Policing protests.

Images of US students (and others) protesting and setting up tent cities on US university campuses have been broadcast worldwide and clearly demonstrate the growing rifts in US society caused by US policy toward Israel and Israel’s prosecution of its war against Palestinians in response to the Hamas attack on Israeli-occupied territory along the Gaza Strip on October 7 of last year. The police behaviour appears to be a bit over the top, to say the least, given that the protests are purportedly peaceful for the most part, or at least until the cops arrive. It would seem that the police do not care for freedoms of speech or assembly, so there appears to be an anti-democratic bias at play in the suppression of these protests. But there are some angles to the subject that need further discussion, so let’s dig in on them.

Assuming that protesters are not harassing, intimidating or assaulting people or damaging public or private property, then the police response in place like Emory University, University of Southern California and the University of Texas (to name a few), is in fact excessive. Even if trespass orders are given, there is no need to manhandle, use tear gas, rubber bullets or generally hurt protestors in order to get them to leave a designated area unless they are being violent. If they block roads and physically impede public movements in and around the demonstration, then protesters can be arrested and cited under law for a subsequent court appearances. But unless they actively (as opposed to passively) resist, then violence should not be used against them and even then, all care should be made by law enforcement to consider the physical well-being of those arrested. Marching people out by the elbows is one thing. Throwing them to the ground and cuffing them behind their backs is another. Breaking arms or legs and pepper-spraying people people is a step too far. Again, this assumes that protesters are not behaving in a threatening or violent manner.

Private schools can issue trespass notices for any reason and have the police enforce them. Likewise, public institutions can do much the same although here the space being occupied is owned by taxpayers and therefore not as easily subject to tresspass orders unless people start damaging things or other folk. This was the case with the 2022 Wellington parliamentary protest, which was held on parliament grounds but eventually spilled into adjacent streets (and beyond), all of which are public spaces. Given that public institutions are thought of as “the people’s places,” authorities must exercise extra caution when attempting to end protests on and in them. Unlike the centralised nature of law enforcement decision-making in NZ (due to the unitary nature of government), as a federal republic that means that in the US State and/or local authorities must make the decision to move against a protest, usually at the request of university administrators. There are plenty of regulations in place that give State and local governments authority over public spaces, so the right for public authorities to enforce trespass notices is there. It is how they do so that is the issue.

Here I must pause for a brief aside about “free” versus “hate” speech, which is at the crux of the protests and how they are handled. Waving banners and yelling “long live Hamas” is an example of protected free speech. Given Hamas’s record, it may offend many people but no harm is invited and no violence is incited. On-lookers can walk away if they object. It is therefore a case of protected “offensive” speech at worst. However, yelling or waving banners saying “kill the Jews” or “nuke Gaza” is not. It is an incitement to violence against a specific group of people. As such it needs to be treated as a precursor to a hate crime as it invites and incites violence against a designated target. Law enforcement authorities need to understand the difference and formulate their responses accordingly.

Think of it this way: Kyle Chapman and other NZ neo-Nazis can play dressup and march around yelling “Sieg Heil” and “white power” all they want, so long as they do not cross the line into advocating violence or committing acts of violence against others. The police need to know what is protected (anti-social racist incel boorishness) and what is not (advocating harm to others). Unfortunately, the police in Christchurch have a history of downplaying the issue when Kyle and his fellow creeps cross that line, something that may have been a factor in the events of March 15, 2019.

The same logic holds true for pro-Palestinian demonstrators. They cross the line if they call for the eradication of Jews anywhere. “Death to Zionism” is not the same as “Death to Jews” no matter how much some would like to conflate the two. Zionism is an ideology. Jews are people. One is a belief, the other are living humans. Although some Jews are Zionists, not all are and even then they do not deserve to be targeted for being Jews (there are non-Jewish Zionists as well, especially in US fundamentalist Christian communities).

The matter of how to end protests is complicated by the fact that infiltrators with other agendas often join sincere people participating in legitimate protests who are exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The agitators may act as agent provocateurs in order to turn otherwise peaceful protests into something nasty, in order to expose the contradictions of the Deep State, capitalism, Big Pharma, the government or any number of other nefarious agencies who are believed to usurp and act contrary to the popular will. I witnessed this phenomena close up during my youthful protest days, where a group called the Spartacus Youth League, of Trotskyite persuasion, in Chicago and Washington DC, used a tactic where masked “Spart” columns moved to the front of crowds facing off with police and proceeded to assault the cops at close range with projectiles and blunt objects (but from behind the frontline of peaceful protesters). That usually caused a police riot where cops began to beat on everyone in front them while the “Sparts” slunk away to the back of the crowd and started looting and vandalising on the sidelines. The original reason for the protest often got lost in the mayhem, which of course is what the media focused on.

