A rebellion first began in early August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police murder of black teenager Mike Brown. Militant solidarity protests spread across the country, and have since intensified following the non-indictment of the cops who killed Brown (also, Eric Garner in NYC). This wave of protests against the police represents the largest, most radical movement in this country since the 1960s.
This writing will analyze the techniques by which the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) neutralizes and contains large protests, specifically public rallies and marches against police violence. Up until rather recently, the PPD has not been the most effective in managing resistance movements. During the North Philly rebellion of 1964, for example, every last officer in the city’s police force was needed to suppress the riots, which lasted several days.
The crowd-control and counter-insurgency strategies of the PPD are much different today even from just 15 years ago. During the protests against the Republican National Convention in 2000, the police not only infiltrated protest groups, but attacked protesters for simply taking the streets, and arrested hundreds at a time. This led to a media backlash which framed the police as violent and unrestrained. This was under the leadership of then–Police Commissioner John Timoney. However, a major strategic shift has taken place under the leadership of current Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who now leads President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
When it comes to policing large protests, Ramsey tries to emphasize containment over direct confrontation. Rather than opposing the protests and trying to disrupt them, the strategy of containment aims to work with them, in order to better control them and prevent their radicalization. This was the policing strategy during most of the Occupy Philly protests in 2011, where the police avoided major arrests up until the very end. Police violence can radicalize people and make them more defiant of authority. That’s why Ramsey and other police leaders prefer to avoid open conflict if possible. This strategic approach to policing radical protests is gaining ground in police departments across the country.
A number of other cities have followed the lead of Ferguson, with street fights against the police, property destruction, looting, de-arresting protesters, occupying police stations, and disrupting major highways. However, in Philadelphia, for the most part, disruptive protest tactics have not been very popular, even as the police continue to brutalize black people with impunity (most recently, Brandon Tate-Brown). This is not to say that there haven’t been any direct action tactics here. There have been some. Early on, when the protests first began in Philly in late August in response to the murder of Mike Brown, there was a “Fuck the Police” march in West Philly. During the march, protesters threw trash cans into the street, balloons filled with paint were thrown at a cop car, and two protesters were quickly arrested. In another example in late November, following the non-indictment of the cop who murdered Mike Brown, protesters in center city attempted to take the major highway I-95, but were prevented from doing so by the police, and two were arrested. In the past few weeks, there was an unsuccessful attempt to take the highway in center city, and some anti-police graffiti was put up in West Philly. Why are militant protests in Philly not more widespread? For one, the PPD is a very large, well funded, and very effective organization. The PPD has nearly 7,000 officers for a population of almost 1.5 million. Compared to other urban areas, this is a lot of police, even for a major city. Phoenix has a higher population than Philly, 1.6 million, yet the Phoenix Police Department comprises only 3,000 officers, that is, less than half the amount of the PPD. In another example, the New York Police Department has about 35,000 officers, but for a population of 8.4 million. Another very important factor is the PPD’s containment strategy. When protests take place, the PPD arrive beforehand in large numbers which sometimes match those of the protesters, occupy strategic points in the streets, and closely follow the crowd with a loose police net (not a literal net, but a net of police bodies, ready to make arrests). Rather than antagonizing the protesters, as happened during the RNC in 2000, the protests are allowed to take place within reach of the police net (as occured during Occupy). Meanwhile the police guide the crowd, block off the entrances to any major highways or important buildings, and closely monitor the protesters. Regardless of how radical and inflammatory the rhetoric is, no matter how much militant posturing takes place, as long as protesters don’t block major highways, occupy buildings, or destroy capitalist property, then the police will avoid direct confrontation. However, if protesters do engage in disruptive tactics, then the police net tightens, and a snatch squad closes in to makes arrests, if not right away, then later on. It is very difficult, and takes considerable organization, to escape from within a police net after employing radical protest tactics.
With the police containment strategy, the capitalist state represses political challenges to its power, but also directly prevents such challenges from even taking place. The very threat of immediate arrest is often enough to prevent direct action tactics from happening. However, it is not enough to simply wield the baton. The Philadelphia police also attempt to win the hearts and minds of the protesters, which is often a much more effective method of policing. Specialized political police, the Civil Affairs Unit, attempt to form bonds with the more moderate protesters, especially those which are quick to throw the more radical ones under the bus. Using their relationship with moderate protest leaders, Civil Affairs officers often physically guide the direction of protests as they take the streets, and make sure that they stay within the purview of the police net. Of course, if protesters get out of hand, Civil Affairs will work with the regular cops to make arrests.
More important than the power of the PPD and the effectiveness of their containment strategy, the main factor behind the lack of confrontational tactics in the Philly protests is the lack of a revolutionary political culture. Although the city was home to very radical movements and struggles in the past (Abolitionists, the IWW’s Local 8, Revolutionary Action Movement, Black Liberation Army, etc.), today there is no revolutionary tendency willing to directly attack state power. There are elements in Philly which could form the embryo of future insurgent struggles, but they have yet to make their appearance outside of the small examples described above.