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What Police Should be Learning From the Occupy Protests

The hard-line protestors in the United States are contemptuous of the Occupy Movement protestors for being “too kumbaya.” These groups are advocating burning banks rather than sitting outside them and so police chiefs, particularly those in and around Chicago (NATO/G8), Tampa (RNC) and Charlotte (DNC), should be taking heed in advance of next year’s major protest opportunities.

The phrase “Occupy Movement” has taken over from Occupy Wall Street as the umbrella term for all protest groups. This shift captures not only the geographic differences, but the fact that each Occupy has its own participants, agendas and therefore must be understood as a separate entity. Of course, even within Occupy Wall Street and every other Occupy there are different agendas and motivations. This is the case in many major protest events, such as the National Significant Security Events (NSSEs), where there are a diverse range of opinions and approaches to tactics – completely peaceful, non-compliant, non-violent through to those seeking violence. Every protest and every protestor is different, even when they’re all in the same place at the same time.

Occupy Wall Street is not a new phenomenon internationally. Rather, it is a replication of a series of European protest tactics that have migrated from Europe. Before OWS, there was Los Indignados in Spain, which then spread to Greece under the same title (“The Indignant Citizens’ Movement”); these protests were afflicted with the same internal characteristics that the Occupy Movement have. The migration of tactics from Europe is not a new phenomenon either. The tactics by more hard-line protest and anarchist groups that will be seen at the NSSEs next year will all be drawn from European tactics going back decades. We have seen those tactics in Pittsburgh (G20), St Paul-Minneapolis (RNC), Seattle (WTO), etc.

Unlike many U.S. police forces who are content to use the same, broadly ineffective and costly (through litigation) tactics for managing protestors that have been in vogue in the US for literally decades, the protest groups learn. Aggressively. The Anarchists published their lessons learned document within a couple of weeks of the end of St Paul’s RNC – this is the kind of operational tempo and learning cycle that makes militaries jealous. Currently the OWS and supporting protests are providing an excellent insight into the tactics and procedures that various police forces have for dealing with peaceful protestors and those that are non co-operative and non-violent – they are effectively reiterating to those with more aggressive methodologies that nothing has changed in the past 4 years, much as they haven’t changed for most departments in the past several decades.

The intention for any police force should be to ensure that law and order is maintained, that constitutional rights are respected, that those who conduct criminal activity are arrested, prosecuted and punished, and that everyone goes home safe – protestors, police, observers and the media covering the event. The means of doing this is to keep the protest calm (de-escalated), to proactively police order rather than reactively police disorder, to move swiftly and decisively against criminality such as those trying to be violent, and to be absolutely transparent to both the protestors and likely future juries in their actions.

Ironically, it is often the police that (unwittingly) cause escalation. Why? Because, for instance, if the police turn up in force to a peaceful protest in full protective equipment (riot control gear), then by definition in some protestors’ minds the event must be a riot, and therefore their next actions are almost predetermined; the police have defined the way the event is going to go. Human nature is a funny thing, and much of the North American accepted wisdom about crowds – such as the widespread acceptance of “mob mentality” or the logic that a slow move towards a crowd that is being confrontational is a sensible tactic – has been disproved; it is simply wrong. Unfortunately, the accepted wisdom, faithfully reiterated by FEMA/CDP, continues to promote it.

The big challenge for maintaining the Occupy Movement, and perhaps the best ally for “city fathers” in the Northern Hemisphere at the moment is the weather. It has started to turn in New York and Washington, and the Daily Telegraph has already reported that only 10 percent of tents are occupied at night, something they first proved with infrared and then investigated personally.

The Occupy movement is looking to the Arab Spring as inspiration. As time drags on, it is likely there will be increased frustration which will lead some to look for more effective or entertaining methodologies.
Non-violent and non-compliant acts such as office or street intersection sit-ins, lock-ons (where a protestor ties/chains/glues themselves onto something in a location that is particularly inconvenient for everyone else and difficult to undo) may lead to more confrontational actions by those seeking to use the Occupy movement as a shield for their own criminal acts; indications of this were evident in Rome on October 15, 2011.

This is the issue. The current protestors want their voices heard but are predominantly peaceful. Sitting in a park, while potentially frustrating to some, isn’t exactly being a criminal mastermind, nor is it aspiring to such. However, there are others who will want to take the tactics used much farther. The Occupy Movement protestors are doing a good job of controlling those with these tendencies – at Occupy Portland the protest marshals attempted to detain an anarchist who smashed a window for the police. This is an important lesson for those seeking to organize protests at the NSSEs next year; it is really a lesson about every person and organization taking responsibility for one’s actions. If a protest organizer organizes a protest, they must feel and act with accountability for the actions of that protest. Recent NSSEs have seen mutual respect agendas published that de-conflict what state of engagement is acceptable by which protest, but this cannot be completely relied upon as a protest management tool.

The groups with more violent intent will seek to aggravate the police into reacting violently against not only them but the whole crowd, converting far more people to be willing to fight with the police. This can lead to a public relations disaster for the police, and “if it bleeds, it leads.” With the Occupy Wall Street protests being eyed by the media around the country as the events most likely to provide good footage, they’re being swamped with cameras regularly.

All the time, during all of these activities, the more extreme protest groups, both non-violent and violent, are intelligence gathering. They are refining their current doctrine and plans, those that were in use for Toronto where, you may recall, the Toronto police did not fare so well for certain protests. None of this is helped by the tendency at major events, particularly National Significant Security Events, to confuse those who wish to protest with terrorists. Unfortunately, that often can become the case.

What we often see is that while police chiefs and management are adamant that “our people have this, those problems can never happen here,” they always do. By always, I don’t mean 50 percent or 75 percent of the time; I actually do mean always. Since Seattle WTO in 1999, there have always been successful civil lawsuits against the city for acts seen as malfeasance by the police. Done correctly, a better approach to policing crowds and protestors would increase successful conviction rates, reduce lawsuit costs, and create more positive situations within which police officer utilization would be less, reducing overall costs. Why do police departments refuse to examine other options?

It is time for U.S. law enforcement to get ahead of the game. Violent protestors and those who intend to cause delay, damage and disruption to activities and businesses within their jurisdictions must be dealt with in a manner that achieves a viable successful prosecution rate because it concentrates on the criminals and understands the crowd dynamics. Rather than allowing “protestors” with criminal intent the space to develop tactics, techniques and procedures that can cause major incidents, the police can defeat this kind of criminality while robustly and obviously protecting those with legitimate protesting agendas. The police have the chance to seize the initiative and should do so.

Sam Rosenfeld blogs on protestor management, security sector reform, and the intersection of security and financial issues. Chairman of The Densus Group, Rosenfeld is a former British Army infantry officer who served for eleven years in many of the world’s more contentious environments. He holds an MBA from Wharton Business School, a MSc in Risk, Crisis and Disaster Management, and a BA(Hons) in International Relations and Strategic Studies. Read More
  • http://twitter.com/Sputnik_2 Sputnik_2

    Pig scum babble

  • Sharangir

    What about all the anarchists in the protest that aren’t smashing windows? The ones that are actually helping out, providing infrastructure.

  • Bearhead

    Sam – this article is the most rational analysis I have read yet. Indeed, the police are responsible for law and order, and when provoked, crowds react. All semblance of law and order is lost, turning the peaceful protest into an opportunity for the criminally motivated actors. It would be much more prudent, and efficient, to identify and observe potential troublemakers, while at the same time discreetly gathering intel on the ground. This ‘cowboy with a gun’ attitude has got to go!