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Police in Lafayette Square Park near the White House on May 30.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

These videos show the police aren’t neutral. They’re counterprotesters.

Some law enforcement officers are treating America like a battlefield.

By now, millions of Americans have seen the videos.

Police officers surrounding protesters, beating them with batons. An officer apparently spraying mace at a little girl. Police cars plowing into a crowd of people, knocking them to the ground.

To many watching, the lesson of such images was clear. As New York Times Magazine writer Carvell Wallace put it, at the protests around the country after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, police aren’t a neutral party. They’re counterprotesters.

As protests spread in the past few days, police have flocked to affected neighborhoods, often wearing riot gear and sometimes arriving hours before protesters. Their stated goal is to keep the peace. But it’s become abundantly clear that many are far from neutral — instead, they are treating protesters like the enemy, lashing out violently, using disproportionate force, and attacking people who pose no threat to them.

“The tone that we felt from the police is: This is their rally,” Dae Shik Kim Jr. told the New York Times. Kim had shared a video of his friend in Seattle who was repeatedly punched while being detained. “They are going to control it from the beginning. They are going to dictate what happens. It’s a very offensive type of approach.”

The thousands of protesters around the country are rising up against police violence as a whole — not just the death of an individual. In response, police appear to be taking the protests personally, and it could lead to a disproportionate amount of violence from officers determined to maintain the status quo.

Around the country, police officers have repeatedly attacked protesters

Since the protests began in response to Floyd’s killing last week, police officers have again and again been captured on video attacking protesters. These videos — many of them graphic and disturbing — often show police seeming to treat protesters like an opposing army, rather than like citizens they’re sworn to protect.

It starts even before the protests do, many say, and continues after they’ve broken up. Police at Barclays Center in Brooklyn showed up well before protesters to surround the facility and create an adversarial image from the very beginning. The officers lined up like soldiers, an intimidating scene that, for many, connoted anything but safety.

In Columbus, Ohio, WOSU reporter Paige Southwick Pfleger spotted armed officers on the roof of a courthouse and blocking a street, even though protesters had already dispersed. “It seems like they are waiting for curfew to take effect,” Pfleger wrote.

And once protests began, police again and again used excessive force against the protesters. In Brooklyn, groups of officers teamed up against individuals and chased them down. Even when it became obvious that a protester was cornered and helpless, officers continued to attack the individual with their batons, making them look “like a literal mob,” wrote journalist Zeeshan Aleem.

Just blocks away, the night before, a police SUV rammed into a crowd of protesters:

Excessive force was also on display in Seattle, where a police officer pinned a protester down with his knee, much the same way an officer killed George Floyd. Bystanders yelled, “Get your knee off his neck,” and his partner ultimately had to push the knee off.

Officials are investigating another incident in Seattle, in which an officer appears to mace a 9-year-old girl — who is clearly not a threat. In a video posted on Twitter, the girl is in distress as other protesters splash her face with milk and water to ease the pain.

Then there are instances of police aggravating the crowd by disrupting peaceful protests, as seen in this video from Dallas:

The violence of police officers at protests reveals their true role

The job of law enforcement officers, according to the authorities who have called on them in recent days, is to keep the public safe. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, for example, said in a press conference on Sunday that officers are “here to protect people and property.”

But the police, in many situations, have appeared to actively work against public safety. It’s hard to imagine how macing a child, or driving a car into a crowd of people, could possibly be intended to keep anyone safe.

Instead, the police seem clearly to be treating protesters — members of the public — as adversaries. As Mara Gay writes at the New York Times, “an army of public servants entrusted to protect Americans treated them as an enemy instead.”

This seems to be happening not despite the fact that the protests are about police brutality, but because of it. Previous research shows that police are more likely to use force against protesters when the subject of the protest is police violence, Shaila Dewan and Mike Baker report at the Times. Police are also more likely to use violence against protesters of color than against white demonstrators.

Now “there’s deep resentment on the part of the police that so many people are angry at them, and they’re lashing out,” Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College, told the Times. “Look at what we saw — people sitting on their own stoops getting hit with pepper balls. Anyone who looks at them funny, they’re attacking them.”

That’s why Wallace, the Times Magazine writer, and others have argued that in protests against police brutality, the police should be seen as counterprotesters. Their interests are fundamentally at odds with those of the protesters, who want to see them stripped of their power to harass, assault, and even kill people with impunity. And it’s clear from the events of recent days that police are willing to use more violence to defend that power.

Many have also compared the violent response to the current protests with police behavior during anti-lockdown protests by conservative groups this spring. At those protests, officers were largely peaceful and respectful toward the (mostly white) crowds. One image from Lansing, Michigan, in particular, went viral: officers stoically standing by as an unmasked white man screamed inches from their faces. Contrast that with the images we’ve seen from recent days, of police swarming and beating protesters or running them down from the safety of their vehicles.

At the time of the Michigan protests, Melanye Price, a political science professor at Prairie View A&M University, told Vox that the police response would be very different if the stay-at-home protesters were black. “Imagine 10 black men and rifles walking up to any state capitol in the United States,” Price said. “They would be shot before they ever made it up the steps.”

The protesters attacked on camera by police in recent days have been unarmed. They certainly haven’t been carrying rifles up the capitol steps. Yet the police have treated them not just like a threat but like an opponent.

It’s clear that for many officers around the country, what’s happening in the streets right now isn’t an effort to protect public safety. It’s war.

Correction, June 2: An earlier version of this story misstated the context for a photo of law enforcement officers in Columbus, Ohio. The officers were standing in a street after a crowd of protesters had dispersed, and before curfew began.

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