The Police, Occupy Protesters and Civil Order

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Seattle WTO 1999Twelve years ago this week Seattle was rocked by the World Trade Organization (WTO) conference civil disorder.  It was ugly.

Legitimate WTO demonstrators saw their protests disrupted—and their message overshadowed—by individuals who wanted to wage violence against the police, WTO delegates and local businesses.  And because police commanders were not adequately prepared they responded with rapidly escalating interventions, including chemical irritants and rubber bullets.  Chaos reigned in our streets.

In early 2000, the City Council appointed three citizen review panels to determine what happened at the WTO meetings.  I chaired the panel that examined the police response.  Our report to the Council in September of that year included 11 major findings and recommendations, including very specific recommendations on police tactics to maintain order and the use of chemical irritants (see “Finding 3: Large-scale arrests rather than chemical irritants or other less-lethal force should be the tactic of choice in dealing with unlawful assemblies”).

After re-reading that 2000 report, I'm reminded of the vital importance of consistent clarity and boundary setting by the Mayor, the City Council and the Chief of Police. In our recent resolution, the Council made it very clear that we do not support behavior that infringes on the “lawful rights of others,” obstructs or interferes with our police officers doing their jobs, or causes personal injury or property destruction.

The preparation and policing lessons learned 12 years ago still apply today; in fact, those lessons should probably be revisited as Seattle and other cities search for and establish the best ways to respond to the Occupy Wall Street protests. 

The essential role of the police in maintaining civil order during demonstrations is always dicey.  Officers find themselves having to referee without bias conflicting public interests—protecting the exercise of First Amendment rights while, at the same time, protecting the rights of everyone else and maintaining public safety.

Police face a difficult task when some protesters want to engage in peaceful civil disobedience, a valued and historic tactic but one that involves, by definition, violations of the law. The police role is made even more difficult when others move from peaceful civil disobedience to aggressive, sometimes violent, conduct. We're asking our officers to walk a very delicate line in these situations and because the OWS protest is ongoing they are challenged to do so day after day after day.

Street protests should not be viewed as zero-sum games between protesters and police. When protests and civil disobedience actions are conducted peacefully and without provocation and the response by law enforcement is appropriate and even-handed, everybody wins. The role of the police is respected and valued and the message of the protesters is delivered by the media – not stories of chaos on our streets like we experienced 12 years ago.