The tea parties on April 15 are an important warning sign – they demonstrate the growing discontent of those middle Americans who have never demonstrated before. Demonstrations are an important means of expression. However, if those in shirt and ties are now willing to demonstrate, it is simply a matter of time and citizen frustration that will drive more serious and police-challenging protests.
The April 15 tea parties were organized through a website and received a large push from the Fox News Network, receiving both publicity and speakers. Attendance across the country in numbers ranging from handfuls of people to an estimated 15,000 in Atlanta; the most common was 1,000-2,000. A lot has been made of the fact that those attending were from middle America; blue and white collar workers – some actually wearing shirt and tie – who had never demonstrated before. It is this element that is so important, because it indicates a growing level of frustration.
People have triggers to action; a certain level of frustration will impel them to go and protest, and a higher level of frustration and sense of personal threat will drive them to violence. It is wrong to assume that a peaceful group will remain peaceful no matter what happens. Police mishandling of an event can drive a calm crowd to violence if it feels threatened enough, as happened during the Poll Tax Demonstrations in London 20 years ago.
As events that demonstrate discontent with the handling of the financial crisis build, the potential for more active and violent protests increase. It is not the mainstream protestors that pose the threat – it is those anarchist and extreme left wing groups who wish to hijack protests and create violence for their own ends that must be the concern.
The tea parties prove that more mainstream protest is likely, and it is mainstream protests that are hijacked by those determined to cause violence with law enforcement in order to draw attention to their own agendas. Law enforcement should be actively planning for how to deal with these threats now – in particular, how to facilitate the right to protest by those intent on protesting peacefully, while punishing those determined to cause violence. The inability to distinguish the two is not only bad policy, it is borderline unconstitutional, and must not be tolerated.