Police Brutality Against Protesters Only Stoked the Anti–Police Brutality Movement

Credit for the unprecedented wave of mass protests should go to anti-police brutality activists, movement journalists, and politicized young people. But let’s not forget the boys in blue themselves: cops' vicious treatment of protesters proved to millions around the world that the protesters were right.

Police advance on demonstrators who are protesting the killing of George Floyd on May 30, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Scott Olson / Getty

At the Washington Post, political scientists are declaring the George Floyd uprising to be the broadest in US history. The distinction was previously held by the Women’s Marches of January 2017, but the authors analyzed the data and found that the George Floyd protests have occurred in far more places than Women’s Marches did — including hundreds of minor cities and small towns. In big cities, marches are drawing tens of thousands at a time, and even smaller cities are hosting multiple protests per day.

The protests are multiracial, and though they skew millennial and younger, they’re also multigenerational. They’re drawing participants from all across the wealth and income spectrum of the working class, broadly defined. They’re happening everywhere, from high schools to highways. Some are family-friendly pickets, others involve squaring off against police firing tear gas and projectiles. They’re all united under the banner of justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the slogan Black Lives Matter as well as the demand to defund the police.

And they’re not letting up. “The United States rarely has protests in this combination of size, intensity and frequency,” wrote the researchers at the Washington Post. “It usually has big protests or sustained protests, but not both.” What’s happening right now, while it builds on a decade of mounting protest movements, is genuinely unprecedented.

Few saw this coming. For example, I wrote an article two months ago in which I speculated that the coronavirus pandemic shutdown would be an intermission in what has otherwise been an age of mass protest — the eye of the hurricane, so to speak — and that when the shutdown was over and the coast was clear the protests would come roaring back with ferocity. I did not think mass protests would occur in the middle of the pandemic, and I certainly didn’t expect they would focus on the long-standing issue of police violence against black people.

Pinpointing the precise combination of forces and pressures that converged to produce this uprising at this time will occupy historians and journalists for years to come. But one thing does seem clear so far: the brutal police response to the protests merely emboldened them. They are partly responsible for giving the movement the mass character it now has.

A Tale as Old as Time

The police are violent. People protest police violence. The police brutally crack down on the protestors, generating more antipathy for police and therefore more protestors against police violence. It’s a tale as old as time, and you’d think police officials would have learned by now that excessive use of force in these scenarios is bad strategy.

But I suspect they weren’t acting from a place of strategy so much as from defensive pride. It was in this emotional state that police not only brutalized protestors over the last week but topped off their aggression with spiteful flourishes, from spitting on fully restrained protestors to pulling down their masks to pepper-spray them directly in the face. As I observed last week, the police by and large do not appear to view themselves as peacekeepers in this conflict. They seem to see themselves as combatants whose goal is not to restore order and protect the public but to defeat their opponents: the protestors.

An academic paper from 2017 sheds some light on this phenomenon. In “Protesting the Police: Anti-Police Brutality Claims as a Predictor of Police Repression of Protest,” Heidi Reynolds-Stenson examined the police response to thousands of US protests that occurred between 1960 and 1995. She found that police “are about twice as likely to show up to anti-police brutality protests compared with otherwise similar protests making other claims and, once there, they intervene (either make arrests, use force or violence against protesters, or both) at nearly half of these protests, compared to about one in three protests making other claims.”

You’d think the police would take pains to avoid appearing to brutalize protestors whose primary grievance is police brutality. But Reynolds-Stetson found that “despite the possibility that reputational concerns would lead police to deal with such protests with special caution, police actually react to the threat posed by these protests with a more heavy handed response than other protests.” It is precisely the anti-police sentiment that makes them angry, which in turn makes them hostile, which finally leads them to behave in ways that intensify popular anti-police sentiment.

That appears to be precisely what happened in the last week and a half. The earlier protests were accompanied by more property destruction and theft, which is not broadly popular, but the police more than made up for it by perpetrating in some cases extreme violence against peaceful protestors. Outrage at the police reaction has driven more and more people into the streets, giving the movements an ever-broader character.

Now, in cities across the country, police appear to have backed off, at least from the daytime protests — not totally, but noticeably. This is probably in part because officers are fatigued and demoralized, and in part because they realize their initial aggression backfired. As a result of this partial retreat, the daytime protests in particular appear safer, which invites more people, and more kinds of people, into streets. Even those who aren’t participating are largely supportive, including 57 percent of white respondents to one survey (only 26 percent opposed) and, amazingly, 45 percent of Republican voters (only 22 percent opposed). These numbers were up significantly from the previous week.

Over the weekend, many daytime protests across the country had a festival-like quality to them. At two I attended in Los Angeles, the police were nowhere to be seen, apparently opting to save their tear gas and rubber bullets for those who lingered after dark. But the change in police tactics came too late. They have unwittingly helped create a mass anti-police protest movement, one that’s happening in cities and towns across the country. And unfortunately for them, it’s bigger than any protest movement the country has ever seen.