Minnesota arrests

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Commenters are peppering me with demands to cover the arrests of protesters in Minneapolis.  Frankly, I don't know what to think.

Glenn Greenwald, predictibly, views these as fascist attempts to stifle dissent.  But the Strib, a very liberal paper, presents a slightly different picture:

Bolstered by emergency help from the Minnesota National Guard, police in St. Paul arrested 284 people Monday after outbreaks of violence and road obstructions linked to rogue bands of demonstrators among an otherwise peaceful throng estimated at 10,000 people.

The demonstrations, on a steamy first day of the Republican National Convention, began with block after block of marchers -- far fewer than the 50,000 some had predicted -- chanting and peacefully waving signs on downtown St. Paul's narrow streets. As the day wore on, the carnival atmosphere turned ugly.

Before most of the demonstrators had finished their march, a few hundred protesters splintered off and became confrontational and sometimes violent. Some smashed windows at Macy's and a downtown bank building. Others challenged police by blocking roads.

Police are arresting journalists, which is generally an indication that they're in full-on flip-out mode.  And in my own experience as a protest kid, the police are generally way too willing to use force on protesters, particularly ones they find politically distasteful.  This is a small minority, but once they start something, the other officers generally have to follow them in or stand silent witness to a riot. So my natural assumption with these kinds of arrests is that the police were somehow at fault.

On the other hand, Minneapolis is not a very Republican kind of town.  And the offenses cited by the Strib are the kinds of things people should be arrested for.  You don't protest Republican policies by smashing windows and blocking roads.  If you want the road to yourself, get a parade permit just like the VFW.  Also in my experience as a protest kid, there's an obnoxious element that's looking for a fight and thinks they're entitled to smash things to show they're  VEEEEWWWWWY MAAAAAAD!!!!!  This number is also always numerically very small, but a few people can do a lot of damage.  They can also get the police adrenaline running, at which point the pepper spray and the night sticks start flying.

So as best I can tell, there were some adolescent, violent protesters who ruined things for everyone, and fault should be apportioned about equally between them, and the hotheaded police who reacted to their nonsense by spraying tear gas at everyone.

I'd say that this makes a very good argument for eschewing public protest at these things.  It's about the most ineffective form of political expression possible--the last really effective protest movement was the Civil Rights marches, which were effective precisely because they presented middle class folks in their Sunday best getting attacked by the police.  The black churches ruthlessly policed out the troublemakers and the weird-looking ones.

Protest marches are fun, of course, in the way that extremely mild suffering in any cause is fun--it makes you feel good, and you get to spend time with your friends, usually outside in fairly nice weather.  Anyone who gave blood after 9/11 knows exactly what I mean.  But political theater should be practiced only if it appeals to the audience, which protests rarely do these days.  No one polices the troublemakers, so they bait the police into overreacting.  Nor do they bar the puppet kids, who get all the media attention, because, well, puppets are funny.  As far as I can tell, the inevitable reaction is public disgust, not least because even quiet and well run protests inconvenience a lot of people who are not politically aware.  Those people do not think "I bet these people have a legitimate grievance"; they think "What jerks!"  The only time I've ever heard genuinely anti-Catholic sentiment is when I've been in a city when a papal visit is disrupting traffic.

I have no doubt that I will now incur vituperation from commenters convinced that by decrying the tactic, I am secretly trying to tear down the cause.  Au contraire.  As I learned from Stephen Gale, who taught a class at Penn on terrorism, goals and tactics are very different things, and their effectiveness is not all that well correlated.  I don't think libertarian protests work any better than any other kind; I wouldn't go to an NRA protest or an eminent domain rally for just that reason.  I do think that people have the right to stage protests free from state harassment.  But just because I think you have a perfect right to do something does not imply that I believe you should.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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