In the wake of the disastrous rioting and looting that hit Ferguson last week after Officer Darren Wilson was exonerated for Mike Brown's death, much attention has been paid to the speed with which protesters turned to violence. But less attention has been paid to the speed with which the St. Louis police force turned to violence, beating and gassing protesters within minutes. Around the country, the same pattern was repeated in other police departments. Just look at Los Angeles and Oakland, which arrested 338 pro-Michael Brown protesters over three days last week, mostly on charges of unlawful assembly.
But in Nashville, Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson set an unlikely example by allowing around 450 protesters to disrupt traffic, deliver emotionally-charged speeches and express their opinions without the risk of landing in cuffs. Libertarian journalist Ben Swann reported that Anderson "treated the protest more like a parade or community event, essentially providing security while protesters made their statement." Instead of bean-bag rounds, the police gave protesters hot chocolate. They marched beside the protesters, instead of against them.
Anderson essentially did what many police departments around the country won't: Treat protesters, even angry ones, like American citizens with rights that need to be respected. And in response, those 450 people respected the law.
"In Nashville, if you want to come to a public forum and express your thoughts, even if they’re against the government, you’re going to get your First Amendment protection, and you’re going to be treated fairly by the police officers involved. That’s what we do here in Nashville," Anderson told WKRN-TV 2.
"We had people that took to the streets, took to the forums to express their thoughts, their ideas, and they were extremely well-behaved. We had no incidents of any vandalism of any violence of any type ," he added. When protesters shut down I-24 for 30 mintues, Anderson responded that "I think they took a reasonable amount of time to make their statement. … There was some inconvenience, people sitting in their cars on the interstate. That happens on occasion."
The relative calm that marked Nashville's protests put the property damage and mass arrests that hit Ferguson and other communities in stark relief. In Nashville, there were no burned cars, no looted stores, no molotov cocktails and probably not even many thrown water bottles. According to Anderson, some even cleaned up after themselves.
It's a reminder that violence between police and the communities they serve is not some sort of preordained conclusion. It's in part the logical consequence of deliberately heavy-handed police tactics, which cause unnecessary and pointless property damage, injuries and arrest records. Last week, Slate's Josh Voorhees documented the Ferguson police deploying tear gas on peaceful protesters and deliberately imposing restrictions on the disruption of traffic they knew protesters would find hard to follow. In August, local police shamelessly deployed military vehicles, sent riot cops charging into crowds with batons drawn, launched tear gas and even arrested reporters.
Rather than let people's voices be heard, they clamped down as hard as they could, which is particularly sinister when you consider the statistically demonstrated tendency of police to deploy in greater numbers and intervene more quickly in protests involving black people. Historically, white people who protest have gotten the Nashville treatment, while black people who organize are much more likely to face the business end of a riot shield.
The result is predictable. While such overwhelming use of force eventually results in the dispersal of protesters, in the interim the police are only managing to make the chaos worse and anger the crowds, ensuring more property destruction and violence. Here's how one protester described the situation in Ferguson to USA Today:
Police "can shoot me at anytime because of my skin color, because I'm a young black man," Perkins said. "They say if we stand in the street, we are subject to arrest. If they stand in the street, you're subject to rocks, bricks and whatever. Ya'll ain't no different from me."
While it would be easy to write off these tactics as counter-productive, the reality is that in many cases the decision to deploy overwhelming force is a self-serving choice. By helping to escalate the situation, police know that the inevitable reaction will retroactively justify police-state tactics designed to crush peaceful protests. In both August and November, local police ordered local airspace closed to prevent news media from seeing what was happening on the ground.
That's not even considering the constant "boot on the neck" feeling continually felt in poor minority neighborhoods under the constant repression by police:
Anderson's example should shame other police departments into abandoning the practice of treating peaceful protests like imminent riots, but (spoilers) it won't. With lax federal oversight and generally loose standards on use of force that vary by state, local and state police forces across the nation have wide latitude to crack down on who they want, when they want. Unfortunately, some police continue to view civil dissent with outright hostility - such as the St. Louis Police Officers' Association, which angrily urged the NFL to punish the five Rams players who participated in a public "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" protest during a football game this Sunday:
"[I]t is unthinkable that hometown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over-and-over again ... I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Well I've got news for people who think that way, cops have first amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours," SLPOA business manager Jeff Roorda said in a statement. "I'd remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser's products."
In too many departments, this is the kind of mentality that helps ensure police are rarely held accountable for police practices that disproportionately affect minority residents. It's also the same mentality that ensure excessive force, disregard for civil rights and racist policing strategies remain entrenched and seemingly immortal across the country. Nashville is lucky that its police chief acted with restraint this time, but all around the country officers confronted with protesters can act with impunity.
Unfortunately, police are firmly backed by the upstanding white community. A Pew poll found that just short of half (47%) of white people felt that Mike Brown's death deserved the focus on race it was receiving, while only 31% of whites thought the police response went too far. In contrast, a full 65% of black people thought the police response was inappropriate. For your typical right-winger's opinion, check this unconscionable post from right-wing troll hole Twitchy demanding that D.C. police arrest every single one of the protesters that shut down I-395 on Sunday, including uncritically reposting a Tweet suggesting that "drivers should run over those idiots." (Someone did in fact plow through a Ferguson protest last week, making this especially terrible.)
This uncritical backing of the police has serious consequences. In a poll of 129 people taken in Ferguson on Nov. 4 researchers discovered huge racial disparities in public opinion, including that a full 63% of black respondents justifiably expressed "unfavorable attitudes" towards the police. We should all commend Nasvhille's police department for holding itself to a higher standard, but the reality is that respect for civil rights should be the standard rather than the exception. It's not, and America shouldn't be so surprised that minorities know the system is rigged against them.