Elite Defenders

The current “strategic incapacitation” approach to policing protests can have a chilling effect not only on protesters in the streets on a given day but on whole movements.

The greatest violence at every convention in memory has been perpetrated by the state.

Photo by Erik Drost.

On April Fool’s Day, Republican operative and former Trump advisor Roger Stone took to Twitter and the neocon, conspiracy-ridden airways of the Infowars talk show to call for mass protests by Trump supporters at this year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland. At that point, it seemed not just possible but even likely that party elites might try to wrest the nomination from Trump on procedural grounds. “Only mass demonstrations and a deft maneuvering inside the hall will prevent” it, Stone said, and promised “a reverse Saul Alinsky . . . These are our Days of Rage.”

The absurdity of a dandyish GOP hit man appropriating the Weathermen and invoking Saul Alinsky—who was utterly opposed to mass demonstrations—prompts laughter that lodges in the throat. By April, it had already become clear that nothing was truly funny this election season. Even the Bernie Baby, who had become a micro-meme by appearing at rallies in a frowsy Bernie wig, had died of SIDS.

The number of Trump supporters who took up #DaysofRage was small, and that particular movement-building moment faded after Cruz withdrew. But that didn’t spell the end of the hot and heavy romance between the media and the prospect of violence at this week’s Cleveland convention.

Throughout the spring, a steady stream of stories predicted violence in Cleveland’s streets. There was, at one point, an explosion of support for a petition to allow Ohio’s “open carry” firearms law to remain in place inside the Quicken Loans Arena, where the convention is occurring. In March Trump said, “I think you’d have riots” if his nomination were blocked at the convention, and a few days later, the Cleveland Police Department began a shopping spree for military-grade riot-control gear, made possible by the $50 million grant that Congress authorizes for every convention-hosting city. It almost seemed like Cleveland was taking Trump’s threats seriously, although in fact in the rapid militarization was unexceptional: since September 11, nominating conventions have been designated as “National Security Special Events.” This automatically brings in the FBI, the Secret Service, federal surveillance capabilities, along with major federal dollars for the purchase of the accouterments of the military state. For Cleveland, this included, among other things, two thousand Elite Defender Riot Control suits and the same number of retractable steel batons.

All of this occurred before this summer’s spasms of actual violence in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas—an American road atlas of killings. But one thing that has remained consistent is the media’s use of the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention as the historical analogy for what might happen in Cleveland. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, the Nation have all used it multiple times: “[S]treet riots contributed to Hubert Humphrey’s loss,” went one Times story this month. The Washington Post: “[The Republicans’ convention] is going to be as unhinged as the Democrats’ in 1968.”

These allusions to an event most media consumers didn’t attend and many weren’t alive for haven’t changed as the summer’s body count has climbed. And more’s the pity. Because recent events have made Chicago 1968 truly relevant, even oracular—but not for the reasons that most people think.

The gist of the Chicago narrative invoked by the media is this: Things got really ugly in 1968 and protesters got beaten. The problem—really the extraordinary sloppiness—of this protagonist-free analysis is that it leaves out the fact that the perpetrators of the worst violence were, by all accounts, the police. It erases, too, an ongoing debate about whether this violence was caused by individual cops or ordered, organized, and authorized by municipal authorities including Chicago’s Mayor Daley himself. Speculation about whether Cleveland will get violent has centered almost entirely on whether protesters will act out: whether pro- and anti-Trump camps will duke it out in the streets the way that they have at Trump rallies throughout the year. Using Chicago as the reference point for this speculation suggests that all violence is created equal. Equating protester-on-protester violence with police-on-protester violence is a bloody corollary to All Lives Matter. The history of significant convention protests tells us that violence occurs not when protesters seek it, but when the state feels there is a growing movement that it is imperative to suppress.


1968 saw Hubert Humphrey arriving, not unlike Trump, with the delegates to secure the nomination but neither the confidence nor the physical presence of a major champion. Humphrey hadn’t entered a single primary. He was Lyndon Johnson’s man, having become a candidate only after the sitting president declined to run for reelection.

The protests happening outside the convention were the result of months of planning by the Yippies and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the “Mobe”). There had been real debates about whether to organize anything at all: McCarthy and RFK—both antiwar—had also declared their candidacies, and in the early months before the August convention, the Mobe in particular had been divided over the wisdom of protesting in Chicago given the possibility that these candidates might co-opt their rallies, making them about a single war instead of the entire American imperial project, the racism and oppression peddled overseas and at home.

Johnson announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection on March 31, 1968. On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped out of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis and was assassinated. In the days that followed, America’s cities filled with citizens gripped by grief and rage. Many of them were people of color, though not all. In Chicago, the streets began to fill soon after the news hit. The initial activities were peaceful, but in the forty-eight hours that followed, there was rioting and looting, and vast swaths of West Madison Street burned.

