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Between the lines: Cops caught in the First Amendment war zone

Violence is not free speech, so cops must be empowered with well-defined marching orders to stop protests from devolving into chaos


Earlier this week, far-right groups announced intentions to organize a “March on Google” in response to that company’s firing of an employee over a memo he wrote about the company’s diversity policies. The cities the groups were targeting were Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Los Angeles, Mountain View, New York, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Days later, citing “credible alt-left terrorist threats,” those right-wing groups called off their planned demonstrations. It is presently unclear whether or not those demonstrations will take place, or have indeed been called off.

What is plainly evident is that police in those cities – and across America – must gird for the worst. The law enforcement officers who are charged with protecting people’s First Amendment rights to free speech will be forced to hold the ground in the middle, caught between the lines formed by the warring factions of left-wing and right-wing protesters and counter-protesters.

Mayhem and lawlessness must be stopped before it can start. (Photo/AP)
Mayhem and lawlessness must be stopped before it can start. (Photo/AP)

Those cops are on the front lines of what may turn into violent conflict, whether they like it or not.

Predictable is preventable

There are conflicting reports floating around the internet about whether or not political leadership in Virginia told law enforcement to “stand down” and allow the violence in Charlottesville to escalate to the point of murder, attempted murder and domestic terrorism.

Whether or not a “stand down” order was given, we must take stock of the fact that violent conflict between these groups was as predictable as the sunset. Anyone who was paying even the slightest attention to the 18 months that preceded the election of Donald Trump to the presidency could have predicted an escalation of violence.

During the campaign, we saw people shouting down the group they oppose. On both the left and the right we saw people throwing punches at each other rather than sitting down and trying to talk.

We saw protesters on both sides of the political spectrum show up at gatherings held by their perceived opposition, armed not just with grievances, but with clubs and bats and improvised shields. They came in fatigues, or dressed in all black clothing. They wore masks and bandanas over their faces. Fists flew and blood was shed on multiple occasions.

In many of those cases, these groups were separated by an emasculated force of peace officers who had neither the commands nor the capabilities to actually keep the peace. In many cases, those cops were ordered to not carry riot shields. They could not wear protective helmets. They could not carry OC spray. They were basically told, “You cannot have the tools and tactics to keep these two sides apart.”

This cannot be the plan going forward.

Gordon Graham, a retired California Highway Patrol Captain and risk management expert, has famously said for many years that nearly every bad outcome is predictable – and that predictable is preventable.

Preventing future bloodshed

It must be remembered that the First Amendment allows for “peaceable assembly” and that violence is not free speech. Mayhem and lawlessness must be stopped before it can start. This can only happen if police across the country are empowered to show up to these demonstrations in full riot gear, with well-defined marching orders to stop protests from devolving into madness.

Whether or not the announced (and then, apparently, cancelled) white nationalist demonstrations take place this weekend, we know that such events will inevitably happen in the coming weeks and months. Events will be organized by the other side too.

The politics of hate and intolerance has been worsening for too long.

Last weekend in Charlottesville ended in tragedy, and some pundits have said that we as a nation are as divided as we were during the tumultuous 1960s.

The question becomes, will political leaders have the fortitude to give the cops the authority to quell the violence in a tactically appropriate fashion?

Can police forces in the United States prevent future bloodshed? I hope so. But hope is not a strategy, and luck is not a tactic. So as a police leader, you need to lobby your elected officials to give you the permission to do whatever is necessary when “your day” comes.

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