When Targets Police

By Heidi Reynolds-Stenson

At many protests, law enforcement or security officers act as a buffer between protesters and their targets. As a result, protesters often do not come face-to-face with their targets at street demonstrations (unless they are targeting everyday people; Einwohner 2001). And, as protest-policing protocols increasingly emphasize the pre-emptive control of space, protesters are often kept further and further away from the targets they seek to influence or disrupt (Gillham and Noakes 2007). Because their primary target may not be accessible, movements often engage in indirect proxy targeting, like the students who targeted their universities for complicity in the Vietnam War (Walker, Martin, and McCarthy 2008). So, while protesters and targets react to one another and try to anticipate the reactions of the other side, this interplay is, in many cases, delayed and mediated though law enforcement (Earl and Soule 2006), the media (Koopmans 2004) or proxy targets.

So, what happens when there is no intermediary because the targets of protest are also in charge of policing it? How does this change the dynamics of a protest? In a working paper, I demonstrate that protests about police brutality—in other words, protests where police are the target—are more likely to end in arrest or violence by police than otherwise similar protests (in terms of size, tactics, etc.). But is this particular to police? Or is it, more generally, a product of situations where protesters and targets directly confront one another?

As part of a separate on-going project, I recently observed a situation at a protest that provided some clues about how dynamics of protest might change when the targets of protest are not only present, but are also the ones charged with crowd control. The protest was a sit-in at a Border Patrol (BP) checkpoint in Southern Arizona and was part of larger day of action against the militarization of communities along the U.S.-Mexican border. The protesters planned to stage a sit-in and to hold a community hearing on closing the checkpoint—a community hearing that their congressman had promised them but not delivered. The event was well publicized beforehand and the protesters were met by about a dozen BP agents who were mobilized to contain the small protest. While a local sheriff was present for at least some of the time, the task of policing the protest was largely left to the BP agents themselves, who were, of course, also the target of the protest.

This more direct, unmediated confrontation between protesters and target seemed to change tactics and dynamics on both sides. It created a situation in which protesters could publically and directly shame their targets and frame attempts at controlling the crowd as further proof of violence and oppression by BP. And just as I argue is the case with police at anti-police brutality protests, the BP faced a unique strategic dilemma: react defensively to the protesters’ challenge and provocations and risk greater scrutiny or avoid intervention and risk losing control.

The BP agents created a line to stop the protesters from reaching the intended site of the sit-in, but a small number of protesters sat down and refused to leave nonetheless. The rest of the crowd stood near by and supported them. Throughout the demonstration, protesters heckled the BP officers, yelling “shame!” and “blood on your hands!” at the agents, in reference to migrant deaths on the border. One woman shouted at a BP agent, “Think about what you do. You drive around in a truck with a cage in the back TO PUT PEOPLE IN! That’s seriously messed up. Get a different job!” When the demonstrators sitting down were suddenly pushed out of place by a group of BP agents, the crowd again started yelling “shame” and “blood on your hands,” drawing a comparison between their treatment of the protesters and their treatment of migrants. A woman on a loudspeaker announced “They just violently pushed us out of the checkpoint. That is a perfect metaphor for what they are doing to our communities.”

While this direct confrontation provided protesters with opportunities to directly shame their target and frame BP actions at the protest in terms of their original challenges, the situation also presented the BP with a unique strategic dilemma, and seemed to raise tensions on both sides. On the one hand, their legitimacy was being directly challenged and protesters were personally, and publically, calling them out, so it may be in their interest to take decisive action to quell the protest. At the same time, aggressive action could exacerbate the scrutiny they were already under as the targets of protest.

This direct, unmediated confrontation between protesters and targets also shaped dynamics with bystanders. At many protests, bystanders have the opportunity to directly respond to protesters, to honk or yell expressions of agreement or disagreement with the protest’s goals. But they would often have to speak through the media in order to address the targets. In this case, where the targets were present and the confrontation was more direct, many motorists who passed through the checkpoint expressed reactions to both sides, for example giving a thumps up to the BP and then a thumbs down the protesters (or vice versa).

This particular episode of protest was fundamentally altered by the unmediated interaction between protesters and their target. Elsewhere I have shown that police more aggressively control protests that target them, compared with other protests. Together, this suggests that social movement researchers interested in dynamics between protesters and targets should examine the power that proximity, mediation, and overlap between target and repressor roles play in these interactions.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Protestors and their Targets

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