This history of crowd control, and the Cleveland convention
Margaret Talbot writes in the New Yorker:
It would be hard to imagine a more nerve-wracking set of crowd-management circumstances than the ones coming together next week in Cleveland, where tens of thousands of people are expected to protest outside the RepublicanConvention. The groups signed up are an All-American trail mix, ranging fromBlack Lives Matter to Code Pink, to Bikers for Trump. The Republican nominee is a man who thrives on fomenting anger in the crowds who follow him. And lately some anti-Trump activists have responded in kind, roughing up Trump supporters at rallies in San Jose and Albuquerque. The Convention starts on the heels of the shooting of multiple police officers in Baton Rouge; four days after the horrific terrorist attack on a gathering of people watching Bastille Dayfireworks in Nice; less than two weeks after the ambush killings of five police officers in Dallas, by a lone sniper taking advantage of a protest march; and more than two years into a civil-rights movement that has made the police shootings of unarmed black people impossible, at last, to ignore.
Cleveland’s police department, the primary entity in charge of maintaining public safety while allowing demonstrators to exercise their constitutional rights, has been operating since June, 2015, under a consent decree with the Department of Justice. A D.O.J. investigation had faulted the department for, among other things, excessive use of lethal force, including a pattern of officers unnecessarily shooting people and hitting them on the heads with guns, as well as endangering bystanders. (One of the events that led to the investigation was a high-speed chase in 2012 that involved a hundred Cleveland police officers in sixty-two police vehicles tracking a single car, at which they fired a hundred and thirty-seven times. The two unarmed people in the car, who were ultimately killed, were both black.) Because Ohio is an open-carry state, people in the protest zone outside the Quicken Loans Arena, where the Convention will be held, will be allowed to have guns on them (though they will be prohibited from bringing a long list of other items, including water guns, canned goods, and, for some reason, tennis balls).
Some of the tension in the air is explicitly racial. As Bill Daher of Bikers for Trump told Politico last week, “Well, hey, when the shooting starts, if the black people start dropping, then some black person’s hiding behind me. If the white people start dropping, then I’m going to hide behind a black person. So, I don’t know what’s going to result.”
At least it’s predicted to be seasonably warm and not so humid, since a good deal of research indicates that, as one recent study noted, hot temperatures really do “increase aggression by directly increasing feelings of hostility and indirectly increasing aggressive thoughts.”
Still, if law enforcement in Cleveland can manage to keep it together despite all this, they have a lot of new thinking to draw on in the management of big, potentially unruly crowds. In 1968, when untrammelled street protest and high-stakes electoral politics collided at the Democratic Convention, in Chicago, the prevailing mode of crowd control was the crushing show of force. It was an approach that derived from the origins of crowd theory, in nineteenth-century France, which had a history peppered with urban uprisings. This theory, developed by sociologists such as Gustave Le Bon, saw the crowd as a kind of monstrous living organism, in which individual identities were inexorably subsumed, subject to widespread contagion, from a single germ, or bad actor. That meant that any misbehavior had to be stamped out before the contagion spread.
Not that the cops in Chicago needed much in the way of sociological theory when it came to beating down some hippie addressing them as swine. In his memorable first-person account “No One was Killed: The Democratic National Convention, August 1968,” the journalist John Schultz describes one typical scene this way:
The cops came out of that bus as if they were shot from a gun, howling and running as hard as they could after screaming kids who were running as hard as they could to get away. The [National] Guardsmen simply stood on the edge of the park across the street and watched. The cops were beating everyone in reach with their clubs, jamming them up against the wall of the building, against the iron fence of the Georgian Court, ramming them in the groin, and if a kid were caught in a no-exit situation between cars he was beaten senseless. . . . If there was one thing that characterized the Chicago cops, it was energy, tremendous energy, a high pitch of personal energy, and a nonchalance that could change on the instant into white-faced fury.
In the years since, especially in Europe, sociologists developed a new theory of crowd behavior called the Elaborated Social Identity Model. The idea was that demonstrators in crowds behaved (surprise!) in varied ways—some might try and stop looters or stone-hurlers in their midst; some might join them—but that, in general, an aggressive police response, especially if it thwarted the original purpose of the protest, had the effect of uniting what was otherwise a disparate mass of people. As Eric Jaffe, writing for the Web site Co.design, explains:
Here’s where the militarization of local police becomes so problematic. Officers in full-on riot gear give all the individuals in a protest crowd a common enemy. It’s not that everyone in the protest crowd suddenly assumes the identity of a violent jerk—it’s that the many peaceful protesters feel a sort of kinship with the violent jerks against the aggressive police. Despite their differences, they’re united by a single goal: defend against the outside force.
A fairly steady stream of articles and reports have pointed out that the appearance of police suited up like RoboCops and equipped like an invading army serves mainly to escalate tensions and intimidate peaceful protesters. When the Department of Justice issued a report on the police response to demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, it criticized the use, for example, of police dogs for crowd control and of armored vehicles, some with police snipers positioned on top using rifle sights to monitor the demonstrators. The journalist Radley Balko, who wrote Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, and a number of criminologists and police officers, have persuasively demonstrated the ways in which warlike police conduct and outfitting can generate ill will and havoc at demonstrations. Reports from the Police Executive Research Forum, a national organization of police executives that conducts studies on best law-enforcement practices, have recommended a “soft approach” to crowd control, avoiding riot gear, militarized vehicles, and mass arrests. The consensus seems to be that because it’s important to be prepared for potential violence, police with riot gear have to be available, and close by, but they shouldn’t necessarily be in sight, where they send the counterproductive message that violence is expected. One recent Forum report on constitutional policing quoted police chiefs who exemplified this approach. Brian Johnson, the deputy chief of police in Nashville, described a local march protesting the decision not to indict the white Ferguson police officer who shot Michael Brown. When the marchers ended up outside police headquarters, Johnson recalled, “we didn’t meet them with a force of officers wearing helmets and masks and shin guards. We met them with about three officers and coolers full of ice water, because it was about 97 degrees that day.”
Chief Dean Esserman, of New Haven, is quoted in the same Forum report saying that the police had to understand that . . .