September 24 2008 / by John Heylin
Category: Culture Year: General Rating: 5 Hot
Authority figures sure have gotten a lot smarter in dealing with public protests. In the 60’s and 70’s, public protests were greeted with iconic backlash from police and national guard alike. With the television and camera able to record these protests, they became icons for whatever movement they were fighting for.
There was the Kent State shootings immortalized by the picture of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the body of slain protester Jeffrey Miller. Or the famous video of police blasting protesters with fire hoses as well as sicking their dogs on high school students in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.
It was due to these images that the traditional way of dealing with protesters had to change radically. In his paper titled “From Escalated Force to Disruption Control: The Evolution of Protest Policing,” Alex Vitale, a former consultant to the ACLU and Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College, states the following:
“Prior to the 1970’s police relied on a doctrine of “Escalated Force” in responding to demonstrations. Following numerous reports, civil law suits, and media coverage criticizing the violence that often resulted form this approach, many departments developed a doctrine of “Negotiated Management,” which attempted to minimize violence through improved communication with demonstrators and greater tolerance of disruptive activity.” -Alex Vitale.
Tactics had to change — police could no longer use any force necessary in order to quell a public protest. It’s especially true in this day and age when even videos of earthquakes are posted on the internet within minutes of their occurrence.
A great report by the ACLU (co-authored by Alex Vitale) on the protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention detail how police used mass arrests, detentions, cheap zip-ties, horse charges, intense surveillance and limited access to combat the possible threat from protesters (no one wanted a repeat of the infamous Battle of Seattle of 1999). Tactics have changed, and as a result the voice of the protester is getting fainter and fainter.
Because police have fared better in dealing with public protests as of late, it has unfortunately made it almost impossible for protests to get more than just a small segment of the news. In fact, the news protesters mostly get these days usually involve them doing illegal or disruptive things (“They caused traffic! They made me late to work! They’re useless!”) making them enemies in the populace which they once relied on for support.
The development of non-lethal weapons promises to do even more to undermine the ability of public protest to influence the national consciousness. And while some of these weapons are themselves incredibly scary and sometimes lethal, they do have the added effect of disabling potential threats that would otherwise be newsworthy or damaging.
I’m imagining the scene from Alan Moore’s Watchmen where Doctor Manhattan disperses a crowd in front of the White House by teleporting everyone back to their homes in the blink of an eye. And while that kind of technology might be a ways off, there are plenty of other alternatives just as crazy which have the potential to make protesters being heard near impossible. And with a police force armed to the teeth with non-lethal weapons, chances are they’d be more inclined to use them.
Check out this list of non-lethal weapons currently in use or development.
Image: CS Muncy (Flickr, CC-Attribution)