The Importance of Demonstrating that Communities Can Police Themselves

Chloe Haimson, University of Wisconsin-Madison,

Note: This piece is based on research collected for a forthcoming paper in Mobilization. 

In recent weeks, heated interactions nationwide between protesters and police, were sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, by a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin. Throughout recent history, nearly all social movements have been concerned with the potential impact of police presence at their protests. Protesters have feared police will suppress their activities, use violence against participants, and incite turmoil in the crowd.

However, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests are singular because they are directly organized in response to police violence and state surveillance.

Studies show that police are more likely to have a presence at demonstrations where they are the subject of protest, as well as more likely to make arrests and use force against protesters. Demonstrations initiated by Black protesters are even more likely to have a police presence than those initiated by white protesters.

What also makes BLM protests unique is that through the use of common social movement tactics, such as blocking traffic, certain interactional moments between protesters and police become critical for demonstrating that communities are capable of policing themselves. Protesters use their local cultural knowledge of how the police can be expected to respond during interactions in an effort to minimize the possibility of their arrest, while maximizing their resistance to the police’s terms of engagement.

In the daily nationwide and international protests we are witnessing, protesters demonstrate this cultural knowledge to police surveilling their protests and making violent arrests.

Contrary to claims that point to a “war on cops” or debate whether “riots” are a viable political strategy, the BLM protests I observed in my research suggest that many protesters often sought to avoid arrest. To do this, they anticipated police responses to their behaviors, while resisting the police’s terms of engagement, and did so while trying to minimize the possibility of a serious altercation with police.

Why would protesters want to defy the curfew orders being implemented in cities across the nation, one might ask? When protesters make their own organizing decisions and regulate themselves, they show that communities do not need policing—especially aggressive policing—to engender safety. In fact, they need the opposite: investment in community resources, social and economic support, and high-quality schools.

Several historians link the antecedents of modern day police to slave patrols in the south. In working on behalf of white slave owners, patrols controlled and prevented slave rebellions and escapes. Such rebellions were early and powerful political uprisings.

When law enforcement agents refrain from making arrests and allow protesters to maintain order amongst themselves, they resist the interactional norms we are accustomed to observing, such as police militancy, violence, and arrests.

On the other hand, some prior protest movements have intentionally sought arrest as part of their tactics and goals. During the civil rights movement, protesters’ calculations about responses of police to their activities were central to the movement’s strategical planning. For example, the Birmingham campaign intentionally filled local jails with protesters, which led to greater awareness, anger, protests, and growth of the civil rights movement.

Although evidence shows that communication and coordination between police and protesters has generally increased since the 1960s, anyone who does movement organizing work or studies social movements can tell you that the two parties’ interests do not often align.

Protesters, regardless of the social movement in question, may be hesitant to accept the police’s terms of negotiation at demonstrations, and research suggests that they have good reason to fear the police’s role.

While organizers want significant turnout at their protests to display sizable support for their causes, they simultaneously fear that aggressive police surveillance will result in the suppression of their movement’s activities and further violence.

Police repression will not look the same throughout the country. It can range from police showing up with armed with rifles, rubber bullets, and tear gas, clearly intending to intimidate, to less openly violent but still insidious actions taken to control social movement activities – whether that be drowning out the sounds of protest with pre-recorded police announcements or outlawing the use of signs at city council meetings.

Despite the coordination I describe above, police response to protesters’ actions remain more dependent on local policing norms than on protester tactics. For example, the same level of protest disruptiveness, such as walking in the street, can result in arrests of protesters in one city and not in another.

Protesters today just as during the civil rights movement, are finding ways to resist police; however, they do so in a new historical moment and a different but still repressive regime. Even more unpredictably, they are doing so under entirely, unprecedented conditions—a pandemic. New organizing strategies and emotions will emerge under these conditions, shaping how police intervene and respond.

Protesters’ impassioned interactions with police are not random. They are fundamental to the architecture of historic local BLM movements and their tactical decisions for fighting against police violence and making a statement about their opposition to such violence in cities across America. We should be watching closely.

An unedited pre-print of the paper that this piece is based on can be found here.

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