Should Protesters Be Forced Through a Gauntlet of Heavily Armed Men?

Police ought to be at major marches to keep order. But a presence as overwhelming as in Tampa, even far from the convention, has a chilling effect.



The video above gives a sense of the police presence surrounding the relatively small protest marches in Tampa, Florida during the Republican National Convention. The protesters, many aligned with the Occupy Wall Street movement, are made to traverse a gauntlet of armed men in order to peaceably assemble. It is true that, on previous occasions, a small minority of Occupy protesters have turned violent during protests -- that idiots who smash Starbucks windows sometimes walk among the peaceful masses. I am not suggesting that police should be totally absent.

But if the past transgressions of some Occupiers are relevant, so is the past behavior of law enforcement. Remember Anthony Bologna, the NYPD officer who needlessly assaulted a group of women with pepper-spray? And the pepper-spraying police officer from UC Davis? And the numerous documented instances of police brutality during the Occupy New York protests? And Scott Olsen, an Iraq veteran whose skull was fractured by a tear-gas canister Bay Area police fired?

As far as I've seen, Tampa area police have conducted themselves professionally, as they do in the video above. They're to be commended for it, and the rank-and-file officers are in no way to blame for the scale of their deployment. But surely there is a scale at which a police presence chills the willingness of some would be dissenters to march in peaceful protest, especially when, in the recent past, a small subset of police has exploited their overwhelming presence to abuse protesters. 

Note that the scene above is several miles from the convention. I no more want to see a protester smash a window than anyone else, and would want such a protester arrested and prosecuted. But neither do I want relatively small, peaceful protests met with a scene like the one above. After I shut off the video recording, but while I still had my camera out, another group of officers started to mass behind the protesters, following them at a distance. Would you want to send your adult child or spouse to a march, presuming you agreed with the cause, with this behind them:

TAMPA mass of police.jpg

Here it is from another angle:

tampa massed officers angled two.jpg

That's in addition to the officers seen in the video! And in addition to two helicopters hovering above. That is a force far bigger than needed to police, but sized just about right to intimidate. What this force says, to everyone watching it go by from the sidewalk, is that protests are borderline criminal, that protesters are dangerous sorts who need to be literally surrounded by agents of the state.

Can you imagine how the Tea Partiers would react if their rallies were surrounded in this fashion?

Before closing, I should add that Occupy folks would do well to distance themselves from the few people hoisting Soviet flags (as they would if their allies were holding Nazi flags). Carrying the symbol of a murderous, tyrannical regime is just plain ignorant, especially when you're complaining about an American government far more deferential to liberty and human rights. Why discredit yourself?
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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