The Chicago Police Department was, at that time, still guided by the principles of its reformist former superintendent, O.W. Wilson, who had retired in 1967 after systematically working to increase the number of non-white police officers on the force and establishing a departmental norm of overlooking minor violations of the law during protests.

After the April 1968 riots, Chicago’s Mayor Daley went up in a helicopter to survey the damage, and by the time he landed, Wilson’s work was undone. The charred city blocks were an affront to Daley’s leadership, evidence that his police and fire departments had been emasculated—and nothing seems to incite violence like feeling unmanned. After the aerial tour, Daley announced that his police would no longer look the other way when protesters skirted the edge of the law. They’d “shoot to kill” arsonists, he declared. When it came to looters, the order was to shoot “to cripple or maim.”

The police force that filled the Chicago streets three months later, when the convention took place, in August 1968, was composed of men who may have been sincerely afraid for their lives on West Madison Street. They had heard rumors of Black Panther snipers set up on rooftops to mow them down. They had been told by their leader that the earlier riots had happened because they had been too tolerant toward angry, but largely unarmed, people in the streets. They were told that nothing less than the honor of the city itself—their proud hometown—depended on their keeping order.

Whether on orders or spontaneously, many members of this police force responded by using extreme force on the protesters they encountered at the convention. They did so after a series of violent protests focused on American racism and in the context of the threat of black gunmen out for their lives.

This isn’t what the media meant when they wondered, back in April, whether Cleveland would be like Chicago. Despite the events of the past few weeks, it’s not what most of them mean when they make the comparison now.


1968 is not the only convention that should come to mind in preparing for this year’s events. Philadelphia, where the Democratic National Convention will be held in a week’s time, was the site of the 2000 Republican Convention (“R2K,” as it was known) where much of today’s police playbook for dealing with convention-related protest was debuted, under the leadership of then–Police Commissioner John Timoney (who now provides security advice to the monarchy of Bahrain).

In Crashing the Party, a recent, necessary history of R2K, long-time activist Kris Hermes reviews the characteristics of different eras of police-protest engagement that have been mapped out by scholars of the field. The response to Chicago 1968 happened in the era of “escalated force,” a paradigm in which law enforcement was encouraged to use as much violence as necessary to disperse crowds. Beginning in the 1980s and informed by backlash against COINTELPRO–era infiltration and surveillance tactics, a new strategy emerged. Sociologists Clark McPhail, David Schweingruber, and John McCarthy have dubbed this approach “negotiated management” and argue that it was characterized by more open, even collegial communication with activists, increased use of protest permits, less violence, and fewer arrests. But 2000 ushered in the new and ongoing era of “strategic incapacitation”—a term coined by Patrick Gilham and John Noakes, who associate this strategy with, as Hermes writes, “neutralizing (rather than tolerating) free expression” and using aggressive tactics before and during protests to undermine demonstrations. These include entrapment, infiltration, elevated bails and charges, preemptive arrests of known or suspected leaders of activist movements, and extensive restrictions on the spaces where protesters can gather and the routes along which they can move.

All of these tactics were in play at R2K in 2000. The convention took place from July 31 to August 3. On August 1, police used a baseless warrant to raid the warehouse where protesters had been preparing puppets and banners for a carefully planned series of themed protests (poverty, health care, “criminal injustice”) set to take place over the course of the convention. The police destroyed the contents of the warehouse, so that the activists were left largely prop-less and banner-less, making it easier for the city to substantiate its subsequent claims that the activists had no purpose out in the streets except causing mayhem. Police infiltrators, who had joined the activists prior to the raid—painting signs, attending meetings—later drove a vanload of protesters onto a median strip so that the city of Philadelphia could arrest them.

The protests continued regardless and were accompanied by mass arrests and the strategic use of elevated charges and elevated bail. Also on August 1, Kate Sorensen, a veteran organizer and marshal for the protest against the criminal justice system was arrested and charged with ten felonies. Her bail was set at $1 million. She would ultimately spend ten days in jail, much of it in solitary confinement. Other Philly activists were also targeted—picked up off the street whether or not they were attending protests. Many of the activists arrested opted for court and jail solidarity, choosing not to post bail and to fight their charges in courtrooms rather than accepting reduced pleas, an exhausting process that dragged on for months and in some instances years after the protest was over.

Some of what happened in Philadelphia also happened in Chicago. Activist groups were infiltrated, and violence was instigated by undercover agents who then stepped back and let the protesters following their lead take the blame. But what has changed is as important as what has stayed the same: surveillance is far more sophisticated now, and has been accepted as somehow necessary in the post–September 11 era. “Protester” and “terrorist” have been collapsed into a single category that justifies the use of any means necessary to keep the public safe.


