All of the elements are coming together for a total shit-show outside Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, which is hosting this week’s Republican National Convention.
Around 5,000 cops, most of them from out of town, will be supporting a police department that, according to a 2014 investigation by the Justice Department, “engages in a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force” resulting from “structural and systemic deficiencies and practices—including insufficient accountability, inadequate training, ineffective policies, and inadequate engagement with the community.”
These officers will be armed with $20 million worth of equipment, including “low-profile” riot gear and the latest in “less-lethal” weaponry. The city has reportedly ordered 10,000 extra sets of plastic handcuffs and cleared 1,000 beds in local jails and various “overflow locations.” Already, there have been reports of cops not displaying name tags — always a bad sign.
For weeks, FBI agents have been making unannounced visits to the homes of local activists in what the agency described to CBS as a “community outreach” program and the National Lawyers Guild called a blatant intimidation tactic. Protesters will be prohibited from carrying tennis balls or water guns, but under state law they can — and some will — openly carry real guns.
Authorities obviously have good reason to be on edge. In addition to the usual coterie of activists, a number of potentially violent pro-Trump groups, including “Bikers for Trump,” “Truckers for Trump” and a few white-supremacist gangs are planning on making a show of force against “leftist thugs.” Twenty cops were shot in Dallas and Baton Rouge in the 11 days leading up to the convention. And, according to The New York Times, federal agents have been “looking into environmental activists, anarchists, white supremacists, black separatists, extremist gun rights groups whose members may have illegal weapons and sovereign citizens groups that believe they do not need to abide by federal laws.”
But the real-world potential for violence will be completely dwarfed by the perceived threat, thanks to months of relentless hype by both the local and national media about the chaos that might descend on Cleveland this week. The special riot training many cops underwent no doubt added to their sense that they may be facing the Protest Apocalypse. There are going to be a lot of cops from smaller towns and rural communities who have little or no experience with crowd control — much less freaky protesters — and they’re going to be scared shitless.
Expect some terrible policing. I’ve covered or participated in protests, peaceful and otherwise, from Hong Kong to Mexico to Oakland, and the more media hype there is around potential violence, the more aggressive the crowd control techniques tend to be. Breathless talk leading up to an event of terrorists or Black Bloc anarchists or whatever — in Hong Kong, it was militant South Korean farmers — establishes a mindset among law enforcement that they have to maintain order at all costs. This almost guarantees that the fundamental freedoms of speech and assembly will be honored only on the margins, or upheld only later when the courts dismiss baseless charges against protesters. I’ve seen it play out a dozen times.
And terrible policing always incites more protesters to lash out stupidly. It’s a vicious cycle — and it’s totally predictable.
The platonic ideal of crowd control is to deal with any knuckleheads who become violent while actively protecting the rights of protesters who don’t. That means allowing crowds to blow off steam as long as they don’t cross some clearly delineated red lines.
Most people who go to a protest don’t want trouble, but they do want to express their anger and frustration. Overly aggressive policing turns angry people who want to give some person or institution a piece of their mind into a crowd that wants to fuck someone (or something) up. When two or three people out of a crowd of thousands throw some water bottles at police, and officers respond with teargas or flash-bang grenades, you end up with a bunch of peaceful protesters being attacked for something they didn’t do, and it just makes them more likely to escalate in turn.
Expect lots of arrests on flimsy charges. Mass arrests have become standard operating procedure at protests like these. At the 2004 RNC in New York, 1,800 people were arrested, but charges against 90 percent of them were eventually dropped, according to the ACLU. Taking a bunch of activists off the streets may seem like an effective tactic in the moment, but it understandably infuriates those who remain.
Violence begets violence, and that tends to be a two-way street. I’ve seen protests unnecessarily descend into chaos because stressed-out cops used force and aggression to compel peaceful protesters to respect their authority. It’s generally best practice to let slide petty stuff like stepping off the sidewalk in order to minimize confrontation, but that flies in the face of the zero-tolerance mindset that tends to accompany these high-profile and high-security events.
In all likelihood, the kind of scenarios that panic law enforcement won’t come to pass. But with the post-9/11 model of American crowd control in place around a Homeland Security-designated National Special Security Event this week, the kind of police abuses that keep civil-liberties activists awake at night are, unfortunately, all but guaranteed.