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Lessons from Portland: Do crackdowns work?

As federal agents and local officers clash with protesters, experts believe there’s a better way.

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Federal officers use chemical irritants and crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Portland, Oregon.

Noah Berger, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this month in Portland, Oregon, Christopher J. David joined in local protests. David, a veteran of the United States Navy, took issue with videos he’d seen of federal agents’ use of force against demonstrators. He stood before federal agents asking them questions; they responded by battering his leg with a baton and spraying pepper spray in his face.

The incident helped fuel criticism of the role and behavior of federal agents — including officers from the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Service — deployed to that city. Reports surfaced of agents pulling protesters into unmarked vans and firing rubber bullets at protesters’ heads. Many observers likened them to an army occupying enemy territory.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that he would remove Department of Homeland Security forces from the city, where they had been stationed for weeks in an effort to protect federal buildings from protesters.

The decision came after state and local officials claimed the agents produced much of the violence they purportedly aimed to quell. “These federal officers have acted as an occupying force, refused accountability, and brought violence and strife to our community,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has said. Mayors of 14 other U.S. cities signed a letter saying, “These are tactics we expect from an authoritarian regime — not our democracy.”

This summer, spurred on by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and other instances of violence against people of color, protesters across the country have taken to the streets to oppose police brutality and systemic racism. The majority of demonstrations have been peaceful; some have involved the destruction of governmental buildings and businesses and clashes with police officers.

Recent instances, most notably in Portland, have found law enforcement officers using increased force — appearing in riot gear, deploying less-lethal munitions and tear gas, and physically rushing crowds. The behavior has provoked heated debate.

Sidestepping moral questions about the ethics of protest, the virtue of the cause, and whether the government should be shutting it down: Does cracking down even work?

“One way to deter protest is to punish, harshly, anybody who’s in the streets,” said David Meyer, a professor of sociology at the University of California Irvine and author of “The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America.” “But it’s much harder to police in a democracy than it is in an authoritarian state.”

The protest environment

Soon after this summer’s protests started, viral videos showed people — many of them disavowed by protest organizers — breaking into stores and setting fires. Trump decried what he described as a pattern of left-wing violence and escalation. “We have antifa, we have anarchists, we have terrorists, we have looters,” he said in early June. “We have a lot of bad people in those groups.”

But as the Guardian reported recently, “leftwing attacks have left far fewer people dead than violence by rightwing extremists, new research indicates, and antifa activists have not been linked to a single murder in decades.”

Still, growing friction between protesters, counter-protesters and other citizens has sparked a number of violent or at least dangerous incidents, most commonly in the form of drivers plowing their cars through crowds of demonstrators. In a few cases — including one in June in Provo and another last weekend in Aurora, Colorado — certain protesters have allegedly responded with gunfire.

The scope of this summer’s protests makes some degree of confrontation inevitable, Meyer said. “You’re showing up at a street in Brooklyn at a particular time, where you may not know a lot of the people and you may not have worked with them before,” Meyer said. “It’s hard to believe that the overwhelming majority of them are not committed at some level to avoiding violence, but one person in every 250 might throw a rock.”  

Adriane D. Lentz-Smith, a professor of history at Duke University who teaches courses on the civil rights movement and Black lives, drew a distinction between destruction of property and bodily harm. “We need to be clear about the difference between hurting another human being and damaging property,” she said, noting that the damage done to federal buildings and police bureaus during recent protests pales in comparison to that done to Black communities throughout history.

Adding to the complexity of the situation is the presence of outside agitators, whose goals often conflict with those of the movement. “There are elements for whom chaos is the desired outcome,” Lentz-Smith said. “A lot of those guys are super fringe white supremacists who want to see a clash because they think that will work in their favor.” 

Policing in such an environment — when police brutality itself is the target of the uprising, when so many people of such distinct perspectives have taken to the streets — presents challenges. Questioned by the House Judiciary Committee about the federal presence in Portland, Attorney General William Barr said, “The problem when these things sometimes occur is, it’s hard to separate people.”

But, Meyer said, these challenges call for the often difficult work of identifying and arresting individuals, not adopting a posture of physical confrontation with protests as a whole. “Being out in the street when somebody else is doing something destructive is not illegal,” he said. “It’s wrong to assume that once somebody does that, then police can do whatever they want.”

Community anger at an ‘authoritarian response’

Earlier this month, Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, stood with a group of protestors as they were tear-gassed by federal agents. “I can tell you with 100% honesty I saw nothing that provoked this response,” Wheeler said. “This is flat-out urban warfare.”

Wheeler’s comments added to a sentiment expressed about city police and federal agents alike over the course of the summer. The police response to protests has, in the eyes of many participants and observers, become the latest example of a broken law enforcement apparatus, one geared toward military-style conflict instead of community safety. One recent video shows officers, on cue, riding bicycles into a group of non-advancing demonstrators, throwing and pushing them to the ground. 

Analysts have speculated about the political purposes of sending federal agents into Portland. The USA Today’s editorial board accused Trump of using agents as “stage props for his ‘law and order’ campaign” ahead of November’s election.

Even if that’s not the case, as Trump insists, the federal government’s activities in Portland have met resistance from surprising corners.

The Wall of Moms and Wall of Vets in Portland — groups that have called upon their social capital to attempt to protect protestors from violence — arose, Lentz-Smith said, largely out of an anger toward how protests are being policed. “You don’t even have to agree with the (protest’s) initial goals, the arguments made by the people who started the protest, to be horrified by the authoritarian response,” she said.

Some of this summer’s protests have seen less confrontational responses from law enforcement officials. In early June, police officers kneeled alongside protestors — a gesture considered insincere by many activists, but one that was nevertheless peaceful. Where shows of force tend toward escalation, Meyer said, engagement can bring about a safer environment. “There are certainly police who are engaging with the cause,” Meyer said. Even setting aside the ethical component, “it’s a better social control strategy.”

Ultimately, Meyer said, the best way to deal with protest is to convince protesters that their voices are heard in institutional venues, that they need not demonstrate on the streets. In the meantime, demonstrations will continue. And while he sympathized with the demands of the profession, he noted the absolute importance of restraint. “I have no doubt that somebody at each of these demonstrations is screaming obscenities at the police,” he said. “And it’s your job, if you’re a police officer, to just take it.”