“News media could either be our ally or our enemy—we wanted them as an ally,” Laurie Pritchett said in a 1985 interview about his strategy as police chief in Albany, Georgia, during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s desegregation efforts in 1962.
Pritchett famously ordered his officers to enforce the city’s segregation laws nonviolently and arrest as few protesters as possible. He knew that if he had acted as other police departments had—like Bull Connor’s dogs and firehoses in Birmingham (1963) and Jim Clark’s Bloody Sunday in Selma (1965)—news media would show the country how brutally oppressive police were, inspiring greater public support for King’s cause. In short, he beat nonviolent protesters at their own game by exploiting the media.
At the Republican National Convention this past week, none of the fears about a violent disaster bore fruit. Journalists and private citizens who worried about Ohio’s open-carry gun policy and the recent increase in public tension between cops and protesters were relieved that the week passed without a single gunshot fired or tear gas canister thrown. Like Pritchett’s officers in Albany, police in Cleveland—whose department was found to have practiced a pattern of excessive force and civil rights violations in a Justice Department investigation—exercised restraint compared to how police have handled protests in Ferguson (military trucks, sound canons, tear gas, rubber bullets) and Baton Rouge (hundreds of arrests).
Just as Pritchett expected in 1962, media jumped to praise law enforcement. “Credit where it’s due: The police nailed it,” Vox staffer German Lopez (7/22/16) wrote. In a list that reads like a police officer’s handbook, he offered three detailed explanations for why the police “nailed it”:
1) Cops often outnumbered protesters: “This allowed police to consistently surround and isolate troublemakers as they arose, leaving those who acted peacefully almost entirely alone”;
2) Police “played it smart”: “They never used chemical agents like tear gas, which could have angered the crowd and provoked people to try to fight back. They mostly relied on crowd control tactics and set up barriers…to limit how big protests could get and how far they went”; and
3) “Smart preparation”: “Prior to the convention, officials put up fences across downtown that blocked certain streets, sidewalks and alleys, forcing you to walk much further than you would otherwise need to.”
“The takeaway is that deescalation and prevention really can work to keep things calm,” Lopez reasoned. The likely reason all this “prevention” and “smart preparation” “kept things calm” is that they had a chilling effect. When would-be protesters see a monstrous wall surrounding the center of downtown Cleveland and cops dressed like Christian Bale’s Batman, many opt to stay home—a desired outcome for city officials who hope to stifle as much criticism and protest as possible. Suppression of free speech by nonviolent means is what Lopez means when he congratulates cops for “keeping things calm.”
“This week, the police have been unflinching in their niceness, at least from this reporter’s observations,” the Washington Post (7/21/16) reported. The New York Times (7/22/16) produced a two-and-a-half-minute-long video profile headlined “Policing the GOP Convention.”
WKYC (7/22/16), Cleveland’s NBC affiliate, offered more gushing praise in a piece titled, “City, Nation Praise Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams”:
Clevelanders are heading into the weekend on a high after hosting another successful large-scale event. The city is making positive headlines for its beauty and hospitality, not the terribly negative predictions some had for the week of the Republican National Convention. A lot of that is thanks to the leadership of one man.
“Chief Williams led the charge with an approachable toughness and a firm friendliness—huge reasons we feel the pride we do today,” the story continued in the reporter’s own voice. “Chief Williams led a security plan that was equal to the task and worked, turning doubters into believers.”
In a separate story that described the RNC as “super-successful,” a WKYC reporter (7/22/16) wrote, “Many people are calling Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams the RNC’s MVP,” without quoting a single source.
King learned in Albany that police could control his movement in a way that didn’t look bad. Although there weren’t any photos of demonstrators getting their head bashed in on the front pages of newspapers, police were still able to suppress the movement, which ultimately failed to end the city’s segregation laws.
Similarly, media are cheering police “restraint” at the RNC because it controlled protesters in a way that didn’t look bad. While only 24 people were arrested and the most contentious event was a flag-burning, police suppressed free speech in a way that didn’t look like suppressing free speech.
When police gradually pushed protesters out of Cleveland’s Public Square on the second day of the RNC, it was done in the name of “keeping everybody safe.” But the result was a repression of protests. This politically shrewd form of policing sells well in the media, but we must still calculate the cost in free expression.