This article is a snapshot from the Mapping Project: a project created by activists and organizers in eastern Massachusetts, investigating local links between entities responsible for the colonization of Palestine, for colonialism and dispossession here where we live, and for the economy of imperialism and war.

The Police Executive Research Forum, the ACLU, and Counterinsurgency

Date published: June 3, 2022

In 2018, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) published the handbook The Police Response to Mass Demonstrations: Promising Practices and Lessons Learned, based on a forum they held in 2016. The forum included 50 police executives from across the country, including Ferguson, St. Louis, Oakland, Seattle, Boston, Baltimore, New York City, and Minneapolis. It also included representatives from the ACLU and "academic experts."

A central concern of the forum was the emergence of "leaderless" protests and the rise of movements that are refusing to coordinate their activities with police:

"In the past, large-scale protests and demonstrations usually were planned by civil rights groups or other established organizations. By contrast, today’s demonstrations often are less organized; they occur more spontaneously and are promoted and managed largely through social media. Today’s protesters are often less willing to speak with officers in advance of the demonstration or during it. In many cases, it is difficult for police even to identify leaders of a demonstration; some demonstrations are described as being 'leaderless.'" (p. iii)

And again:

"Police agencies cannot expect protesters to contact them in advance to coordinate plans for keeping a demonstration safe and orderly, nor can police assume they will be able to identify and communicate with protest leaders once a demonstration is under way." (p. 3)

The concern of the police executives over these new leaderless movements is succinctly expressed in the forum by Seattle Police Assistant Chief Steven Wilkes:

"We had a couple of protests where we did not quickly respond to property crime, and we ended up with a million dollars or more of damage to our downtown core. " (p. 58)

Identifying Leaders and Pacifying Movements

As many of us have learned from experience, the police concern for identifying leaders is twofold: once leaders are identified, they can be pressured to do the job of police in dictating a script to crowds, ensuring that they maintain order and that the crowd stays within the assigned limits. On the other hand, if leaders and organizers refuse to do this, they can be removed and arrested. Militant leadership is thus neutralized; compliant leadership--leadership that functions as a tool for the police--is thus cultivated. This allows the police not only to control mass actions, but also to shape the movement over time. The standard coordination between police and compliant leadership for permitted marches and rallies ensures that mass movements remain pacified and never exercise their physical power to disrupt the status quo of capitalism, racism, and war.

Amer Jubran, a Palestinian organizer targeted by the police and the FBI and forced from the country in 2003, wrote a clear analysis of this pacification of the US anti-war movement (Is the US Anti-War Movement Pro-Resistance?):

"During the Vietnam era, the US government spent a great deal of resources on researching the [anti-war] movement and its impact. It responded to the movement with imprisonment, harassment, and assassination of leaders. An entire system of social rewards was developed to buy people off. The government's most effective strategy, however, was its choosing to contain the opposition rather than attempt to eradicate it. It was by this means that a 'loyal opposition' was created - an opposition which the government could manipulate and control, allowing it enough power to reach a large segment of the population, and to disseminate a message of change, but withholding the power necessary for such change to be in any way implemented. ...

After thirty years under this system the movement has established its right to freedom of expression, and not much else. The focus has changed from demands for changes in government policy to just having the right to express those demands.

Unlike the 60's, when antiwar protesters were attacked by dogs, sticks, and water hoses, protesters today are accompanied by police motorcades. The government issues rally permits, marching permits, sound permits, and vending permits. Some consider it a victory just to obtain a permit to protest. This reflects how demoralized the antiwar movement has become. Of course, once a protest is permitted, it will then be subjected to massive police supervision, as we have all seen."

What Jubran describes here compares well with "counterinsurgency" doctrine--the strategic deployment of hard and soft power to neutralize resistance. In Kitson's famous exposition of the doctrine, "co-optation" is understood to be a key element:

"In practical terms the most promising line of approach lies in separating the mass of those engaged in the campaign from the leadership by the judicious promise of concessions ... [W]ith an eye to world opinion and the need to retain the allegiance of the people, no more force than is necessary for containing the situation should be used ... . Having once succeeded in providing a breathing space by these means, it is most important to do three further things quickly. The first is to implement the promised concessions so as to avoid allegations of bad faith which may enable the subversive leadership to regain control over certain sections of the people. The second is to discover and neutralize the genuine subversive element. The third is to associate as many prominent members of the population, especially those who have been engaged in non-violent action, with the government. This last technique is known in America as co-optation and is described by Messrs Hoch and Schoenbach as drowning the revolution in baby's milk." (Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping. London: Faber and Faber, 1971. 1991 edition. p. 87)

PERF's manual is a consistent appeal to these standard elements of counterinsurgency doctrine, and shows special care for avoiding excessive uses of force which might lead to a unified opposition--“line of cops here versus line of protesters there." It includes a range of psychological, tactical, and organizational strategies for ensuring that police retain control of crowds, including everything from training and types of gear that should be used, to "mutual aid" agreements between police departments and a proposal for a "unified command" model to be deployed across the country.

