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Throughout Europe, this is the season of protest. There are massive, angry demonstrations—tens of thousands in the streets of a dozen capitals laying siege to finance ministries and parliaments, shutting down roads and rail, and seizing public spaces. One independent study estimates that a million Spaniards have participated the movement known as Los Indignados—“The Outraged.”
Americans have reasons to be outraged too. But American protests have been muted by comparison. The Occupy Wall Street protest that began in mid-September has inspired similar demonstrations throughout the country, and the movement as a whole may have helped to sharpen public opinion about the financial crisis and its consequences. But it has also shown how hostile American politics has become to the very idea of mass, angry protest. After decades of increasingly sophisticated policing and changing notions about the boundaries of legitimate protest, public demonstration in the United States today is not only tamer than in Europe, but perhaps also tamer than at any time in the nation’s history.
In New York, Boston, and many other major cities, Occupy protesters are playing a delicate game with local police departments. Protesters want to expand their territory if they can, but above all to avoid the loss of the tiny plots on which they are camped. Certain that local authorities are looking for any reason to remove them, occupiers must keep their camps clean, maintain peace with their neighbors, and avoid confrontations that could erode public support and give a pretext for arrests.
Police departments face their own challenges. A prolonged encampment does create significant concerns about health, safety, and inconvenience to neighbors. In some cities, elected officials are also aware that protesters have significant public support, and in a media-saturated environment, abuses of police power quickly generate sympathy for protesters. The New York Police Department learned as much when Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed penned-in protesters in September. And the Oakland Police Department had the same lesson after using tear gas and flash grenades in a botched effort to remove protesters, which resulted in the critical wounding of an Iraq War veteran.
But while the game is difficult for both sides, it is hardly an equal contest. If local authorities want to shut down a protest, they can do so decisively. Occupy Boston protesters realized this when they attempted to expand their camp onto an adjacent patch of grass, part of the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway, on October 10. Within hours hundreds of police officers, some in riot gear, had cleared the new site and arrested about a hundred protesters.
Clearances in other cities have been just as efficient. On October 14, state police in riot gear made a pre-dawn sweep of Lincoln Park, across from the Colorado state capitol, arresting two dozen Occupy Denver protesters. Shortly after midnight on October 26, police cleared Occupy Atlanta out of the city’s Woodruff Park. Occupy San Diego was removed from the city hall’s plaza on October 28; on October 29 police shut down an attempt to expand New York’s protest from Zuccotti Park to Washington Square Park; and on October 31 police and bulldozers moved Occupy Richmond out of Kanawha Plaza.
Where the camps persist, it is because local officials are exercising forbearance. In Portland, Oregon Mayor Sam Adams warns that his “patience is wearing thin.” Down the coast, the Los Angeles Times cautions protesters that they are “wearing out their welcome.” The exasperated tone is telling. Local leaders understand that they have both the law and police power on their side.
Awareness of this hard reality is also evident in the way that the protesters themselves talk. All but a fringe of the Occupy movement is dedicated to the principle of nonviolence. However, motivations for avoiding confrontation can differ. In the past some have emphasized the intrinsic qualities of a nonviolent strategy. As Martin Luther King said, it can be an expression of “the principle of love,” a refusal to hate the opponent. But many Occupiers have a more practical motivation. “Let’s not agitate violence,” one New Yorker said on Twitter on September 25. “As soon as we use violence our movement dies.” Another agreed: “As soon as we agitate violence we lose.” Protesters have been warned not to provoke, not to escalate, not to “give them an excuse.” The protesters also understand that in this game, the house usually wins. Avoiding confrontation is a way to put off the reckoning.
The game was not always set up in favor of local authorities. In 1837 there was a riot almost exactly at the location of the Occupy Boston protest. There was nothing noble about it. A fire company manned by native-born Americans collided with an Irish immigrant funeral procession, and a fight broke out. Thousands joined the fray, and dozens of homes were destroyed. Like other U.S. cities, Boston had no police force to stop the rioters. The battle ended only when Mayor Samuel Atkins Eliot sent a company of cavalry and 800 soldiers to restore order.