For many months, the assumption in the comparisons between this week’s convention and Chicago ’68 has been that the police force and the country as a whole are better, less racist, less violent than they were back in 1968.

The most recent events have dispensed with this supposition. In the wake of the shooting of three police officers in Baton Rouge, the Cleveland Patrolman’s Association implored the governor to suspend the state’s “Open Carry” law during the convention; in the days before the convention kicked off, as police thronged the street, some reportedly covered their badge numbers—a strategy for minimizing identification and culpability—with black tape, saying it was “in solidarity with Dallas.”

Well before this, though, Cleveland had a history of excessive use of police force that made it a questionable venue for a convention. In May 2014, two black Clevelanders, Timothy Brown and Malissa Williams, were in a car that backfired as it drove away from a traffic stop. That sound startled the police and prompted a car chase involving upwards of sixty cop cars. It ended only after Michael Brelo, a police officer, plastered himself on the windshield of the backfiring car and emptied his gun into the passengers’ bodies. On July 8 of that year, the Republican National Committee recommended Cleveland for its next political convention. Tamir Rice had, at that point, less than five months to live.

The possibility of another “active shooter” has, finally, made the media slightly less bloodthirsty in its speculations about violence in the streets. Barring another catastrophic outbreak of lethal force, the greatest danger in Cleveland this week is that the police response, having grown ever more sophisticated in recent decades, will fracture the movements and slow the momentum that have been building this summer.

In 2016, as in 1968, the rising tide of historical events has mooted the question of whether or not it’s wise to protest at the nominating conventions. In both cases, the killings of black men sparked outrage that seemed to demand a presence in the streets. No major political leader or candidate has been killed in this campaign season—and let us all pray it stays this way. But the outright violence of recent months plus the hatred espoused by the Republican’s presumptive nominee have no parallel in recent memory.

In 1968, and in 2000, the sense of urgency and the momentum leading up to the convention protests was not lost on law enforcement. The anti-protest playbook debuted in Philly was developed precisely because there was a growing, successful global justice movement. There were connections between the protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle 1999, the “Jubilee 2000” demonstrations to drop global debt in April 2000, and the global AIDS treatment activist movement that, just weeks before R2K, took to the streets in a historic march demanding AIDS drugs for Africa. This momentum was dangerous, and so it was not allowed to develop.

In 2016, momentum is building again, and the primary focus is on the institutional racism that manifests itself clearly and lethally in this country’s policing. This summer we’ve seen the steady growth of Black Lives Matter; the mobilization, post-Orlando, of LGBT activists for gun control; Latinos and Muslims and women standing up and fighting back against Trump’s divisive rhetoric. (Events have moved so fast that the media all but missed the crucial moment when Black Lives Matter in the Bay Area withdrew from the local Pride parade because of the increased security presence prompted by Orlando. They were, they said, more afraid of the police than the threats the police were supposed to be protecting them against.)

The current “strategic incapacitation” approach to policing protests can have a chilling effect not only on protesters in the streets on a given day but on whole movements. Not only has Cleveland placed a variety of extreme restrictions on the locations and ways in which people can protest this week, it’s offered the Cleveland Police Department at least one training by an expert on the infiltration of “dangerous” protest organizations. Activist groups have responded with their own rules for “security culture”—sharing as little information as possible with people they don’t know, organizing in tight cells, and so on. At an event like a convention that draws protesters from all over the country, this works against movement building and the safety of individuals.

The ACLU has warned that people who get arrested without being tied to a group that has legal support and dedicated observers could find themselves in the system for days. These current police strategies are not aimed at containing rowdies once they get a little out of control but, rather, at sapping activist organizations well before the people are in the streets. Cleveland activists have reported “door knocks” from the FBI. Even rumors of these types of activities can discourage new protesters from joining movements and turning out.

It’s ugly and weird and hard to look away, but the fact of the matter is that the greatest violence at every convention in memory has been perpetrated by the state. The police are the agents but not the ultimate source of this violence. This inconvenient truth has been written out of the official historical record over and over again—Chicago 1968 and Philadelphia 2000 are just two examples. And so the warning for protesters heading to Cleveland and for those watching from afar is simply this: if physical violence ensues in the streets, the story will be distorted. If you are watching from afar, be incredulous. If you are in the streets: pay attention. Or consider this: George Lakey, an activist who has raised concerns about the utility of protesting conventions, has suggested that the only worthwhile aim for activists in Cleveland is to use it as a learning lab for how to deal with unpredictable and escalating force: Go to Cleveland to practice, not to preach.

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