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Commentary :: Organizing
Preemptive Crowd Control: Why Are Some Protesters Treated So Differently By Police?
07 Jan 2004
With the upcoming DNC protests in Boston, we worry about police conduct once again. Why do police spray anti-war protesters with pepper spray and rubber bullets if they stray off the sidewalks into streets, but they accommodate rowdy sports fans blocking streets, with smiles? Is this difference politically driven?
(Picture above: Natural Graffiti/Peace Signs Appeared Mysteriously in Seattle Neighborhoods at Pre-Dawn)

Preemptive Crowd Control: Why Are Some Protesters Treated So Differently By Police?
By Kirsten Anderberg Copyright 2004

Yesterday, it snowed really hard in Seattle, Wa. Main streets were covered with inches of snow within a few hours, and the city was shut down, basically, as Seattle does not get snow like that every year. On the “Counterbalance” on Queen Anne Hill, yesterday, chaos ensued. The “Counterbalance” is a large thoroughfare at a steep incline, for blocks, connecting downtown Seattle with Queen Anne Hill, the highest hill in Seattle. Cars began losing traction early in the day, police put up a sign closing the street, then left. Cars drove around the sign or found ways to get onto it via alleys, etc. As hours wore on, hundreds of people gathered on the Counterbalance, and we saw a snowmobile, skis, snowboards, ironing boards, box springs, all kinds of things used as sleds, coming down that steep hill for blocks. At the hill’s bottom, was moving traffic. Now and then, a car would cruise down inches from children on sleds. It was truly scary to watch. During one newscast, two people whizzed by the news reporter, and finally stopped within about a foot of an intersection with cars driving through it. Local news covered this scene for hours. I was stunned that police show up in riot gear, by the hundreds, for local anti-war protests, that are permitted and nonviolent, yet they are absolutely invisible when dangerous conditions are being broadcast on our local news, regarding the illegal use of streets, by hundreds, in the snow. It can be argued that snow is an unusual event. But so is war. We do not have permitted, week-long, anti-war demonstrations at the Federal Building every week, either. We have had them twice in Seattle, in the last 20 years. For these unusual events, we need to be flexible, I agree. Bending rules and laws, perhaps. But why for drivers and people on streets in snow, but not for people during anti-war protests?

Expected events also produce calm police interactions with certain folks, such as sports fans, and predictably hostile interactions with others, such as FTAA protesters. I have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of people take over public streets, impeding traffic, without police brutality or hostility, at sports events in Seattle. The Mariners or Seahawks will play a game, it lets out, and the thousands of fans pour into the streets at the same time, blocking traffic. Instead of coming in riot gear, and making the people stay on the sidewalk, or beating them with sticks and spraying them with pepper spray, like they do for permitted protesters in Seattle, the police PLAN FOR THIS, simply smile, reroute traffic with metal barricades, and guide the large crowds up the street until they are all accommodated. Sometimes fans are even drunk and rowdy, and police just help them along, smiling. The police are really nice to sports fans. But protesters with planned permits for rallies and marches, such as the LEIU protests in Seattle in June 2003, are not planned for peacefully by police, but with the exact opposite intentions and provisions, they are planned for with violence.

To what are we to attribute this hostile behavior on the part of the Seattle Police, when it comes to street protests and free speech? Why do Seattle Police behave so preemptively different, regarding protesters, compared to the way they treat sports fans, or sleds mixed with cars driving on dangerous and closed streets in the snow? I can only surmise it is political. That the riot police at street protests serve more purpose than the purported safety issue (duh, since they are the most dangerous people there usually), but rather these riot police serve a political purpose of intimidation, and of paternalistic, public repression of free speech. Conservative acquaintances say, “If you go out protesting, you cannot complain if police beat you.” They will not respond when I ask how that plays out with free speech rights in America, or how it differs from countries with repressed freedom of speech.

