Observers of the widespread protests in Baton Rouge have criticized the Baton Rouge Police Department’s militarized approach to crowd control over the course of this weekend's sweltering unrest. Irrespective of any justification for Alton Sterling’s death at the hands of Baton Rouge police, those observers are not without cause.
Quite objectively, the appearance of armored vehicles, lock-step maneuvers, flak jackets, assault rifles, helicopters, drones and gas masks employed by a joint force of state, parish and city police gives that exact impression. That’s precisely because we tend to think of those things as military in nature.
Whether that posture and equipment is warranted can only be discussed in the context of the protests against which they are utilized.
A line of armored police backed up against a perimeter of barriers on the scene at a demonstration outside of Baton Rouge Police headquarters on Airline Highway Saturday. Advocate reporters at the late afternoon protest tweeted that members of the New Black Panther Party — no affiliation with the party founded by Huey P. Newton in the 1960s — had shown up with shotguns. By the time The IND made it to the scene, half a dozen Panthers had been arrested and another dozen had marched up with assault rifles. Camouflaged SWAT cops stalked them from behind patrol cars, taking defensive positions with their own assault weapons readied and aimed. That’s a show of force against a show of force.
Given that tension, and the deadly shooting of five officers in Dallas, it’s not an unreasonable tactic or posture. But after the Panthers left and protests continued, police set a pattern for the rest of the weekend’s confrontations regardless of place or threat. There were calmer, planned demonstrations near the Capitol throughout the weekend, more or less un-policed and with no arrests. On site of spontaneous demonstrations at police headquarters and, on Sunday, near an I-110 ramp near Downtown, police squared off with protesters in a game of bait and arrest.
Typically police would draw a line at the road side of Airline by the police station — or East Boulevard and France Street downtown — and order the protesters via loudspeaker or bullhorn to keep off or be arrested. In real time, the provocations of protesters were unclear. But when the hammer dropped it crushed. Police would react to seemingly little disturbance along the front line with an ordered chaos of riot police, charging as a speartip into the gathered crowds, violently wresting protesters into custody and retreating into a phalanx. More than 100 were arrested by night’s end. Several weapons were confiscated.
At Sunday’s downtown protest, demonstrators corralled themselves onto a private property, invited to cram onto the front yard by the home's resident, Lisa Batiste. After a couple of hours, police moved in from three sides, scattering the crowd from the property and arresting 48 in a matter of minutes.
Batiste told us police never received permission to enter the property. The police predicated their attack on the crowd’s earlier attempt to move onto 110 and shut down traffic. Because the crowd had attempted to block roads — roads that the police themselves often blocked — police said they could move in and make their arrests. From the front line, the strikes seemed be tactical in nature, intended to keep protesters on their toes and ultimately end the demonstrations, wherever they were.
To be sure, the police were controlled and the violence not excessive to your average protest. People were not gassed. Shots were not fired. But riot maneuvers, however provoked, are fundamentally violent. Hearing people scream and watching the arrest count climb for “obstructing roadways” will certainly make you question if the police are really de-escalating anything. The way folks on the ground talk, it’s as though the aggression displayed by Baton Rouge police is not so much excessive of the norm as it is expected.
Decide for yourself if that’s justified.