Hitting people is not “soft”: Reporting and police tactics

I became infuriated, during the RNC, when someone showed me this NPR piece referring to what the police were doing there, particularly the tactic of hitting people with bikes, as “soft force tactics.” The first time the police did this, I was nearly knocked to the ground, as the person in front of me was hit by a bike and slammed into me. Had there not been a larger Fox cameraman for me to be slammed into in turn, I would have. The first injury I provided care for at the RNC was to someone who had a three-inch-long cut down their leg from being hit by a bike (bikes have some relatively sharp bits on them, notably on the pedals). Cops were shoving people with bikes in crushes where there wasn’t really anywhere to move. Furthermore, they were usually doing so for no reason at all. That first time, when I almost got knocked over? The Westboro Baptist Church was protesting. Other people were counterprotesting. Both groups were shouting, but there was no violence. The cops decided that they wished for the groups to be further apart, so they hit counterprotesters (not Westboro people) with bike lunges to drive them back, meeting lack-of-force with force. There was another time when they cleared the entire public square, except for Westboro, by force, simply because some people were yelling back and forth with Westboro.

Certainly, hitting people with bikes was not all that was going on. I had just made it onto the site for the Revolutionary Communist Party’s flag-burning. I saw them getting hit, shoved around, slammed up against the fence, people fleeing the area gasping to get their breath back. In my own area, I got to watch horse cops ride through a crowd, at faster than walking pace, and hit several people, fortunately none harder than a bump. I also did jail support for those arrestees, which included not only a bunch of RCP folks but a journalist and a bystander. A protester had a bone broken during that melee! People were choked, pulled up against and over barriers with an arm to the throat, hit. People, including elders with preexisting conditions, were thrown to the ground. Police sprayed some kind of irritant, possibly a tactical fire extinguisher, all over the place. Police hurt people who were restrained to stop them chanting toward the cameras. Several arrestees had injuries, some went to the hospital after getting out. And you know, flag-burning is legal. The guy whose Supreme Court case established it as protected speech, was the one burning the flag in this case, and was one of the arrestees. I’m not sure why the police used force or made arrests at all – they’re claiming that they gave a dispersal order, which is contested, but also jumps right over the question of what grounds they had to order the dispersal of people engaging in Constitution-protected speech.

After the convention I spent more than $30 replacing medic kit supplies that I used at a convention where supposedly nothing happened and the police were so soft and gentle. And then we had the DNC, where also supposedly nothing happened, and most of the time nothing did, but there were still a few people who got pepper sprayed, and a few, including a medic, who were beaten up.

My observation here, which has been my observation for years, is that the way a lot of media assess police tactics is completely broken and back-asswards. They look for the dramatic photos, and for the novel. So tear gas is seen as very escalated and violent on the part of the police. People being hit with blunt force, thrown down, those are seen as nothing. Handcuffs being “too tight” is also seen as nothing. And yet, I would rather be tear gassed – and I have been tear gassed before, so I don’t say that from a place of unknowing bravado – than beaten up. Or subject to a cop who sees handcuffs as punishment devices – I’ve known someone who was long-term disabled from that, at another action where police were widely reported as having been soft and gentle. Being hit once by a bike or horse is not quite the same as being beaten up, but it can cause actual injuries, especially if done hard, or in a tightly-packed crowd where it’s difficult to move away from what’s hitting you, or if you fall down.

I’m not even talking about batons here, as they got little use at the recent conventions, but I would take most tactics over being beaten in earnest with a baton. Because I was a medic at the NATO summit protests in 2012, and I saw what happens to people when you beat them in earnest with batons. And yet, I remember seeing news stories after that talking about how Chicago had acquitted itself so well, had banished the specter of 1968. More than two dozen protesters went to the hospital in one afternoon (and I can guarantee you that’s probably no more than half the number that should have gone). I know someone who had to change careers because of the injury they took there. But, you know, no tear gas!

I am not saying that tear gas is a minor thing (it isn’t, it sucks and if the canisters are fired from a weapon they can be extremely dangerous projectiles in their own right). I’m saying that I wish more journalists had the experience and savvy to assess police tactics in a way that looks at risks, effects, and whether force is even justifiable at all in a particular situation, and not just flashy pictures and novelty. There are some who do, but it would be nice if it were standard.

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