Sunday, I went to my first protest in more than a decade. When I was living in Austin, I used to be a regular fixture at demonstrations on a range of issues — war, the death penalty, Palestine, private prisons, etc. — but when I moved abroad, I took a long sabbatical from walking picket lines. I’m noticing a lot of changes. This was a rally against a far-right militia group called the Three Percenters and various allied goons such as the Proud Boys. Back in the day, this kind of demonstration was rare. Protests usually had just one side.
The closest thing to a counter-protestor we had was Alex Jones. Before he was a household name, he was just a local cable access weirdo who would show up at anti-war rallies and scream through a megaphone that we were all “agents provocateur of the globalists.”
But with the resurgence of the far-right, low-level political warfare between militant groups has become the dominant form of protest. The Pacific Northwest is a battleground, with these sorts of events happening upwards of two or three times a month during the summer in either Portland or Seattle. With armed opposing factions contesting the state’s monopoly on violence, police respond with shows of overwhelming force.
The protest started at 11 a.m.., but for various reasons, my friends and I didn’t make it there until about 1 p.m. The Three Percenter rally was happening at City Hall while the counter-protestors were a block away jammed onto a sidewalk lined by a wall of cops. Aside from a few who were wielding these menacing wooden clubs that looked like broomstick handles, most were equipped only with the standard police gear—and bikes.
Though it was scheduled to end at 3 p.m., the rally wrapped up about 30 minutes after we got there. It was hard to tell what was going on since they were so far away. The counter-protestors began chanting “Na-nah Na-nah, hey hey goodbye!” For reasons that made no sense at all, the police started getting aggressive. Maybe they took it personally that people kept pointing out how they were basically taxpayer-funded bodyguards for far-right militia wingnuts.
Some people in the crowd had begun taunting them with chants of “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” Others defied them by getting off the sidewalk and out in the street, but nothing happened that would justify escalation. There was no tangible threat that the counter-protestors might attack the militia folks—we couldn’t even see them from where we were.
Suddenly, everything devolved into this grotesque authoritarian spectacle. The cops formed lines on the street, and a small group of protestors got out in front of them. A torrent of bike cops flooded in from the side street behind me and the number of police doubled almost instantaneously.
They kettled some black bloc protestors on the other side of Fourth Street. For a moment, it seemed like some serious violence was about to break out. A woman was knocked to the ground. This burly 300-lbs. tank of an officer rushed the line with a huge can of bear mace like he was about to go ballistic.
I suppose none of this was really novel, aside from the absurdly disproportionate force unleashed against such a small demonstration, about a third of which was Old Left retirees. But then I saw something I’d never seen before.
The cops in front with bikes made a kind of hoplite formation, using their rides in place of riot shields. It was like 300 (if the Spartans outnumbered their opponents three to one and the Persians were unarmed 65-year-old Trotskyites).
One couldn’t help but notice that the few female police officers present were used as human shields on the front line while the broomstick stormtroopers and beefy bruisers, like the aforementioned Officer Bear Mace, formed up behind them. Their commanding officer was all the way in the back. Go figure.
What ensued was a really pointless operation, wherein they systematically pushed us back to Columbia and then down to 3rd. The commander got behind the line and did his best impersonation of a drill sergeant: “READY?!? MOVE!!!”
They all picked up their bikes and pushed them outward in front of their chests while chanting “Move! BACK!!! Move!BACK!!!” in unison. Then they would drop them for a bit, and repeat.
I can’t possibly overemphasize how truly unnecessary this all was. Really. The demonstration was over more or less. One side had all gone home and most of the counter-demonstrators had already left, too. There was nothing happening to justify any of this.
It was nothing more than a ritualistic display of power and dominance. At first glance, it was a little terrifying, but as I was out in front of them filming, it sank in how truly silly it was. The combination of the militaristic posturing and the hyper-serious expressions with the absurdity of cops trying to intimidate by picking their bikes up and putting them back down was too much for me.
I wondered: What would happen if someone didn’t move? That was always a possibility.
Would the cop just smack you in the face with the bike and then arrest you? On what grounds? The streets were still blocked off so it wasn’t illegal to be in them. We were still a lawful assembly.
If you had your hands behind your back and posed no threat to the officer, would hitting you with a bike be justifiable use of force? There are lots of ambiguities there, and maybe that’s the point, i.e. to control behavior with the fear of uncertainty while protecting the police from liability. It’s basically that “If you get hit, it’s your own fault” gag from the Simpsons.
This was all pretty new to me, but apparently they’ve been using these tactics for a while. In 2017, Portland-based Guardian correspondent Jason Wilson published a great overview of how bikes came to be used by Seattle police for riot duty.
According to the article, these innovations can be traced back to the massive anti-WTO protests that rocked the city in 1999, which involved mobile, militant and well-organized activists. Bikes offered the flexibility to rapidly redeploy police in response to changing circumstances. They were more maneuverable and less intimidating relative to, say, horses (also cheaper.)
And in addition to transportation, cops figured the bikes could be used in novel ways, such as ad hoc barriers, riot shields and blunt weapons. Like horses, bikes can be used to break up crowds by charging into them, and activists have reported that police have manufactured pretexts for arrest by riding up crowded sidewalks and then cuffing people who bump into them.
We saw a little of this last week. A line of police chose to bike on the sidewalk where the protestors were, when they could have just as easily rode on the street. At a protest in December, there were two incidents that went viral, where bike cops tripped over their own rides, then stumbled into protestors who had been backing off and pinned them on the ground.
The Seattle Police Dept. (SPD) has something of dark history. Under the terms of a 2012 settlement with the U.S. Dept. of Justice, the SPD was order to begin reforms under federal oversight after an investigation found a pattern of widespread and discriminatory use of excessive force against racial and ethnic minorities as well as the homeless and mentally ill.
Though SPD achieved “full and effective” compliance in 2018, it was ruled to be partially out of compliance in May of last year due to defects in police accountability procedures.
From the standpoint of the SPD attempting to clean up their act, it seems to me that the bike battalions are being presented as an ostensibly softer alternative to the overt militarization symbolized by riot shields, armor and gas masks. But aside from the optics, it’s hardly an improvement.
It’s not the tools that are the issue here. It’s the police department itself. The needless escalation and provocation. The authoritarianism. The comply-or-else attitude. These things aren’t gonna change by swapping shields for Schwinns.