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A police officer swings a baton at demonstrators near the White House on May 30.
Evan Vucci/AP

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“The protesters had to deescalate the police”: Demonstrators are the ones defusing violence at protests

Protesters describe the excessive force they’ve seen police use in cities across the country.

Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The police response to protests across the country has been strikingly similar.

In Philadelphia, police cornered peaceful protesters on the side of a highway and tear-gassed them en masse. In Portland, Oregon, law enforcement used what’s known as a sound cannon — or a Long Range Acoustic Device — to send a piercing signal through a crowd of demonstrators. And in Washington, DC, National Guard officers flew military helicopters over protesters on the ground, an intimidation tactic aimed at getting them to leave.

At demonstration after demonstration, officers have met peaceful protesters, who are condemning the police killing of George Floyd, and police violence more broadly, with disproportionate and brutal force, often for no reason but to “disperse” a crowd. The approach has only illustrated how quick police can be to use violent tactics, particularly against black individuals.

The irony of this dynamic isn’t lost on protesters: By responding with brutality in demonstrations about police brutality, police are effectively helping activists make their point.

“The continuity across these spaces, the cruelty, the egregious militarized force, it forces you to come to the conclusion that this is systemic,” says Krystal Strong, 35, a member of Black Lives Matter in Philadelphia, who recalled watching a young black man get rammed with a police bike at a recent demonstration. “It’s not just Minneapolis. It’s not just Chicago or LA.”

Vox spoke with 10 protesters in seven cities — and nearly all of them had either directly witnessed or been subject to police violence while participating in marches and rallies in recent weeks.

“It’s affirmed that policing is brutal,” says Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, of her experience. “If I were the police, strategically I would say at a police brutality march, don’t be brutal. It’s just not smart; it’s bad optics.”

Police have escalated the violence at protests

The protesters who spoke with Vox all had a common experience: Regardless of the demonstration they attended — whether it was a peaceful march or a rally that included graffiti and property damage — the police were the ones who escalated the situation. And across the board, that response was seen as entirely disproportionate to the activity that may have prompted it.

During a peaceful protest in Toledo, Ohio, 29-year-old attorney Matthew Ahn said he saw police shooting wooden bullets directly at people, severely injuring at least two individuals. “One of the projectiles hit someone directly in the foot and broke multiple bones in his foot,” he said. “There were several puddles of blood left where he was.” Throughout a day of demonstrations, Ahn — who attended the protests in a personal, not professional, capacity — says police shot pepper balls, rubber bullets, or wooden bullets at protesters seven different times.

In Los Angeles, Abdullah described watching a state highway patrol car plow into a crowd of protesters and knock a man out in the process. “We didn’t know he was alive at the moment,” she says. “He was unconscious.”

And in Washington, DC, Allison Lane, a 34-year-old podcaster and bartender, recalled being among more than 100 protesters who were “kettled” by police into a residential neighborhood.

Last week, roughly 70 protesters, including Lane, were taken in by a resident named Rahul Dubey, who housed them for an entire night as police waited outside to arrest people for curfew violations. “Police officers were pepper-spraying wildly at people who were trying to get inside the home,” she said. “The scene inside ... is people pouring milk into their eyes, using eyewash bottles.”

These incidents are among hundreds that have occurred in the past few weeks as thousands have taken to the streets to protest the police killings of black people, following Floyd’s death. A Twitter thread that’s since gone viral includes more than 200 video clips that capture police tear-gassing, shoving, and beating protesters with batons — and those are simply the offenses that have been taped.

Such acts of police violence have contributed to a number of injuries — rubber bullets have blinded multiple individuals, while beatings have resulted in broken bones — and one death. In Louisville, Kentucky, where officers still haven’t been charged in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, police shot and killed David McAtee near his business when he was out past curfew in early June.

“The protesters had to deescalate the police”

Demonstrators emphasize that they now go into marches expecting violence because of how law enforcement has behaved up to this point.

“I didn’t expect anything but violence — that’s all we’re thinking about,” said Lane.

Given the precedent for police behavior, protesters have been told to prepare and steel themselves for such treatment. Organizers encourage protesters to inform friends and family about where they are and set up a phone tree of emergency contacts. Additionally, demonstrators have been urged to dress in long-sleeved shirts and pants and to bring goggles in case tear gas or pepper spray is used.

Multiple organizers told Vox they try to protest with medical support directly on hand, to deal with both the exhaustion that protesters may experience and potential injuries that could result from police activity. “We now only do marches with medics present, and that’s been very helpful,” Abdullah, the Los Angeles BLM organizer, told Vox. As the New York Times reported, there’s been a surge of medical professionals and volunteers getting training to serve as “street medics” following the police violence at many demonstrations.

There have been some changes in how police have responded since the start of the protests more than two weeks ago. As cities have lifted curfews, and demonstrations have fluctuated in size, the police reaction has become less confrontational, in some instances. Protesters have speculated that this shift was due to the poor optics police had encountered, particularly when it came to high-profile incidents like the tear-gassing of peaceful demonstrators in front of the White House.

