When the police really should use overwhelming force
Black Lives Matter protests get tanks, but cops in Charlottesville stood aside for armed white supremacists
The nation was transfixed over the weekend by the horrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia. First there was the white supremacist rally on Friday night, where a pack of polo-clad, torch-toting men chanted Nazi slogans and gave the fascist salute; then there was the "Unite the Right" rally on Saturday, which quickly degenerated into brawls between white supremacists and counter-protesters, with cops often standing by mute. The worst was when James Alex Fields Jr., a rally attendee and apparent member of an openly fascist organization, allegedly drove his car into a group of counter-protesters at high speed, killing one, Heather Heyer, and wounding 19 others. (He has been charged with second-degree murder and other crimes.)
That wasn't the end of the awfulness — particularly from President Trump, who refused to directly criticize fascism or white supremacist violence until three days later, when he grudgingly noted that "racism is evil" in a short address Monday.
A less-noticed but perhaps even more important comment came from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who argued that because the right-wing militias that attended the rally seriously outgunned the police, the latter were wise not to attempt to intervene immediately. In doing so, McAuliffe demonstrated how American cops are helping enable this surge in right-wing terrorism.
In an interview with The New York Times, McAuliffe said: "They had better equipment than our state police had," adding, "It’s easy to criticize, but I can tell you this, 80 percent of the people here had semiautomatic weapons ... And yet not a shot was fired, zero property damage."
As an initial matter, McAuliffe almost certainly has his facts wrong. The American military has been handing out high-grade equipment — including body armor, semi-automatic rifles, armored tank-like vehicles, and other such things — out to American police departments like candy, for years and years now.
This can be seen in how the police respond to left-wing protests, particularly ones featuring lots of black people. The body armor, military carbines, sniper rifles, and MRAP armored vehicles come out immediately. Even the slightest disrespect or disorder is cause for overwhelming use of force.
If Charlottesville did not already have such equipment, then it most certainly could have gotten some from a neighboring city, or perhaps gotten state troopers to intervene, as they were also there. There is simply no way Ferguson (pop. 21,000) could have gotten and deployed that stuff while Charlottesville (pop. 48,000) could not.
Though the police did eventually step in and break things up, it was only after hours of brawling and violence. ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson saw the police inaction firsthand:
At about 10 a.m. today, at one of countless such confrontations, an angry mob of white supremacists formed a battle line across from a group of counter-protesters, many of them older and gray-haired, who had gathered near a church parking lot. On command from their leader, the young men charged and pummeled their ideological foes with abandon. One woman was hurled to the pavement, and the blood from her bruised head was instantly visible.
Standing nearby, an assortment of Virginia State Police troopers and Charlottesville police wearing protective gear watched silently from behind an array of metal barricades — and did nothing. [ProPublica]
Now, it's not exactly a good thing to have poorly-trained policemen running around with heavier gear than the soldiers who invaded Iraq in 2003. We all saw what that means in Ferguson in 2014. But at a minimum, we ought to expect that if such tactics are to be used, than they ought to be used neutrally. Indeed, a pack of white supremacist vigilantes and terrorists at a rally to deliberately stoke anti-left violence is perhaps the one circumstance where heavy weapons and armor might arguably be justified. But instead, it's the one instance where the police stand back and let brawls happen (at least for awhile).
Now, as Thompson noted, of course the police should not simply open fire in such a situation. But they could and should still prevent violence, with de-escalation tactics like separating the two sides.
It also must be said that none of this is to impugn the officers who put their lives on the line on a daily basis. In fact, two state troopers died in Charlottesville during the clashes in what appears to be an accident, a helicopter crash.
But police departments must intervene when the state's monopoly on violence is actually threatened. Otherwise they will only enable the growth of white supremacy and fascism.