By day two of the Republican National Convention, I’d witnessed three physical assaults. One was a protester who tossed a flag on the ground and was rushed by a Biker for Trump (probably should have seen that coming). One was a comedian who trolled Alex Jones and was then grabbed and shoved repeatedly by Trump supporters. Someone, it’s hard to say who, threw a punch at a cop during a rally.
Now, none of that is as bad as a lot of people feared. Tensions were running so high in the country and so many groups were converging on Cleveland that it honestly seemed like it might be a bloodbath. It absolutely wasn’t — there are probably family reunions that have seen more fighting — but it was still an order of magnitude more violent than what we’ve seen at the DNC so far. The protests in Philadelphia are much larger than the protests in Cleveland, and while 50-some protesters were detained and cited on the first day, there haven’t been mass arrests or violence. The RNC saw nearly two-dozen arrests and two cops injured in one incident.
This doesn’t necessarily mean one party is more violent than the other: I saw more physical assaults by Trump supporters, and more attacks on property by anti-Trump folks. But what I saw is a fraction of what went down, and the protesters really do come from all stripes, including some I guarantee you’ve never heard of.
Let me introduce you to one.
No, I have a different theory.
See, judging from the police presence, I wasn’t the only one expecting things to be much, much worse in Cleveland. At the RNC, I saw cops from Texas, Tennessee, California, both Virginias, and many more states. So far in Philadelphia, I’ve only seen Philly cops. On my last night in Cleveland for the RNC, I spotted four protesters playing a game of duck-duck-goose, surrounded by dozens and dozens of police officers.
Maybe the cops thought they were about to play Duck Duck Armed Robbery?
As I left, I met two-dozen highway patrol officers all rushing in to this dangerous Duck-Duck-Goose-In. I said, “I think your buddies have it handled,” and got sheepish, almost embarrassed smiles in response.
There is a school of thought that hyper-aggressive policing can actually trigger violence in crowds (the Justice Department says this is one reason the Ferguson protests got out of hand). From what I saw on the ground, I’m now convinced this was part of it. No, this isn’t blaming the police — they’re trying to keep everyone safe. But there are elements of crowd psychology that come into play here.
The most violent, and frightening, the RNC ever got was when these assholes showed up:
The police immediately formed a human wall between the God-Hates-Fags folks and the protesters, who took to screaming and cursing and almost seemed like they might start throwing punches. But when those same chucklefucks showed up at the DNC, the Philadelphia police had a very different response:
That’s still a cop in the center, and there were still police around in case things went violent, but they didn’t separate everyone. The protesters responded with more good-humored mockery, like that guy’s Pokemon sign (“A Wild Bigot Appears!”), rather than screaming and shouting and waving fists.
Why would having a wall of police between them make people more aggressive? A few reasons. One, have you ever screamed at somebody who cut you off in traffic? Would you have done the same if you’d been standing next to them on the sidewalk, without two tons of steel protecting you?
Then there’s just the general atmosphere it creates, sending the message that this is a place in which we are fully expecting unruly behavior. There’s also a related phenomenon psychologists call the “weapons effect” — the mere presence of weapons makes people more likely to engage in aggressive or violent behavior. Humans are social creatures, and we respond to the most minute cues from our fellow humans. It really doesn’t take much.
So at any given time, the main protest zone in Cleveland was filled with cops …
… while the equivalent protest areas of the DNC are almost cop-free, despite playing host to many more protesters.
I actually had to go outside the protest zone to find any cops. And they weren’t exactly on high alert.
The Philadelphia police seemed content to leave most of the peacekeeping work to the protesters themselves, including this apparent clone of Jeff Bridges.
While we talked, a few feet away, a young woman with a “Socialism Sucks” sign had a polite debate with several Bernie Sanders supporters. No one screamed or called anyone else an idiot. He did encounter some agitated protesters and counter-protesters, but he said the key to dealing with them was “just talking to [them] calmly” and using “peaceful tones,” so the folks who show up looking for a fight “don’t get one.”
It sounds a little naive, especially since the dude identified himself by the nickname “Broken Carpenter.” But it really did seem to work. For example, those same “Socialism Sucks” protesters showed up to troll a march by the International Workers of the World during the RNC. The police surrounded and followed both groups the entire march, but this still happened:
At least put the dog down first, man.
Obviously, I don’t want police to just stay home and leave the mob to its own devices. It only takes a couple of violent assholes to tip things into chaos. But it’s helpful to remember that you can absolutely go wrong in the other direction — especially in a culture in which any suggestion of “oppressive police state” makes us reflexively want to find a group of ragtag rebels to join.
Or as a great ska band once put it: If you want riots, wear your riot gear.