How Presence Stopped a Riot
It was during the second presidential inauguration of George Bush. We were a group of over 5,000 “protestors” named Turn Your Back on Bush. When Bush’s motorcade would go by the huge parade of people, we would literally turn our backs – a symbolic action that gained international media attention.
My role was to train the street teams that would help coordinate and give information to our participants. Our training was short but to the point: be friendly, relaxed, informative. It included de-escalation skills because we knew that the mix at the event was a dicey one: traditional anti-Bush protestors alongside solid Bush supporters, plus our own Turn Your Back on Bush folk, most of whom were fairly mainstream people.
The street teams fanned out and took positions at various security checkpoints that gave entry to the parade route. My team was the “flying” team that would rotate throughout the day to various checkpoints and go to wherever we were needed.
And indeed we were needed.
Bad by Design
Throughout the morning of the inauguration, we heard from all the checkpoints. At each checkpoint police were screening and looking for “dangerous objects,” sometimes confiscating protestors’ signs and materials. The lines to these checkpoints were long as the process was slow. In most cases, people were relaxed as they waited in turn for their chance to get through the checkpoint.
By mid-morning it became pretty clear which checkpoint was going to cause the most trouble. On our walkie-talkies we kept hearing complaints about it and when we checked it out we could see why.
Unlike the other checkpoints, this one was built like a funnel. People would push and shove to get better position to get in sooner. Those in the middle were getting crushed by the large surge of people jostling for position.
Tension in the air was heavy, especially as fur coat wearing Bush supporters were being pushed right up next to black-clad punks solidly against the Bush administration.
To add to the mix, police at this checkpoint were the most ruthless and we saw several cases of people being flagrantly turned away because they looked like protestors or carried questionable material like signs saying “No to Bush.” The result was the slowest checkpoint which only inched along.
The checkpoint had lots of tinder, but was about to get set on fire.
The field explodes
Outside of the checkpoints and parade route was a large group of roving anti-Bush protestors. They would go from checkpoint to checkpoint dancing and chanting.
When they hit this checkpoint they must have picked up the tension in the field, because they suddenly turned very ugly. The police claim PVC pipes were thrown at them first; some protestors say the police began beating people. But what was clear was an all-out confrontation between police and the protestors ensued – right outside of this checkpoint.
The police eventually cleared the area, mostly by pepper spraying individuals. (They didn’t, afterall, want to tear gas the area and risk hitting the Bush supporters, many of whom we wearing – I know because I asked – $10,000 fur coats.)
Police hung around the area in their riot gear, just in case.
By this time, the energy field around the checkpoint was bubbling over with tension. Several people began loud shouting matches with each other. “You protestors are the reason we can’t get in. You’re always trying to destroy things, unlike this President who’s trying to help people in Iraq and around the world.”
“How can you support this President who has killed tens of thousands of innocents in Afghanistan and Iraq?”
“You don’t care about innocent people. The millions of unborn babies that are killed every year – you have no compassion for them.”
And quickly started de-escalating into name calling: Baby-killer. Fascist. Cop-killer. Imperialist lap dog.
Groups started to physically position themselves in the midst of the crowd, particularly surrounding two loud men hurling threats at each other. If this degenerated into a large enough fight it could overshadow the media spotlight on our action; and even if it didn’t, what would be accomplished by some knuckleheads beating each other up?
I guess it was time to do something, but what?
Intervention tried and failed
I thought about Arnold Mindell and his theory of how groups work. Maybe I could help facilitate the conflict. So based on his work, I asked myself, “What’s right here?”
The answer: people who normally don’t come into contact with each other were suddenly getting a chance to interact.
I rotated through the outside of the crowd (it was too packed to get in), and projected my voice into the scene, “It’s rare that we get a chance to hear each other’s opinions because we rarely talk face-to-face.” “This is a new experience for us, to talk across these lines of difference. It’s okay to disagree.”
Around the edges of the crowd I could watch the conversations turn civil. Some people even began discussing with their neighbors what was already blindlingly obvious: that this was a different mix then they normally hung out with.
But the swirls of civility only temporarily reached the two hotheads and their sphere of influence. They turned quiet for a minute, but only a minute or two. Then they both re-escalated the situation, jumping onto soapboxes – one a police barricade and another a lightpost – and reinitiated their shouting match.
Within another minute they started physically moving towards each other in the crowd and fought their way to each other where a screaming and pushing match began.
If at first you don’t succeed…
What had at first appeared to be a subsection of the crowd fighting suddenly looked took on a whole new dimension. I can’t say I’ve ever been in a full-blown riot before; but people tell me that in riots it’s as if people suddenly and in large numbers lose their minds. This is what it felt like to me.
The crowd’s energy surged in on itself and the collective yelling escalated to a brand-new high. The riot police who had been hanging back began lining up around the crowd which, of course, only further escalated the situation.
I worriedly wondered what to do next. My first intervention was a good try but things were heating up, and now heating up quickly.
I glanced around for allies and resources. My street team members told me they would support me in whatever I could think of; but that they couldn’t think of anything. And I couldn’t think of anything either!
Thankfully, I saw way off to the corner of the block a marginal group: a bunch of singers. They were quietly singing to each other, not really projecting their voices outside of their tight circle. One of them I vaguely knew and I quickly went up to them and asked them, “Will you keep singing but come over here to the center of what’s going on?”
Tentatively they agreed. I got them a bullhorn and got them as close to the center of the crowd as possible.
Their song was against sweatshops, but gentle in melody and tender in words. The words were something like, “And who are the victims here? It is not us but the worker in Haiti who makes Disney clothes for eight cents an hour, the worker in Indonesia…”
Slowly they created a new field around them that spread over the crowd. The fighting stopped and a momentary silence swept over the crowd.
It was like when someone forgets they had been holding their breath and starts breathing again.
When people talked again, they were back to their selves but at a much lower decibel.
I watched as one of the hotheads left the crowd and headed elsewhere while the other reintegrated himself into the crowd.
I urged the singers to continue for a while.
As things settled, I was even able to go over to the police and tell them that it looked like they weren’t needed anymore and they could probably stand down. Soon after they did just that and left the scene.
Exhausted from the energy rollercoaster ride, our street team grabbed some coffee nearby. We kept an eye on the checkpoint, but the storm had passed over.
The overall Turn Your Back on Bush action was successful – over 5,000 people participated and gained mostly positive media coverage. There was a lot to proud — but I’m confident that I prevented a riot that day.