Although I do not know if the “Sparts” or other groups have engaged in this sort of action in the recent student protests, there are reports of non-students joining the student protesters, which in of itself is not a bad thing. But if they come with other agendas, say, turning a pro-Palestine or anti-genocide protest into a “Kill the Jews” hate fest, then the usual protections of speech and assembly no longer apply. Again, that is because the latter is a type of hate speech, inciting violence against a specific group of people because of who they are (as opposed to what the State of Israel does), and as such is no longer afforded the protections available to offensive “free” speech.

Not to belabour the point, but consider this: One can vociferously call Netanyahu a murderer and Israel a genocidal regime without personalising and inciting violence against Jews as an ethno-religious group. One can voice support for Palestinians and call for university divestiture of investments in companies that do business with the State of Israel without hating all Jews. Although holding and voicing these views may be offensive to some, it is not anti-Semitic to do so. After all, not all Jews are Israeli or support Netanyahu or Israel’s polices towards Palestine. The line is drawn when support for Palestinians or criticism of Israel turns into calling for violence against Jews. That moves what some may consider offensive speech into the realm of hate speech, which does not deserve the protections of law. Likewise, defence of Israel cannot extend to advocating the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their ancestral lands. If so, the line between free speech and hate speech is then crossed.

For police in liberal democracies (I shall not bother writing about how authoritarians handle protests since they do not concern themselves with the niceties of free speech and assembly), the conundrum is this: do they come in hard from the onset and disperse the crowds with overwhelming force? Or do they adopt a passive containment strategy that allows people to blow off steam before they decide to end their action either voluntarily or with non-violent encouragement by or disincentives from the authorities (say, by threatening suspension or dismissal from universities if students do not disperse by a specific time)?

In the Wellington protests the police adopted the passive approach. For a month they dealt with the crowds in a largely peaceful manner even though agitators and extremists joined the ranks of the original anti-vaccination/anti-mandate crowd. The police even overlooked the fact that there were public health restrictions (specifically, social distancing requirements) still in place when the protest caravans began to arrive in Wellington in early February, something that contributed to an upsurge in Covid cases in the crowd. Over time the infiltrators began to dominate the protest discourse, to include voicing MAGA support, waving confederate flags, railing against the “Deep State,” echoing QAnon weirdness, voicing violent threats against “Jabcinda” (including her execution and that of other officials) and otherwise behaving like aggressive a-holes. As days turned into weeks the public health and public order downsides of the protest grew larger and more uninvolved people were negatively impacted by it. Many of the original protest leaders, like the so-called Voices for Freedom, retreated back to their home keyboards rather than staunch things out to the bitter and inevitable end. Eventually, after a month of paralysis in central Wellington and at high cost in resources and injury, the cops moved in to disperse the encampment. A riot ensured.

Perhaps it did not help for the then Speaker of the House to order that the parliamentary lawn sprinklers be turned on and that awful pop music be played over loudspeakers above the encampment. Presumably he thought that would weaken the resolve of the protesters and they would all go home. Instead, that just turned the parliament lawn into a cow paddock and irritated the aesthetic sensitivities of the conspiracy theorists, who simply added bad pop music and involuntary cold water showers to their list of Deep State machinations. More importantly, the Speaker clearly did not consult with the Police Commissioner before he made his moves, or if he did, they must have concocted that genius plan after sharing a few pints at The Backbencher. In retrospect it was not a good decision.

So for the police the question is what to do? Go in hard early or adopt a passive containment/defusion strategy? (I will leave aside the idea that the police would chose not to enforce anti-demonstration laws and let people gather as they please simply because in a place like NZ or the US, the cops are mostly anything but progressive or anti-status quo in mindset even if individual members may be sympathetic to a specific cause. Having said that, the Washington DC police refused to move against pro-Palestinian protestors at George Washington University, a private school, after university administrators requested that they clear the student encampment. The cops said that the group was small and peaceful, so the “optics” would not look good. Make of that what you will.).

A different approach might have been to identify infiltrators and extremists via undercover and technological observation and use more selective techniques to isolate and separate them from the crowd. After all, the police are part of a repressive apparatus that not only has a monopoly over organised violence within a given territory but which has the authority of the State behind it. Of all actors, they should know–in fact be schooled in–the art of subtle extirpation of troublemakers as well as in the well-known goon squad tactics usually associated with riot control. That did not happened in Wellington and the goon squad approach eventually had to be used.

