Charlottesville: That’s Not Us!

Years ago, when the KKK wanted to demonstrate in Madison (WI) they were small in numbers. As police, our mission was to protect their right to free speech. We had to protect the Klan in the face of a very large crowd of anti-protesters. The same thing happened in the late 1970s in Skokie (IL) when the American Nazi Party wanted to demonstrate in a community of which there were 5,000 Holocaust survivors and also during a Klan rally in Denver in 1992. These protests are on track to become even more violent. Charlottesville will, no doubt, be the turning point.

The challenge today is how police are going to handle protests when the protestors out-number those who assemble to protest against the protesters? To a certain extent, that’s new. Yet, that is the special and unique job of police in a free society – to protect that First Amendment — regardless.

Madison had the unique opportunity in the past to develop a method of responding to protest that came to be called “The Madison Method.” We had plenty of practice during the anti-war and civil rights marches. We learned to  contact both “sides” of an issue and negotiated our response and what we expected from them. Early contact was essential.

TheMadison Method of Responding to Protest

  • Facilitate and protect the right of people to assemble and petition their government.
  • Always use restraint and care in the use of force.
  • Dialogue before, during, and after the event.
  • Be effective and noticeable peacekeepers.
  • The focus should be on the protest, not the police.
  • Be open and communicate with the media.
  • Continuously improve this method.


Along the same lines of crowds and violence, The British Home Office has been concerned about the behavior of their passionate and often violent football (soccer) fans. Commendably, the British consulted academia for some help and found Dr. Clifford Stott, a social psychologist who studied crowd behavior. We would do well to follow what he learned and taught police.

Stott is one of Europe’s leading researchers regarding crowd behavior and he advocates a different approach for police to use when handling crowds; in short, “The Madison Method.” He found that:

“[L]arge-scale disorder tended to emerge and escalate because indiscriminate, heavy-handed policing generated a group mentality among large numbers of fans that was based on shared perceptions that the police action was illegitimate. This had the effect of drawing ordinary fans into conflict with the police.”[1]

So when a crowd perceives the police as overreacting or being heavy-handed, its members tend to stop observing and start taking action. It is exactly what I had experienced early in my observational studies in Berkeley and Minneapolis. To prevent this from happening, Stott advocates what he calls a “softly-softly” approach—a low-key approach in which officers mix with and relate to crowd members based on their behavior, rather than their reputation.

If police approach a crowd with the expectation that its members are going to make trouble, it often turns out that way. Even so, most police around the world have continued to use the traditional hard methods of the past when responding to crowds. For the most part today, communicating, relating, or dialoguing with people who are protesting isn’t what police do. But it is something they now must learn. The soft approach is precisely what we developed and used in Madison. It worked then and, as Stott suggests, it will work now.

For example, Britsh police tend to separate conflicting groups by barriers (even a long line of police) which creates an open zone separating the groups. It keeps them in voice, but not physical, range. They can shout at one another, but not punch and kick!

The issues surrounding protest, hate speech, and the First Amendment will be another area which will tend to challenge today’s police along with their use of deadly force.

In order to get this right, police are going to have to become active learners, teachers and leaders in their communities. They will have to be able to articulate why they are permitting a certain group of noxious individuals to say hateful things that could incite violent behavior. They are going to have to be very creative and have officers among them who will, literally, come along side a hate group and coach them as well.

On of my most popular posts on this blogsite has been “Why Police Matter.” Here’s a couple of quotes from that post to remind us of the noble cause ahead:

“[P]olicing is a calling — not a job. It is a calling for those who wish to help society function better, zealously protect the rights of others, and work with community members to resolve budding social problems. Others should not apply.

“The Founders of our society were concerned about fairness, equality, and freedom. That’s who we are as a nation. And that it is our job (often delegated to police officers) to continue that concern. Those who can best ensure that is our nation’s police. This is because police work on the street, with people, not in office buildings or courtrooms.

“[P]olice are like the canaries that coal miners used to carry, acute sensors to detect the early presence of danger. Police are in our communities and neighborhoods to do just that — to make early detection of dangerous social ‘gases;’ our ills, social problems, and the times when we don’t live up to our nation’s values…

“All this makes for a strong foundation in which honesty, moral action, and respect for human rights become the standard of American policing…

“When a man or woman puts on a police uniform, they are highly visible representatives of our government and who we are as a people. They should be the epitome of our nation’s values. When police fail in this, we all stumble. Those of us who experienced our nation’s civil rights movement know this to be true. And once we fall as a nation, it takes a long time to get back on our feet again…”

I was horrified, as most of you were, by what I saw on network and cable news regarding the White supremactists and Nazi-sympathizers who came to Charlottesville (VA) on Saturday. What resounded in me, I even shouted it out, was “That’s not who we are!” And the people who can best articulate that is our police – they do that by how they respond fairly and legitimately to those who are not acting like “who we are.”

We are at a time in our nation’s history when police truly matter; it is our police who can best and most visibly demonstrate who we are as a people. Yes, we are diverse. Yes, we don’t all share the same political or philosophical reasoning. Yes, we have problems with race, gender, and social class. But, no, we can disagree, even vehemently, without resorting to violence.

Dr. King first showed us how, now it’s up to us – and our police – to model it and do it. Peace!

[1] Clifford Stott. “Crowd Psychology & Public Order Policing: An Overview of Scientific Theory and Evidence” in a submission to the HMIC Policing. Public Protest Review Team. September 14, 2009 and


  1. I was a teacher all my. life; we had to break up play ground fights. I respect you for what you are doing here. I just wanted to ask, is it “free speech” when the group shows up with military hats, camouflage outfit coloring, apparel and paraphernalia that have evolved from the third reich , and they are carrying assault rifles? Is there still room for discussion about crying fire in a crowded theater? I sincerely ask because we do not have the appropriate forms of civic education in the schools that are preparing people in civic virtues… that was something from the past. Again, I am sincerely asking from the position that you hold. When is free speech turned into a “threat”? When the NRA tells the NY terms “we are coming for you”. I read into that a threat. I am also reminded of the kids who were putting daisies in the guns at Kent State thinking it was “Woodstock” and then students were murdered. How would you guide the people who are seriously asking “should the NAZI party be recruiting students from our local state/unversity/college? There would seem to be educational policies at the state level that are needed (in addition to City ).


    1. Jean, as a teacher you present some very challenging questions. My experience leads me to negotiate an outcome — even with Nazi guys. Set the rules and the boundaries and what will happen when they are breached. When does this constitute yelling “fire” in a theater and, therefore, beyond 1st Amendment protections? Again, like Dr King once told us — live together like brothers and sisters or perish as fools. Our love of guns and hatred of rules will perhaps one day be the end of us. Thanks for this.


  2. It seems to me that the issue is not the growing number of protestors… is the growing amount of munitions allowed to assemble. Many of the white supremacists come bearing arms and wearing bulletproof vests and gas masks. A vest okay, but bringing a gun to a peaceful protest is an oxymoron.


    1. The courts must step in here and permit police to disarm those looking for a fight as a way to exercise their 1st Amendment rights! This is tantamount to shouting “fire” in a packed theater!


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