At that time it was not unusual for angry and sometimes-unruly crowds to gather in the streets of major U.S. cities. Some Americans regarded this as a fact of urban life, like bad weather: unfortunate but unavoidable. Some even had a romantic notion about the role of crowds as a liberating force in politics. After all, crowds gave birth to the independence movement itself by protesting in Boston streets against British taxes. In 1765 one crowd made a bonfire of seized government records only a few hundred yards from the site where Occupy Boston is now camped. The police forces already established in European capitals were regarded as instruments of “organized despotism.” In the new republic, by contrast, citizens were expected to show self-discipline.
Americans once regarded angry and sometimes-unruly crowds as facts of urban life, like bad weather: unfortunate but unavoidable.
This tolerance of angry urban crowds collapsed in the decade following 1837. A financial crisis struck the country in the fall of that year, and by the early 1840s the country was in a deep depression. Major cities were in turmoil. The governor of Pennsylvania asked the army to suppress riots following the 1838 election, and in 1842 the governor of Rhode Island appealed for federal help to deal with worker unrest. Martial law was declared in Philadelphia in 1844 after protesters and state militia exchanged cannon fire in city streets.
European observers were aghast at the strife in American cities. The battle between protesters and soldiers, a British newspaper said, was “a struggle of parties almost on an equality in point of means, personal strength, and discipline.”
This was how the modern American police force was born. “The great object,” said Philadelphia Mayor Peter McCall in 1844, “is to crush disorder in the bud . . . [and] strike terror into the evil disposed.” Philadelphia established its force four years later. Boston soon followed, forming its police department in 1854, a successor to a small force of day police established in 1838. The president of Boston’s City Council, Peleg Whitman Chandler, said the new department would function as “a civic army . . . strong enough to overawe those, who cannot govern themselves.” Through police forces, Chandler said, the “American people are to learn what a strong government is.”
The United States was not alone in changing its opinion about urban protests during this period. As in the United States, many in France also began the nineteenth century with a romantic view of crowd power. It was an angry crowd that had attacked the Bastille and proved the fragility of the king’s power, giving life to the French Revolution. Parisian mobs also toppled the Bourbon monarchy in 1830. But the middle class was terrified by an uprising of distressed workers in 1848, until the insurrection was bloodily repressed by 40,000 troops.
The Parisian police force was overhauled after that year, and along with this institutional change came a shift in attitudes about urban crowds. The romantic view of the liberating crowd was eclipsed by an image of a primitive, irrational mass, profoundly threatening to social order. “A spark of passion,” the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde wrote in 1890, and “thousands of men crowded together soon form a single animal, a wild beast without a name.” The American psychologist Boris Sidis, writing in 1901, agreed: “Large assemblies carry within themselves the germs of the possible mob.”
One of the main projects of modern policing has been to continue what was begun in the mid-nineteenth century: the domestication of the urban crowd. Some kinds of crowds have thrived. For example, average attendance at a Red Sox home game in 2011 was greater than the entire population of Boston in 1810. Typically, though, the sports crowd is carefully screened, managed within a custom-built architecture, and depoliticized. The crowd is tolerated within those constraints. A sports crowd that forms without those controls—such as the one that gathered in and around Fenway Park after the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series in St. Louis—is a different matter entirely.
Regulation of street crowds and crowds with overtly political aims has grown more effective since the urban and campus unrest of the 1960s and ’70s, which was an impetus for the enhancement of police crowd control capabilities. The 1968 Kerner Report, commissioned by President Johnson in the wake of the previous year’s race riots, found “serious deficiencies” in the ability of major police forces to prevent disorder. A clear doctrine about crowd control emerged: negotiation with protest leaders about the limits of protest was preferable to the brutal application of force that typified responses to the protests of the ’60s. But police also upgraded their capacity to contain protests by force if necessary, through improved training and investment in their now-familiar inventory of riot gear. Within a decade of the Kerner Report, most U.S. police departments had paramilitary units.
