Video of the Day: Riot Police Sent in to Manage Anti-Sonogram Protestors in Virginia

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Heavily armed SWAT teams respond to a peaceful protest in Richmond, raising questions about use of force and Gov. Bob McDonnell.

It's not quite the pepper-spray cop, but expect to hear more about this incident in the days to come. The video above is clearly shot and edited by someone with an agenda, but the images of militarized police it captures are striking. The newspaper Style Weekly has a series of excellent photographs of the event on Facebook.

On Saturday, protesters demonstrating against a new Virginia law mandating ultrasounds prior to an abortion marched on the state capitol in Richmond. Approaching the capitol, they were met by state troopers who told them they couldn't proceed because their permit didn't allow it. Before long, the protestors realize that a handful of cops probably couldn't stop them.

Disobeying police orders is often a good way to get in trouble, but things spun out of control remarkably quickly, as the video shows. The protestors, remaining peaceful and chanting, "This is what democracy looks like!" march up to the building, plant themselves on the steps, and lock arms. Suddenly, the handful of cops are supplemented by a squad of heavily armored riot police. After them come come combat-fatigued, masked officers with what appear to be shotguns and automatic rifles.

Keep in mind, the most aggressive move the demonstrators made was to lock arms and make it difficult for police to drag them away.

Though perhaps not as galvanizing as the horrifying video of Lt. John Pike casually spraying students with pepper spray, the images are jarring. Are so many riot police -- much less heavily armed, militarized police -- really necessary to break up a relatively small and peaceful protest? It's a particularly sensitive question in the south, where memories of excessive police force against civil-rights protests are fading but hardly erased. Columnist Connie Schultz shared on Facebook a photograph of a larger and more boisterous anti-Vietnam War protest at the capitol. "No State Troopers, that I can recall, and no swat teams, and certainly no Imperial Stormtroopers. I don't believe anyone was arrested, either," wrote the man who posted it. The libertarian journalist Radley Balko likened Saturday's event to crackdowns in the Middle East.

There's an additional political dimension to the protest. Krystal Ball wrote in this space two weeks ago that the abortion bill posed a serious challenge to Gov. Bob McDonnell, a rising Republican star often speculated to be a potential vice-presidential candidate. Ball argued that McDonnell had to please his base but couldn't move too far right without endangering his national profile (although Virginia tends purple, governors are restricted to one term, so he doesn't face a statewide ballot soon). This incident has to hurt him further, making him look overly aggressive against dissent and trigger-happy. The protesters know it, too: as the reinforcements appear, their chants start tying the heavy-handed response directly to McDonnell and his governing style.

Moreover, it's further evidence of Republican struggles to handle sensitive culture-war issues effectively. Just as the GOP's attempt to make the contraception debate about religious freedom was derailed by Rush Limbaugh calling a young woman a "prostitute" and a "slut," Virginia Republicans have repeatedly stumbled on abortion, getting caught up instead in debates about transvaginal ultrasounds and "state rape," and now about excessive use of police and the militarized state.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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