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Policing Dissent

The recent anti-war protests passed without major incident, thanks to cooperation, professionalism, and planning.

August 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

Months before the first bombs fell in the Iraq War, police departments nationwide were coping with its implications. The Homeland Security barometer was set to orange as terrorists threatened revenge, police lines thinned as law enforcement officers in the military reserves were called up to active duty, and officers began to deal with the difficult job of policing anti-war demonstrations and marches.

As anti-war protest groups started to apply for permits for demonstrations, police intelligence officers and commanders were not sure what they might be facing. They didn't know if the anti-war protests would be peaceful or whether they would attract the same hard-core anarchists and disaffected youth who turned the streets of Seattle into a war zone during the 1999 meetings of the World Trade Organization.

Perhaps if the war had dragged out into the summer months, the nightmares of police planners would have come true and the anti-war protests might have boiled over into a nationwide Seattle. But the war, at least the major operations, ended weeks after it had begun and by mid-April the protests had faded.

Even at their peak, the anti-war demonstrations were not Seattle-style riots. And police crowd control experts say the anti-war protests did not rage out of control because of several factors: the demographic character of the protesters, the professionalism of the officers who were tasked with managing the crowds, and the application of lessons learned the hard way in the last 35 years of street battles.

Civil Disobedience

Protests over the Iraq war started with the buildup of U.S. forces in Kuwait and reached a crescendo in the first week of the conflict. As U.S. and British forces made lightning strikes in Saddam's heartland, thousands of people protested the war in the streets of America's largest cities and smallest towns. And police suffered through long shifts keeping the peace and making sure that lawful expression of First Amendment rights didn't boil over into violence and property damages.

Perhaps the most unruly anti-war actions were visited upon the city of San Francisco. For more than a week, thousands of protesters waged a campaign of civil disobedience in the city's downtown area, blocking intersections, the entrances to government contractor companies like Bechtel, and generally causing confusion and consternation for anyone trying to get to work.
San Francisco police were up to the challenge. The department had been preparing for the protests for months and has decades of experience handling all kinds of downtown disturbances. Such advanced planning and the tactical application of lessons from previous protests prevented what some anarchists dubbed the "Battle of San Francisco" from being anywhere near as catastrophic as the 1999 World Trade Organization riots known to many people as the "Battle of Seattle."

As at many of the anti-war protests nationwide, there were a variety of different elements present in the San Francisco actions. Protesters ranged from soccer moms who wanted to make a statement against the war to hardcore anarchists who may have wanted peace in the streets of Iraq but wanted to wage war in the streets of the United States.

That last element, the people who hoped to do battle with the police and tear up the commercial center of the city, was the biggest headache for the SFPD. But Department spokesman Sgt. Neville Gittens says the SFPD implemented tactics that largely neutralized the anarchists. "There were splinter groups," he says. "About one percent of the crowd would break off from the main demonstration and go out and do these roaming non-planned protests. We helped facilitate their movement, until they started to break the law. That's when we took action."

The tactic of keeping the anarchists moving and avoiding confrontation unless it became necessary worked very well for SFPD. No less-lethal weapons had to be deployed against the protestors, arrests were largely non-violent, and no one was badly injured on either side.

Cutting the Crowd

Protesters gather in a Southern California park for a planned and permitted anti-war demonstration.

However, casualty counts for the Battle of San Francisco could have been much higher. After dispersing some of the more unsavory types among the protesters, police found discarded weapons, including knives, slingshots, rocks, wrenches, steel bars, iron bolts, bottles, and bicycle locks on chains. It's a testament to SFPD's tactics that the anarchists chose to drop their weapons rather than use them.

Over the years, many police tacticians have developed techniques for minimizing the hazards of crowd control and riot suppression. Lt. Pete Durham of the Los Angeles Police Department says that, since Seattle, more departments nationwide share information and tactics and he believes that such inter-departmental cooperation helped maintain the peace during the anti-war protests.

Durham, who has worked numerous protests out of LAPD's Metro Division, says that the tactics used in policing the anti-war demonstrations in Los Angeles were a reflection of the generally non-violent nature of the crowds. "With the types of crowds that we had at the anti-war demonstrations, just talking was often enough to get the job done," he explains.

CONTINUED: Policing Dissent «   Page 1 of 3   »

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