I know that all of the Seattle Police do not support the Iraq war. As we protested, several police officers said to me, “I am just doing my job, I do not support this war.” But those are the officers that would grace us with speech, the ones not beating us up. Many purposely-unidentified riot police acted as if they had no obligation to speak to citizens during the anti-war riots in March, and LEIU riots in June, 2003, in Seattle. I have found the double-standard of treatment toward pro-war and anti-war protesters to be blatantly prejudiced by the Seattle Police. Pro-war protesters could have huge poles and thick wooden 2x4’s to fly oversized American and Don’t Tread on Me flags, while anti-war demonstrators had their flagpoles of every type removed and taken by police, as potential weapons! Approximately 50 pro-war protesters charged the federal building plaza, assaulting peaceful demonstrators, and threatening a U.S. Congressman, Jim McDermott, and riot police just stood there. I said to the riot police, “Here’s the chance you have been waiting for, go get ‘em,” thinking the riot police would go in and stop the violent assaults by the pro-war protesters. But the Seattle Police officer looked back at me, grinned, and said calmly, “They have free speech rights too,” and did nothing. I was shocked. This same weekend of protests, I came upon a row of pro-war protesters who were being offered water bottles by the Seattle Police! They did not offer anti-war protesters water. Instead, the police were hostile, and heckled us for our political views! So, it was interesting that the Seattle Police seemed to want to kick the anti-war demonstrators’ asses, and not the pro-war protesters asses’, no matter how violently the pro-war protesters behaved. The strong presence of riot police at Seattle protests, at the FTAA riots in Miami in Nov., and predictably at the upcoming Democratic and Republican convention protests, makes you wonder why they act like that, preemptively, for protesters, yet large sports events are met with smiles, and helpful barricades to reroute traffic. Huge Seahawks crowds are waved on through the streets, while protesters are shot at with concussion grenades for being on the streets. It is really interesting to juxtapose these reactions and to try to determine motives.

In March 2003, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowski was asked on a local radio show why it seemed the police acted differently with anti-war protesters than pro-war protesters. The Seattle Police DO NOT show up at pro-war rallies in riot gear, just anti-war rallies. Kerlikowski said the police see anti-war protesters as hostile to police, where they do not feel that from pro-war protesters. Could it be that anti-war protesters are hostile to police because they are getting beaten and assaulted by the police, and the pro-war people are not, so they like police? I can guarantee that if police started treating pro-military and pro-war people with the aggression they use on the peace communities, they would be facing armed hostility in the streets! That may be why they do not try to contain the pro-war people, they are afraid of them. Pro-war people are openly pro-guns, pro-violence. Peaceful protesters sit down and take the beating stoically, they are easier for police to beat without fear of getting hurt back. Those pro-war protesters will kick some police butt if censored, and thus police treat them with kid gloves. And perhaps this is the fear that police have about anarchists. Perhaps they perceive that finally within the anti-war movement, is a sector that is as devoted to their free speech rights as the right wing, pro-war people, and who are not willing to peacefully allow police abuse.

Even defensive posturing against rioting police is treated as illegal behavior by our government lately. Somehow the fact that the police are showing up in riot gear, with badges and name tags covered, with heavy weaponry on site, does not alarm the public about their violent intents to squelch American free speech. To me, that says police INTEND to riot. And that is dangerous. The new trend is to try to give rioting police the upper hand, by banning, before the protest occurs, items that can be used as self-defense, such as gas masks, bullet-proof vests, street medic supplies, and cameras, which is also quite telling. Miami tried to ban all kinds of things, came under national scrutiny for it, and then had a world-class riot at the FTAA protests, and now Miami is under world-wide scrutiny for the unnecessary police violence in November. The NYTimes reported recently that the FBI are spying on “anarchists,” and groups who provide protest training, such as street medic organizations like Black Cross ( or protest tactic collectives, such as the Rant Collective (, I would assume. So we are supposed to not plan ahead, to go into protests as willing lambs to the slaughter, as punishment for our protesting in the first place, with riot police that are armed and ready? How are these not intimidation tactics? How is this free speech? It is the military intervention that stops free speech usually. Well, riot police look damned militaristic as they point their machine guns at you for daring to peacefully protest in America. I am seriously worried about the way protesters are being singled out, and met with violent and unaccountable behavior, for legal free speech activity, by police in America. Police are complaining that protesters are hostile towards them. Perhaps if police in America began to treat peaceful protesters the way they treat violent, pro-war protesters, and drunk sports fans spilling out into streets in rowdy mobs, we could reclaim safety on our streets, and again reclaim freedom of speech. A freedom that, for now, is lost, in America, due to unaccountable riot police squads. In Seattle, in Miami, in Oakland, in NYC…
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