Trigger-Pullers

We found nine incidents in which the violence was initiated by the police, about one every three days. In some cases, the incendiary role of the police was an indirect one and/or within that gray area between legality and extralegality. In others, the police outrightly initiated, and in ellect, monopolized, the violent acts without any discernible legal foundation—what one observer called “a riot by men in blue uniforms.”

Aside from the obvious injustice, such police conduct turns peaceful demonstrations into violent ones. We argue that peaceful demonstrations are a very useful instrument in our society, and that they should be separated as much as possible from violent ones in the public’s (and authorities’) minds. Police riots have the opposite effect. They help to blur the line between the two kinds of demonstrations, when, in fact, it needs to be sharpened; they tend to block an essential channel of political expression, and tend to increase the possibility of violence in future demonstrations. The ways the police can be made more professional in general and more respectful of citizens’ rights to demonstrate in particular is a subject beyond our domain here, but we strongly recommend all possible measures be taken to professionalize police handling of demonstrations—that is, to train them to restrain themselves in the enforcement of the law within legal bounds in face of mounting provocations. The London police showed the way when it refused to lose its “cool” when deliberately provoked by a Maoist faction of a large antiwar demonstration in October, 1968. It won the praise of the government, press, and public, and allowed the demonstration to close as it began—peacefully.

—Amitai Etzioni, from a policy paper prepared for the President’s National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.