A Philosopher's Blog

Police & Protests

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 3, 2011
Riot police using tear gas on 21 April 2001 ag...

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Protests are often marred by senseless violence and the recent protest on Wall Street was no exception. One incident that has gotten extensive attention is the pepper spraying/macing of penned in women by Anthony Bologna, a relatively high ranking member of the NYC police. These sorts of incidents raise questions about the legitimate role of the police in regards to protests. My discussion is limited to the context of democratic states, such as the United States.

First, it is rather important to acknowledge that the police do have a legitimate role to play at protests. While protests are intended to draw attention and often aim to do so by creating a disruption of the normal course of events, a state of protest does not grant protestors a carte blanche right to interfere with the legitimate rights of others. As such, the police have a legitimate right to prevent protestors from violating the rights of others and this can correctly involve the use of force. Obviously, if it is argued that protestors have a right to protests, this would entail accepting that people have rights and intuitively the right to protest does not automatically trump other rights-especially the core rights of life, liberty and property. Those who claim otherwise would seem to have the burden of proof upon them.

To use an obvious example, people protesting a decision by the parliament or congress do not gain the right to loot the businesses along their path of protest and the police would act correctly in stopping these acts of theft.   To use a less extreme example, protestors who are disrupting a legitimate business can legitimately be prevented from doing so by the police.

Second, while protestors do not gain a carte blanche right to violate the rights of others, peaceful protest is a legitimate form of expression and is certainly a form of free speech (far more so than spending money on political campaigns and some rather ludicrous “free speech” defenses launched by corporations such as Google). As such, the right of protest should be respected by the police.

Even when protestors act in ways that are technically illegal, provided that their crimes do not involve violence or property damage (that is, the protests are peaceful), they should be handled with minimal force. After all, the force used by the police should be proportional to the crime and the resistance being offered. Exceeding this would be, by definition, excessive force and hence a wrongful action. The police, after all, have the right to use the force needed to enforce the law. Force beyond that would go beyond their rights and hence cross over into assault and beyond (after all, once they cross the boundary of legitimate force, they have ceased to enforce the law and are engaged in needless violence and may rightfully be regarded as criminals-albeit with badges). Spraying women that have been penned in and are offering no resistance would be, from a moral perspective, an assault with a dangerous weapon and not a legitimate act of law enforcement. The fact that the perpetrator is wearing a uniform does not change this-except to make it an even worse action-a crime committed by someone who is supposed to prevent crime.

Naturally enough, violent and destructive protests can be met with legitimate force. As an example, protestors who are looting or attacking innocent citizens can be treated as the criminals they are and handled accordingly.

Third, there are cases in which violent and destructive protest can be justified. These would involve cases in which the wrong being done was such that it warrants such a response and there is no recourse to an objective, impartial and fair legal redress. In such cases, the police should be acting in defense of the people driven to such acts rather than fighting against such people. These situations are not common in the Western democracies, but have (and no doubt will) occur.

Thus, both protestors and police have moral obligations they should respect.


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14 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 3, 2011 at 7:27 am

    Well said. I agree.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on October 3, 2011 at 7:52 am

    Do protestors have a right to block traffic and prevent others from going where they need to be?

    Thousands of Occupy Wall Street protesters swarmed the Brooklyn Bridge Saturday, shutting down car lanes and setting up yet another tense showdown with the NYPD.

    Roughly 700 people were arrested after standing in the roadway, blocking the Brooklyn-bound lanes. Traffic in the opposite direction was slowed — but still running after the 4 p.m. standoff.

    Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2011/10/01/2011-10-01_dozens_arrested_at_occupy_wall_street_protest_brooklyn_bridge_shut_down_.html#ixzz1ZicoKY9e

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 3, 2011 at 1:45 pm

      That is a legitimate form of protest that also warrants being removed. Thoreau and King seem to have done a very good job of addressing this sort of matter: one can break the law to protest, but one must consider the consequences of that choice as a part of the protest.

  3. WTP said, on October 3, 2011 at 8:37 am

    Speaking of ludicrous implementations of free speach, care to comment on Anonymous (the “organization” not Magus’s lax log-in practices) posting of where Anthony Bologna’s children go to school? Isn’t that far more outrageous than anything Anthony Bologna has been accused of doing, seeing as it is a subtle threat to the safety of innocent children who have nothing to do with this protest?


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 3, 2011 at 1:43 pm

      Posting that sort of personal information is certainly wrong. Naming him is fine, but saying “hey, his kids go to school here” is unnecessary at best and, as you note, possibly a threat.

  4. Anonymous said, on October 3, 2011 at 9:25 am

    My experience with this type of thing is that there is a large portion of protestors who have no clue about the issue that they’re protesting; they happen to be criminals and think that by blending in with a large, boisterous crowd, they’re empowered to “get back” at the cops. When we invaded Iraq in 03, several people commenced to a lay-in at the Federal Building in Bangor. They failed to disperse when lawfully ordered to do so. We arrested them. It was amazing really, some of them were so completely caught up in the mythology they’d spun for themselves, they were astounded they didn’t get beat up by the cops. One of the guys was a regular criminal that our PD dealt with on a regular basis. When he got to court, he truly felt that his defense would be “well, we were prosting, therefore anything we do while protesting is legal and good.” He went to jail and had to pay a fine. The rest were 60s generation people and college kids who wished the 60s would come back.

    Another set of freedom fighters linked themselves together with Kryptonite bike lock bars in Senator Susan Collins’ office. The Bagor Fire Department cut the locks off with the jaws of life and they went to jail.

    Just my opinion: The protests on Wall Street are probably made up of a lot of people who are clueless about the real problems there, but do love to get into a good raucus with the cops and have world-wide media attention to scrutinize every bad thing a cop does and ignore 90% of the bad the crowd does.

    My favorite is the picture of the woman holding the sign that says: America was not created by rich white men”, or something like that. Really? Then by whom was it made?

    Yes, my login is again lax. Magus.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 3, 2011 at 1:40 pm

      Quite right-protestors are not given a carte blanche to do whatever they wish. Misdeeds done under the cover of a protest are still misdeeds-neither a sign nor a badge change this fact.

      As you note, most cops tend to be very civil about handling protestors but there is a perception that cops are always eager to go in and bust people up. This is often the result of misleading vividness and the spotlight that gets shined on the relatively uncommon misdeeds. After all, a video of officers calmly watching protestors or chatting with them is not going to get any attention.

  5. T. J. Babson said, on October 3, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Here is a video of the “extremist” Tea Partiers at their rally. The intellectual dishonesty of the left is breathtaking.

    • magus71 said, on October 3, 2011 at 1:07 pm

      Wow. I can just feel the hatred and racism. The intellectual honesty of this blog is starting to piss me off.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 3, 2011 at 1:37 pm

      Some left wingers are not honest, but a blanket condemnation of the left is no more warranted than a sweeping generalization about the Tea Party.

      • WTP said, on October 3, 2011 at 1:41 pm

        Or Fox News, for that matter.

  6. magus71 said, on October 3, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Mike, it’s your job to make lesser fools out of fools. Please do another job.

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