Structures, in the sociological sense, constrain human agency. And for that reason, I see John Pike as a casualty of the system, too. Our police forces have enshrined a paradigm of protest policing that turns local cops into paramilitary forces. Let's not pretend that Pike is an independent bad actor. Too many incidents around the country attest to the widespread deployment of these tactics. If we vilify Pike, we let the institutions off way too easy.
That these changes in the police force have occurred is not in dispute. They've been sufficiently open that academics can write long papers detailing the changes in police responses to protests from the middle of the 20th century to today. They are described in one July 2011 paper by sociologist Patrick Gillham called, "Securitizing America." During the 1960s, police used what was called "escalated force" to stop protesters.
"Police sought to maintain law and order often trampling on protesters'
First Amendment rights, and frequently resorted to mass and unprovoked
arrests and the overwhelming and indiscriminate use of force," Gillham writes and TV footage from the time attests. This was the water cannon stage of police response to protest.
But by the 1970s, that version of crowd control had given rise to all sorts of problems and various departments went in "search for an
alternative approach." What they landed on was a paradigm called "negotiated management." Police forces, by and large, cooperated with protesters who were willing to give major concessions on when and where they'd march or demonstrate. "Police used as little force as necessary to protect people and property
and used arrests only symbolically at the request of activists or as a
last resort and only against those breaking the law," Gillham writes.
That relatively cozy relationship between police and protesters was an uneasy compromise that was often tested by small groups of "transgressive" protesters who refused to cooperate with authorities. They often used decentralized leadership structures that were difficult to infiltrate, co-opt, or even talk with. Still, they seemed like small potatoes.
Then came the massive and much-disputed 1999 WTO protests. Negotiated management was seen to have totally failed and it cost the police chief his job and helped knock the mayor from office. "It can be reasonably argued that these protests, and the experiences of the Seattle Police Department in trying to manage them, have had a more profound effect on modern policing than any other single event prior to 9/11," former Chicago police officer and Western Illinois professor Todd Lough argued.
No one wanted to be Seattle and police departments around the country began to change. "In Chicago for example, paramilitary gear such as that worn by the Seattle Police was quickly acquired and distributed to officers," Lough continued, "and the use of force policy was amended to allow for the pepper spraying of passive resistors under certain circumstances." (That emphasis is mine.)