As protesters march against police brutality in cities around the nation, the police are out in force, ostensibly to quell violence and keep the peace—that’s one of the core functions of a police department. But given that these protests are responding to police violence in the first place, there’s no reason to believe that a massive show of police force will restore peace. It’s like asking a river to repair flood damage.
Whether traditional law-and-order policing is a good way to respond to other sorts of volatile demonstrations, such as political protests against candidates and riled sports fans and anti-WTO marchers, is an open question. But as years of cases from around the country keep proving, police force can’t pacify protests responding to police force—and only the police can break the cycle of violence.
I noted this pattern in Baltimore in 2015, after Freddie Gray died in police custody. Demonstrations turned violent only when law enforcement decided to move aggressively, clamping down on protests and shutting off public transportation. Suddenly, after days of relative peace, rioting erupted. Over the past few days, many of the worst clashes have taken place in cities where police have moved aggressively against protests. In New York City, a police SUV plowed through a crowd of protesters. In Minneapolis, MSNBC filmed police advancing unprovoked on protesters and firing tear gas. But in a handful of places with hands-off approaches, peace has prevailed.
Understanding why typical law-and-order policing isn’t a good solution in these tense situations shouldn’t be hard. Protesters have come to the streets because they are rightly angry at police brutality, furious at the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others. For communities of color, these are the latest incidents in a decades-long pattern of repression by the police, with a lineage stretching back to slave patrols. Some white protesters may have awakened to the problem only after the death of Michael Brown, or Eric Garner, or Freddie Gray; even they have many examples of needless deaths at the hands of police in the past few years to draw on.
To expect that protesters are going to react well when police, many of the officers dressed head-to-toe in military gear, start corralling them or blocking them off or pinning people to the ground with their knees, is delusional.
This isn’t a case where the cops can present themselves as a disinterested third party simply keeping the peace between the protesters and their targets. They are the targets, not only because police violence is what sparked the protests, but also because the reforms the protesters demand, from ending qualified immunity to abolishing police altogether, will affect those officers.
Police also face the stress of having hundreds or thousands of people chanting slogans at them. This comes with the job—officers have to be able to keep their cool in challenging situations—but all too often, some of them are unable to do so, and it’s no surprise that this problem recurs during police-brutality protests. The result has sometimes been police deploying excessive force against protesters demanding an end to the use of excessive force by police.
This creates a conundrum: The police are the body that society has granted the authority to deal with disorder, and a monopoly on the use of force to accomplish it, but if the police hadn’t already ceded their claim to legitimate authority and judicious use of that force, the protesters wouldn’t be in the streets in the first place. And while the relationship between the community and the constabulary is not the same in every place, the past several years have demonstrated that few American cities are without tensions around policing, notwithstanding apologist rhetoric about “a few bad apples.”
Who, then, will keep the peace? Some governors have called in the National Guard, a step that President Trump has encouraged. But given the militarization of the police, as my colleague Nick Baumann writes, there’s not a lot of space between the tactics of police and those guardsmen and women to begin with. And given the anger in many cities toward the federal government as represented by President Trump, the Guard isn’t likely to fare much better. The president himself seems determined to crank tension as high as he can.
When rioting breaks out, it’s common for the press and politicians to call on protesters to observe nonviolence, usually with rote reference to Martin Luther King. But in these cases, the community has been brutalized by the state in the first place, and so the police are the ones with the ability to break the cycle of violence.
Amid a lot of bleak scenes around the country, there have been occasional, more positive ones. In a few cases, the police have decided to give protesters a wide berth—or, even better, to join them. In Camden, New Jersey, the chief of police marched alongside protesters. That probably wasn’t a spontaneous choice: As James Surowiecki notes, the city has been in the midst of a years-long reconsideration of its policing strategies to focus on de-escalation. In another case, a widely shared video from Flint Township, Michigan, showed the local sheriff marching with protesters, having taken off a helmet and set down a baton as a gesture of good faith.
Even where officers aren’t personally getting involved, police can avoid escalation. Durham, North Carolina, where I live, has seen a string of cases of police violence over the past few years. Yesterday, police blocked off streets to make room for a march, and then kept their distance. No clashes were reported. It probably didn’t hurt that Durham’s activist community is experienced and highly self-disciplined, nor that the local chief of police, sheriff, and district attorney are all African American (though, as Baltimore shows, black leadership is no guarantee of positive police-community relationships).
Yet just down the road in Raleigh, which has also seen a number of recent police-brutality incidents, officers moved aggressively, tear-gassing crowds. The mayor and chief of police say they were responding to objects being thrown; activists say police fired first. Whatever the sequence, the result was rioting and destruction in downtown Raleigh.
In the initial days after George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, many law-enforcement officers broke the “blue wall of silence” and condemned the killing. But as police and citizens have come into conflict, the violence in the streets has drowned out those condemnations.
The demonstrations around the country take as their starting point that police are brutalizing citizens of color. Law-enforcement officers and agencies have two ways to respond: They can affirm that complaint with aggressive policing and overwhelming force, or they can work to show they are on the same side, against brutality. Whether what happened in Camden and Flint Township would work elsewhere around the country is hard to know, but the aggressive strategy clearly doesn’t.