(I cannot go into the details here but in Greece there are two types of riot police, one dressed in green gear and the other in blue gear. The different colours signals to protesters the different levels of repression that is about to be meted out so that people can chose whether to stay or leave before the blue goons make their entrance. That serves to separate the protest wheat from the chaff once the blue squad arrives. For their part protesters in Athens had Loukanikos the riot dog on their side during my time in Athens as well as his “son” Kanellos, who is said to still be part of the resistance).

In the US things are different. The police doing the repressing represent state and local (municipal and county) authorities. Consequently, their training and approach to protest varies widely. From what I have seen, the cops at Emory (which is in Atlanta, Georgia) and the University of Texas have very little time for protestors. Their governors, both reactionary Republicans, have joined in the smear that the protestors are anti-semitic and pro-terrorist, thereby opening the door to a heavy-handed approach to dispersing the crowds. It should be noted that Emory University is a private school and its administrators requested that the Atlanta police break up the demonstration. At UT-Austin it was the governor who ordered the troops in (I do not know if that was done at the request of university administrators or of his own volition, but given his remarks the latter appears to have been the case).

Conversely, at Colombia, Yale, Harvard, New York University and USC (all private schools outside of the Deep South), the police initially exercised a bit more restraint but nevertheless resorted after just a few days to forcibly removing people in handcuffs or bodily if they refused to move. Perhaps that is reflective of the US police mindset when it comes to this particular cause and the people doing the protesting. If the protests were reversed (pro-Israel rather than pro-Palestine), it would be interesting to see if the police tactics changed. From the standpoint of equality under the law, one would hope not, but a realistic appraisal of the situation suggests to me that pro-Israeli demonstrations in the US would be met very differently by law enforcement and in fact may have to be “protected” from counter-demonstrators (as has happened in Australia).

Then there is the issue of disinformation. Most of the word about the protests is spread by social media, and various platforms are used by protest organisers to spread the action beyond its origins. This opens a window of opportunity for state and non-state actors to introduce disinformation into protest campaigns in order to advance other, hidden agendas. For example, it would seem to be a professional imperative for Russian and Chinese disinformation units to target the protests in order to further undermine the historic public consensus in support of Israel in the US (born of political elite and media bias in favour of Israel), in order to advance their respective adversarial interests vis a vis the US in the Middle East and beyond. From a strategic perspective it would be derelict of them not to exploit this window of opportunity, as undermining an enemy from within using non-military means is far more resource efficient that waiting until open conflict with that enemy has begun. Both the PRC and Russia have prior form in this regard (including in NZ), so it is not a stretch to speculate that they may be doing so with regard to the student protests. Police and other intelligence agencies need to be aware of this possibility and approach the cyber realm accordingly.

Of course, the root cause of this situation of discord and dissent in the US is the Israeli elite’s psychopathic behaviour both before and after October 7 and the willing blindness of US foreign policy elites to the fact that Israel is not only the tail that wags the US foreign policy dog in the Middle East but has now become a strategic liability rather than a strategic asset (which derives from its importance when it comes to intelligence gathering on and sharing of Middle Eastern affairs). It has taken young adults–students–to bring critical attention to that fact, but for US adversaries they are just pawns in a larger game.

In the end how to police protests has much to do with the cause, the culture (both in civil society as well as in policing), who is doing the protesting and who is in government at the time. Some causes may be purer than others. The students are protesting about terrible events in a far-off place based on the ideal that collective punishment leading to genocide is wrong and that casting a blind on it is complicit. Besides the cookers and nutters, the anti-vaxx crowd in Wellington were more about their personal inconvenience and material losses rather than protection of the commonweal or public good. In an odd way that suggests that the latter should have been dealt with in stronger terms from the onset while the student protests need to be handled in a less repressive way. But that is where culture and governments come in. In the US the police are more about kicking a** and taking names, whereas in NZ the approach is more to play community cop rather than Judge Dread. Likewise, US governments at every level always want to be seen as upholding “law an order” even if the laws are retrograde and the order is rigged, whereas the Labour government in place at the time of the protests was determined to try and play things softly-softly in the hope that cooler heads would prevail in the protesting crowd and things would end quietly, in the Kiwi way.

They did not.

There are lessons to be learned from both of these protest episodes, mostly about what not to do rather than what to do.