Handling Protest: When Will We Ever Learn?

Wisconsin Protest
Protester at the Wisconsin state capitol rotunda.

Since the days of the the labor and civil rights movements and through the era of the protests against the war in Vietnam, we seem to have learned very little about the best way for government officials to respond to those who disagree with them.

This is a sad situation in a country such as ours which professes the values of freedom and justice that it does.

I extensively wrote about the lessons I learned in Madison handling all of those kind of protest events having to do with labor, civil rights, student, and foreign intervention issues. In the meantime, my old town of Madison, Wisc. has been engaged in a series of protests which sought to recall an elected governor (it didn’t), access rights to the state capitol, and whether or not assembling (and even spectating) is an illegal assembly. Is it illegal to watch those deemed to be illegally assembling by police? [To view YouTube videos concerning these protests CLICK HERE.]

In my BOOK I talk about how police should approach and respond to these protests:

“In a democracy, police have a very complex role compared to what is expected of the police in other systems. The power of the state must be balanced with the rights of an individual; other systems  have no balance requirement—only to use the power given them by the state. Uniquely, police in a democracy don’t exist solely to maintain order on behalf of the state, but also to assure that the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen are protected in the process. “This is never more evident as when a totalitarian state responds to public protest. In this instance, the goal of the police is to prevent or repress, not facilitate, protest. We see that in today in Syria, China, and other less-than-democratic governments. In these instances, the very act of disagreeing with the government is illegal and subject to police action.

“A democratic state and its police ensure its citizens the right of speech, public assembly, and the airing of grievances. This is essential in a democracy because citizens are ultimately in charge through their elected representatives and must have the right to speak out and organize to make their desires known. While the state itself has the monopoly on the use of force, that monopoly must be used sparingly in a democracy and only in accordance with the rule of law—there are no sovereign rights except those held by the people. In fact, as President Lincoln noted in his Gettysburg Address, ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. How police in a democracy respond to public protest is a key indicator of their competency” (p. 49-50).

If in a series of protests against England our nation was founded, what does that mean for us today? What is the role of public protest? And who determines when it is illegal? Why is many governmental officials seem to continue to repress protest rather than facilitate its exercise as guaranteed in our nation’s Constitution? But most importantly, why can’t police approach protest in a more controlled way and, at first, attempt to dialogue and negotiate the situation rather than quickly resorting to arrest as the only suitable response?

Early in my police career, I began to re-think the role of police and protest after I had witnessed and participated in too many that had gone wrong:

“I was beginning to see that proximity mattered, being close was safe—just like on the beat. Get close, talk, stay in contact. The further the police positioned themselves from people in the crowd, the greater the chance the crowd would depersonalize them; to see them as objects and not people.  Therefore, getting closer to the people, whether in managing crowds or patrolling neighborhoods on foot, seemed to be a good basic strategy that needed to be experimented with” (p. 75).

So, that’s what I did when I came to Madison. For over 20 years, we in Madison responded to anti-war rallies, civil rights demonstrations, student block parties, and other mass gatherings without substantial incident. How did that happen? We developed what today is being called the “soft approach” (see the recent work of Dr. Clifford Stott at the University of Liverpool. What Stott and others found is that dialogue and liaison are effective police strategies in crowd situations because they allowed for an on-going risk assessment that improved command-level decision-making. Using this strategy, there was a better outcome because it also encouraged ‘self-regulation’ in the crowd and thus forestalled the use of unnecessary force by police during moments of tension. (For more, also READ THIS.]

As I found out during my career, physical force is not always the best first response. Thinking people know that. So should police and their leaders.

[See more of my blogs on the subject of protest and police on this blogsite in October and November, 2011 — “Crowds, Protests, and Police,” and “More on Protesters and Police.”]