Since frontline cops are mostly instinctive fascists, if not also ideological ones (and they are often both), effective counterinsurgency requires structures that will rein in the natural tendency of cops to overuse the tactics of violent repression in ways that threaten to broaden and radicalize the opposition. This involves creating command structures and setting up rules in mutual aid agreements between police departments to ensure that front line police do not have discretion to move toward mass arrests without clear orders from superiors. (On the other hand, these mutual aid agreements and unified command structures also allow police forces to deploy as a full scale domestic military, trained in urban warfare, should the need arise to suppress a more committed resistance.)

Most importantly--as PERF manuals continually stress--in dealing with political protests and demonstrations, effective counterinsurgency requires that police are trained to understand their role as "facilitating First Amendment rights," and that they work in close communication with groups and community members who are content with "the right to freedom of expression," centering protest and demonstrations as goals in themselves.

Boston's "Three Tiered Approach"

At the start of the manual, Boston Police Superintendent Bernard O'Rourke explains a "three tiered approach to mass demonstrations." (p. 4) The first tier is "the soft approach," with cops in regular uniforms "mingling with the crowd" and trying to "talk with people." This also allows police to make closer observations to identify leaders: "often you can see who is running the show just by watching what’s happening."

The next level of escalation is bicycle cops. "First and foremost, they kind of embody community policing; they can talk to people. But they also have a helmet on..."

Elsewhere in the document police stress the strategic value of bicycle police for being more agile in moving rapidly through large crowds that would block other kinds of vehicles, and for being able to lock together in lines to form a mobile police barrier.

The third tier is "the public order platoons" in full riot gear. These are kept ready, but "out of sight" for as long as possible.

Four Components: Education, Facilitation, Communication, and Differentiation

Arizona State University Professor Edward Maguire is on hand to explain the psychological aspect of counterinsurgency doctrine, stressing four components (p. 20): "education" which he explains as "intelligence" and "gathering information about the event, the organizers, and their aims"; "facilitation" which "involves very clearly letting event organizers know that you take seriously your responsibility to facilitate their First Amendment expression" and thus communicating "your own expectations of their behavior and of the people in their group"; "communication," establishing "continued lines of communication among crowds, organizers, and police;" and finally "differentiation" which is "about tailoring your response to the different segments of the crowd ... where you end up having extraction teams that move in with laser-like precision to arrest only people who are engaged in violence or property damage."

Education: Gathering Intelligence

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Samuel Dotson explains the importance of cultivating relationships with people in the community as a source of "intelligence":

"We try the traditional approach of identifying who the leaders are and meeting with them beforehand. And if we don’t know who the leaders are, we talk to the people we do know; they may not be involved in a certain protest, but they know the people who are involved. And so it’s important to have re­lationships where you can routinely pick up the phone and call somebody who is generally active in the movement ... I would describe it as human capital, human intelligence, having a conversation." (p. 56)

Facilitation and Communication: Setting Rules

American Civil Liberties Union Senior Staff Attorney Lee Rowland helps advise the police on how best to manage the "facilitation" and "communication" aspect of this control doctrine:

"The emphasis in a police department should be on reaching out to the community and clearly explaining the rules that apply during a demonstration. Cops should be helping people to obtain protest permits. Ideally, demonstrators should inform law enforcement about planned events and have a clear communication stream before things get to the point of arrest or disruption." (p. 19)

And later, on the subject of leaderless protests that announce themselves only on social media with no official lines of communication, he advises:

"I think it requires law enforcement to change their paradigm of thinking. So for example, if you are on social media looking for [leaders], remember that social media works two ways. Instead of insisting that you need to have a one on one with the leaders of a demonstration, I think departments can think creatively about using social media as a tool for reaching out to all demonstrators." (p. 56)

Differentiation: Eliminating "the genuine subversive element"

"Differentiation" is a central concern of the manual, and is picked up again in a section entitled "Winning the loyalty contest with protesters":

"Forum participants noted that the majority of protesters want to exercise their First Amendment rights peacefully. In some cases, however, the goal of a small number of people is to incite and participate in acts of violence. In the view of Professor Edward Maguire, the police compete with these agitators for the loyalty of protesters ... " (p. 64)

The point of "differentiation" is to separate those who just "want to exercise their First amendment rights"--who will be satisfied by demonstrating against practices like the US aerial bombardment of cities, racist police murders, mass imprisonment, and ecological devastation, without interfering with them in any way--from those who are determined to stop them. The latter are described as wanting to "incite and participate in acts of violence," who should be removed "with laser-like precision."

What's striking here is the important role the ACLU plays: on the one hand, the ACLU documents and litigates cases where police overstep the boundaries of policing in ways that violate the First Amendment and other rights; on the other hand, the ACLU advises police on how best to tailor its communications to set rules for the movement and at the same time retain "loyalty." The ACLU's role is to refine the system of police control, especially when the police themselves lack the discipline to maintain their own counterinsurgency doctrine.

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