in potential jeopardy and when they’re not, to make life-or-death decisions in a split second and always get them right. It’s a really tough job, one most of us could not and are not willing to do. But it’s not too much to ask that they not show up at a picnic and turn it into a wildfire because someone in the crowd may have a pack of matches in his pocket. Especially when decades of experience and research have already shown that they, and we, are much better off when they just let the people have their say.