The riots in Lhasa, Tibet, over the weekend, and the methods used to quell them, highlight the most important issue in Public Order operations and the management of of public disorder: the underlying problem must, over time, be addressed. If it is not, the disaffected grow even more detached and disenfranchised, leaving them with no option but to protest in order for their voices to be heard – and far too often, what begins as a protest turns into a violent riot.
Public disorder is the expression of public dissatisfaction with something. Protests at G8 summits and May Day riots are about dissatisfaction with the capitalist system; in France, it is about the immigrants protesting their treatment and disenfranchisement; in Lhasa, it is about Chinese occupation and the desire for independence; in Belgrade recently it was about international interference in Serbian affairs facilitating the declaration of independence by Kosovo; and in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles last year it was about immigrant rights.
The ability to protest – I use “ability” because it is important to remember that in some countries freedom of assembly is not a right – must be facilitated. The ability to vent, to demonstrate, to display the need for change, is essential for both sides. Suppressing this expression of discontent will only force the disenfranchised to use more violent forms of protest (more commonly known as terrorism), whilst allowing it and facilitating it enables the authorities to control the venting of discontent and allows it to happen in a controlled and safe manner. The recent deaths of the Chinese in Lhasa could have been prevented by allowing sanctioned protests to take place under the right conditions; the inability for those protests to be conducted led to greater escalation by the disaffected, and deaths.
The ability to protest, to vent one’s frustrations, is fundamental, and if understood, can be used in the authorities’ favor. For instance, in MacArthur Park, had the LAPD been equipped with shields, officers could have simply stood and taken the barrage of bricks and stones and allowed the crowd to express its discontent. Unfortunately, the authors of the LAPD doctrine apparently did not acknowledge the block, the ability to stand and take incoming abuse or missiles, as an acceptable action, and so they became the real authors of what became a regrettable incident for everyone involved.
There are clearly lessons to be learned here for any law enforcement or military agency that may face a public order threat. Public Order is an operation integral to understanding and working with a local community and integral to enabling that community to register its dissatisfaction. By creating the conditions for that dissent to be expressed effectively but safely, order can be maintained, preventing rioting that is damaging to the local populace, law enforcement, local property and reputations.
These lessons are clearly of relevance to Denver and Minneapolis, the sites of the upcoming National Conventions, where proficient public protestors and experienced members of the rioting community who see the events as the best opportunity of drawing attention to their issue, will be attending. A brief review of the Internet reveals a handful of websites of organizations not only preparing to riot in Denver and Minneapolis, but who actively advise potential rioters and who train before the event. The Denver and Minneapolis law enforcement communities will be faced with the dual challenge of counter-terrorism and public order, all in the face of the international press, in a context significantly more threatening and serious than the Seattle police did. The last thing either community wants is for their city to be remembered for the riot rather than the Convention, while there are organizations out there deliberately planning for just the opposite.