How to handle protests versus riots versus looting

Obviously, it’s the latter two here that are the problem.  And I increasing suspect that the vast majority of looters and a good portion of rioters (i.e., violent protesters) are just malefactors looking to take advantage of a chaotic situation.  David Plotz on what the police should be doing.  Alas, I keep seeing ever more evidence that they seem to far more interested in facing off with, and harassing protesters, than actually protecting property and personal safety:

We won’t have calm until we recognize that we’re actually dealing with four different kinds of disruption, each of which requires a different resolution.

The first and most important activities — the ones that should be called “protests” — are the largely peaceful marches, demonstrations, and occupations happening in response to the murder of George Floyd.

These demonstrators are protesting against police violence targeting black Americans, and demanding change. Some of these protests are tightly organized, some are looser gatherings. Some are extremely peaceful, some more chaotic. All draw on the deepest American traditions of activism. They are free speech of the highest order. 

But it’s too chaotic for local officials to do that right now. That’s because they’re too distracted by the second kind of disruption: vandalism and looting. The chaos agents are the array of vandals, looters, spray-painters, and window-breakers who loosely attach themselves to the protests, and cause mayhem at the edges of them. There’s no one way to characterize them: They seem to include leftist anarchists, greedy looters, and perhaps alt-right provocateurs. (They also seem to be disproportionately white.)

Until the chaos agents are stopped, cities won’t feel safe and local leaders won’t be able to talk productively with the protesters. So stopping them must be the first priority, and it requires three things. The protesters must continue to disavow them. The police must focus on arresting and deterring them, which is much more important than confronting the peaceful marchers. And the public as a whole should be encouraged to stand up to them (though not in the Philly vigilante baseball-bat way).

Curfews are keeping well-behaved citizens off the streets, leaving them empty for the forces of havoc. Busy streets are safer streets, and there might be less chaos if the public was out, reinforcing community unity and providing visual deterrence.

The cops’ emotional response is understandable: It must be agonizing to be called a murderer or to see all those ACAB signs. But it’s not excusable. The unwarranted acts of violence against law-abiding protesters and working reporters escalate the conflict, and turn some peaceful demonstrators into chaos agents.

If police chiefs and mayors can’t get their officers to calm down — and in many cities it looks like they can — then the National Guard should take over the job of monitoring the peaceful protests. It’s a bad precedent as the domestic use of the military is a step toward authoritarianism. But as we learned during peaceful civil-rights marches, when the police see themselves as foes rather than protectors, they cause disorder and deepen the conflict. The National Guard, who are less personally invested and aggrieved, are more likely to defuse the situation.

Yep.  It does seem that far too much of the police focus is on the protesters because the protesters are saying mean things about them.  Far too often, then, the police grossly and inappropriately over-react.  (Further proving the protesters right, of course).  If you doubt this, just spend five minutes following any 3-5 civil libertarians on twitter (Radley Balko is my favorite).  I even wonder if they are happy to just let the looting go on as they know it discredits the righteous protesters.  Municipal leadership needs to make sure policing is happening the right way (and in many cities it is).  We certainly do not need police out there, facing off with protesters, just looking for an excuse to harm people for being mean to them.  But, that is clearly what we are seeing in many, many places.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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