Another round of police adaptation followed the turn-of-the-millennium protests over globalization, such as those in Seattle in 1999 and Washington, D.C. in 2000. This round of street politics seemed to differ from the previous generation’s, often lacking the clear leadership structure that enabled negotiation with police or containing fringe elements seeking confrontation. Police forces developed new and less subtle doctrines on crowd control, such as tighter control of space through the use of barricades and more frequent mass arrests. Police also became less restrained in using non-lethal weapons. The national anxiety that followed the 9/11 attacks encouraged still-tougher attitudes on crowd control and led to further innovation, such as more investment in surveillance of potential threats and in information sharing between government agencies.
By the mid-2000s major police departments had the capacity and willingness to engage in what sociologist Alex Vitale has called a “command-and-control” approach to crowds, typified by an aversion to disruption of a city’s normal functioning, micro-management of all aspects of a protest, and low tolerance for even minor violations of the rules governing a demonstration. This uncompromising stance was evident in police responses to demonstrations at the 2004 Republican and Democratic nominating conventions. At the Democratic convention, held in Boston, protesters were limited to a fenced-in demonstration zone that U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock called “a grim, mean, and oppressive space . . . [that] conveys the symbolic sense of a holding pen where potentially dangerous persons are separated from others.”
Police departments in those cities that still tolerate Occupy protests maintain that they are struggling to balance the right of free speech with the need to protect public order. Fair enough, but the question is how the balance is struck. The difficulty with many cities’ approaches to the protests is that they are preoccupied with the containment and taming of the crowd and are ready to act on the earliest sign of potential difficulty. The aversion to disruption, as Vitale calls it, is clear. “The Constitution doesn’t protect tents,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in mid-October. On November 3, Reuters reported that Bloomberg’s patience, too, was “wearing thin.”
A few weeks earlier, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor had told a meeting of religious conservatives in Washington that he was “increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country.” Under criticism, Cantor seemed to retreat from the statement, and rightly so. Rhetoric about mobs raises the specter of mass violence and the complete upset of civic order. It is absurd when applied to the realities of the Occupy movement. There might be a thousand people camping in Zuccotti Park; two or three hundred in Washington’s McPherson Square; in other cities, only dozens. In its history, the United States has seen many urban mobs, and they have been much bigger than this.
A mob, the nineteenth-century sociologists told us, is rootless, anonymous, and disorganized. The Occupy protests hardly qualify as mobs by these standards. How could they, when their members are camped on the same site for weeks? Mobs are also supposed to be fickle and irrational. They don’t hold community meetings with complex procedures every evening. They don’t set up libraries. They don’t adopt policies promising “zero tolerance” of violence, verbal abuse, and alcohol consumption. They don’t establish working groups to organize sanitation, maintain Internet infrastructure, and manage community relations. Occupy Wall Street even has a group to “increase the efficiency and effectiveness” of its other groups—a sort of internal management consultancy.
The Occupy movement is the antithesis of a mob. It is a domesticated crowd, struggling to avoid any behavior—a violent incident, a provocative word, an arrangement of camp life that might raise concerns about health or safety—that could become a pretext for the disassembly of the protest as a whole. The movement is at pains to demonstrate its reasonableness because as a society we have become intolerant of those features of crowd politics—unpredictability, irregularity, and potential for decay into violence—that seem incompatible with the strictures of modern urban life.
The movement confronts a paradox. It would not exist at all if Americans were not outraged at the financial and political crisis confronting the country. The point is to demonstrate that many Americans, like their European counterparts, should be counted among Los Indignados. But it is difficult, to a degree that is perhaps unprecedented in American history, to take a message of outrage to the streets.
One might not worry about the decline of crowd politics. After all, we still have the voting booth. At the same time, social media seem to give us the capacity to create “virtual crowds” in cyberspace, with none of the disorderliness created by actual crowds in city streets. But these are imperfect substitutes for mass protest, which retains its distinctive capacity to crystallize discontent with the status quo, and thus to create opportunities for substantial change in government policy. When we tame the crowd, we diminish the country’s capacity to respond creatively to economic and social crises.
Alasdair Roberts is Jerome L. Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School and author of the forthcoming The First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder After the Panic of 1837.
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