At the marches where law enforcement has taken a more aggressive approach, the escalation by police often came with little warning, protesters say. It can be chaotic, frightening, and overwhelming.

An Atlanta police officer charges toward demonstrators on June 2.
John Bazemore/AP

“There were many moments where we grabbed each other, where we pulled each other to safety. It’s a moment-to-moment reevaluation of the situation,” says Strong.

In some instances, protesters have called on white allies to put “white bodies to the front” when it appears that police are advancing on a crowd, because it’s less likely law enforcement will use fatal force on white activists. “I don’t think I was ready for how scared I felt,” said Steven, 25, a white protester in Washington, DC, who was tear-gassed and shoved by police multiple times on June 1.

Ultimately, many protesters note that they’ve been forced to deescalate police rather than the other way around — and they warn that activists should be ready to do just that. During a demonstration outside Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house on June 2, for example, Abdullah says protesters were the ones who actually defused the tension.

“The protesters had to deescalate the police,” she said. “The protesters who were in front of the police began to just sit down to create almost a human fencing around the rest of us to prevent the police [from] being able to run in.”

The actions protesters have witnessed have further confirmed their views of police

For many protesters, the treatment they’ve witnessed only reaffirms the views they held about police.

“For them to be so brutal and repressive and terrible at these marches just affirms to me that policing in this country can’t continue to exist in its current form. You can’t tinker around the edges; it’s in the DNA,” says Abdullah.

Activists say the protests have strengthened their resolve to hold police accountable and to push for policy changes that fundamentally upend the current system. A major rallying cry at many of these protests has been a call not simply to reform the police but to defund the institution. The justification for this effort is straightforward: States and cities can reduce funding for the police and instead transfer that money to social services programs like food aid and education — to better address the core causes of both inequities and crime.

In Los Angeles, activists have urged officials to consider what they’re calling the “people’s budget,” which would reduce the allocation for law enforcement entities from roughly 54 percent of the city’s general fund budget to 6 percent.

The role that the protests have played in further highlighting police abuses has parallels in history: Nonviolent protest as a means to raise awareness of state violence was also a key goal of civil rights protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. and demonstrations against British rule by Mahatma Gandhi in India.

During the protests in the 1960s, the marches drew attention to police violence — as did the horrific treatment of protesters by police. “Aggressive dispersion tactics, such as police dogs and fire hoses, against individuals in peaceful protests and sit-ins, were the most widely publicized examples of police brutality in that era,” Katie Nodjimbadem writes for Smithsonian Magazine.

“Even back in the 1960s, when Dr. King was marching, part of the reason for the march was to expose the brutality,” Abdullah emphasizes.

There are legal actions protesters can take to hold police accountable

There is legal recourse for protesters who have suffered injuries at the hands of police, but there have historically been some pretty big obstacles to getting accountability.

Such barriers are largely due to the protections that police have in the case of civil lawsuits, because of a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity: In order to even go to trial with an allegation of police misconduct, an individual needs to show not only that it was a violation of their civil rights, but also that there’s precedent for that same action being considered unlawful in prior cases.

This shield has enabled police officers to avoid liability on many acts of misconduct in the past, including shootings, theft, and property damage.

Still, experts tell Vox that protesters have plenty of grounds to pursue legal action — and already, there have been multiple cases in the past month where the officer involved faces criminal charges.

“Police officers have the right to use force in a number of situations, but they never have the right to use excessive force or brutality. That is always illegal,” says University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who founded the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project.

Chicago police officers prepare to confront protesters with batons and bullet-proof vests on May 30.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

Protesters have three avenues they can take, Futterman notes: They can file a civil lawsuit against a specific officer for violating their constitutional rights, they can register a complaint with the city or police station involved, or they can report the incident to a district attorney, who could then file a criminal lawsuit.

In recent weeks, there have been at least two cases where such legal recourse has been effective: In New York City, the district attorney has charged a police officer with assault for shoving a protester during a demonstration in Brooklyn, and in Buffalo, New York, the district attorney has charged two police officers, who were filmed pushing an elderly man to the ground, with assault. The ACLU and Black Lives Matter are among those working with protesters to advance legal actions on this front.

But while the outcome of a lawsuit could help increase police accountability, it doesn’t do much in the near term for protesters fielding medical bills and injuries.

“In terms of compensation from the city or the police department, the only way would be to file a lawsuit, which would take time,” University of Memphis law professor Steven Mulroy tells Vox. He notes that legal advocates could put pressure on police departments to more quickly cover these costs without going to court. “A lawyer could send a demand letter — if you provide this amount to defray the medical expenses, we’ll hold off on pursuing a lawsuit,” he says.

Such accountability, while important, isn’t enough to fix the systemic nature of these abuses, though. To do that, protesters emphasize that the demonstrations and the civic action must continue.

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