Heavy-handed police responses to protests in the United States (and around the world) are nothing new. While horrifically graphic videos and images of police brutality taken by everyday people are now circulated across the Internet in the blink of an eye, the institution of police departments in this country developed from “slave patrols” in the Confederate South. These groups, initially comprised of white male vigilantes, were formed to hunt down and recapture enslaved Africans who had liberated themselves from bondage. It’s well worth pausing to reflect on this as we think about recent history.
Those who remember the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which was broadcast live on prime time (back when that was a thing), likely saw police smashing protestors’ heads and bodies while the activists shouted “The whole world is watching!” Fifty years later, Democracy Now’s website shared video of those horrifying moments, and the Guardian created a moving piece with narrative and photographs to remember this violent moment in U.S. history.
State-sanctioned brutality against protesters, carried out by armed police forces, has been with us for as long as there have been governments and State-backed oppression. Today, as the powers that be use their nearly limitless resources and rapidly-developing technology to learn new ways to quash protest, it simply wears a different face.
In Chicago in 1968, the police used batons and tear gas. Two years later, the National Guard escalated to shooting to kill at Kent State. Current police tactics are both more refined and more brutal.
The summer of 2020 saw the Movement for Black Lives and its supporters assaulted nationwide, with an abundance of older and newer tactics. Law enforcement and the powers it protects had been honing these tactics since the 1960s, in the protests surrounding Occupy Wall Street; conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the G5; and in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and millions of people taking to the streets outraged about the continued killings of unarmed Black people.
These days, their arsenal is large and varied. Law enforcement officers feel fully justified, and are rarely accountable for, using the following types of so-called “less lethal” weapons and tactics against protesters, which frequently cause serious, long-term health effects, including mental and physical trauma:
- Projectiles: With euphemistic names such as “foam batons,” “rubber bullets,” “beanbags,” “pepper balls,” and “blast balls.” The first three of these are generally shot gun shells with materials packed into them which are in no way “foamy” like a Nerf ball, nor like bean bags that would be tossed in a game of cornhole. In some cases cops have shot people in the head or eyes, including protesters, media, and legal observers, causing irreparable harm;
- Chemical weapons: The aforementioned pepper balls, tear gas, and pepper spray (including pulling off masks to spray at close range);
- Percussive weapons, such as flash bangs, stun grenades, and sound cannons (LRADs);
- Tried-and-true batons;
- “Focused blows:” An Orwellian term meaning punches and kicks — often to the head and face;
- Pushing, or “bull rushing” people, including using bicycles as pushing and assaulting weapons;
- Tackling protesters, including slamming them to the ground, leading to extensive, serious physical injuries;
- Dragging people; and
- Kneeling on people, which in some cases has led to “positional asphyxiation” and death, which was used to callously kill George Floyd last year.
Somewhat more subtly, police forces have been honing their skills at “kettling,” which involves using police lines to encircle protesters and demonstrations, with no escape route, and then arresting entire crowds of protesters. The unconstitutionality of these group arrests is usually aggravated by a lack of fair notice and warnings to disperse prior to arrest. Officers also target legal observers, medics, reporters, and jail support volunteers, carving them off from marches and other actions so they cannot do their essential support work.
Another anti-protest tactic that is on the upswing since 2020 is curfews, sometimes expanded to a citywide scope with short notice and/or without any avenue for exit.
CLDC has also obtained evidence of police forces facilitating assaults by right-wing and/or white supremacist counter-protesters, including turning a blind eye to people purposely driving into and through marches. That practice has also been encouraged by recent bills introduced in state legislatures that would immunize such assaults.
Once protesters are arrested, police employ many tactics that are punitive and clearly designed to discourage people from coming out en masse to express their views in the future — such as using zip-ties as handcuffs; leaving arrestees seated on hard concrete for a long time; depriving them of food, water, and restrooms; refusing to allow jail support volunteers to obtain arrestees’ names and family contact information; strip-searching protest arrestees in jail; and other demeaning, painful, and emotionally distressing tactics.
In 1968, my parents, horrified by the State violence they were watching, expressed outrage at what was occurring. As an eight-year-old seeing those Chicago protesters bloodied and hauled into police vans, I worried about what was going to happen to them next. The need to stay concerned and vigilant about police violence on the streets, post-arrest abuse, and even torture of political prisoners, has only increased.
It can feel overwhelming when we read about police violence, and it’s understandable to feel discouraged in the face of this everyday brutality. One avenue to fight back — the one we have repeatedly and successfully used at CLDC — is the courts. We’re holding the Eugene and Springfield police departments accountable for their violence last summer, and we invite you to partner with us in demanding justice. You can help make this work possible by giving generously today. Thank you.