The day after the Trump Inauguration, I marched with 750,000 other people in Los Angeles, organized by the Women’s March on Washington, in unity for the protection and advancement of
women’s rights across the globe. What I saw was nothing short of astonishing. After my hour wait for a train pass downtown, I watched as crowds from all walks of life, young and old and rich and poor, gather to take part in this historic movement. I saw some funny signs, some sobering signs, one or two in dissent and a few I wish I didn’t see at all. I heard a few catchy chants and the occasional distant drumbeat. And on occasion, I would see a hand rise above the crowd, holding up a rotating vibrator as an emblem of protest, alongside posters of profound quotations from Nelson Mandela and Susan B. Anthony.
There was one thing I didn’t see. The police.
Before I continue, there are a few caveats to that statement. First, I’m sure there were cops in places I didn’t walk to or simply passed and didn’t see. Second, I assume there were police mixed in the crowds in plain clothes, and third, a police helicopter was hovering at a high altitude, monitoring the events.
Perhaps the better statement is that there wasn’t a police presence.
Where was law enforcement then? It appeared that public safety officials and other city leaders decided they would react if the circumstances changed and their response was needed. Isolated incidents would be diffused locally and they’d quell problems as they happened.
Then, nothing happened. Not literally perhaps, as I’ve read of a few spots of vandalism and pockets of disorderly folks across the country. That is to be expected. In fact, as the streets filled beyond capacity, officials quickly closed additional roads and made other accommodations so that protestors could exercise their rights. Unlike protests we’ve seen historically, there were no calls of “economic terrorism” or labeling a growing crowd a “mob”. None of the less, more businesses were shut from access, people couldn’t drive to or from their parking, and the elderly were trapped inside unless they were to leave traveling on foot or bike.
Friends and family who were marching in different cities commented to me how the police they met were friendly and helpful as also echoed over social media. Most of us have seen the videos of officers offering “high fives” to protestors and pictures of cops wearing the symbolic pink “pussy hat” in support. I was sincerely touched police officers showed a welcome-ness while the masses participated in what grew to be the largest protest ever recorded in the U.S history. But I couldn’t shake noticing the resounding contrasts seen at marches before.
Comparing the stark differences of police presence to protests past, especially relating to police shootings, we must collectively ask how was it possible that nearly 5 million people could protest, over two-thirds spontaneously, despite cities and police agencies across the globe unprepared for such volume, yet there were no widespread outbreaks of criminality. Police found no need for chemical pepper spray or sound grenades. No mass arrests, no journalists detained nor their equipment confiscated. How could this have gone without a hitch when we’ve seen crowds of less than 100 in protest, which garnered a totally opposite police response?
I am sure there are many answers to this question, many equally true, but I would start with, “What if?”
At the Woman’s March, what if the police presence had been obvious? What if instead of high-fives they were met with an armed force? Instead of the knitted kitty hats, what if police were wearing more combat gear than actual soldiers fighting in Afghanistan?
If shown a tour de force of law enforcement might, would the 1.5 million people in Chicago and L.A. felt fear and intimidation? What tensions would have existed at the Woman’s March in Des Moines, Lexington, and Boston if protesters watched Humvees patrol alongside the crowd with snipers atop, aimed and ready to kill? What would the mood have been in Cincinnati, Flint and Austin, if police paraded up and down the streets, blue lights flashing, issuing orders over bullhorns, demanding strict adherence to every minor traffic and sidewalk law. How would the marchers in Phoenix, Ft. Lauderdale and Denver have reacted to an armed officer screaming “Bring it, you fucking animals, bring it!“?
Would police, walking shoulder to shoulder with AR-15 assault rifles, tear gas and grenades while clutching steel batons, furthered or spoiled the air of peace and calm that was seen in nearly every participating city across the globe?
For black and brown people, expressing their constitutionally protected right to protest, especially surrounding police shootings, there is always a police presence. No “what if’s”, no “wait and see”. Long before deemed out of control and with attendances in the dozens, often police lineup in nearby parking lots, alongside tanks, readying for war. When mobilizing, it’s a deliberate show of force with military-grade trucks and troves of soldiers marching in the streets. City after city, there is little to no accommodation offered to marchers and when crowds grow, it results in a pageant of police, lined in militant formations, marching towards to push, shove, gas, disorient, knock down, hit, beat and arrest them.
There is no calm, reactive approach. There are no wide efforts of handling crisis’ as they occur, nor allowing for isolated events or minute flair ups. Single violations by individuals are quickly assigned to the entire movement. If one car is vandalized, it’s wide-spread destruction. If one person is assaulted, it’s a violent mob. There are expectations of immediate adherence to every officer’s demands, regardless of its constitutionality or legality, with a smile and a thanks, or face arrest, assault, electric shock or dog attack.
When asking why there are different approaches, we cannot ignore the historical context of African American and civil rights protests and the police’s culpability in limiting free speech. We cannot deny there is an embedded bias that black and brown people will be more likely to be lawless, therefore, a greater show of force is warranted. James Comey, the former FBI Director acknowledged in 2015, “All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty.” But we must go beyond statements and platitudes and communally recognize that in part, a major contributor of protest escalation, is the militarization of police training and policy which will often cause more harm than good.
I remember when I was in the academy, one instructor, an old retired captain, always insisted that we were to wear our white, milkman-style, police hat. As young students, we objected but he insisted by parroting “Every piece of your uniform is a piece of your identity and any item you add or remove, adds or removes a piece of your identity and your authority”. Rest his soul, in one way, he was right. The manner that police choose to appear will have an enormous impact on the outcome of protests, and when handled improperly, it’s often a less desirable one for everyone.
The Woman’s March on Washington teaches us that if the police don’t show up looking like offense, the crowd won’t naturally be ready to play defense.