Nonviolent Civil Disobedience, Media as Shield, and Staged Violence

The readings for Networked Social Movements included the chapter “Policing Protest in the United States: 1960-1995,” by Clark McPhail, David Schweingruber, and John McCarthy. The basic premise of this chapter is to track how the policing of protest in the United State has generally shifted from a method of “escalating force” prior and during the 1960s to “negotiated management” in the time leading into the 1990s (50). The authors of this chapter do a great job of tracking the escalating force that was largely used during the 1960s, which resulted in the inquiry commissions known as the National Kerner Commission on Civil Disorder, the National Eisenhower Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, and the National Scranton Commission on Campus Unrest. These commissions assessed the use of escalating force in addressing mass mobilizations, and they ultimately resulted in the guidelines for negotiated management that rejected escalating force as a viable response to unruly and disorderly mass protest and mobilizations. While the commissions were largely the result of unruly and disorderly protest and mobilizations, negotiated management tactics would come to influence how all mobilizations in the United States have come to be policed.

There are several points in the reading that I thought were particularly thought provoking. For example, I thought that the discussion regarding the use of nonviolent civil disobedience was very interesting, mostly because I wonder how effective this tactic can be in the negotiated management system. In many cases that I have studied, especially during and prior to the 1960s, nonviolent civil disobedience was a last resort after conventional means, such as formal negotiations and electoral politics, had failed. However, in our current state, where protest has been extensively formalized and even institutionalized, to what degree is nonviolent civil disobedience really disobedient? After all, in today’s protest climate, actors are encouraged if not required to apply for permits to occupy public forums, so in a sense, the institutionalization of protest leads to nonviolent civil compliance and not disobedience. That is not to say that the “disobedience” element of nonviolent civil disobedience is what gives this tactic strength. The fact that protesters today are not pushed to “last resort” methods to be heard in public forums is a definite plus. However, I fail to see the point of prearranged arrests if they are compliant arrests, other than the idea that arrests lead to media attention.

Another idea that emerged through the course of reading was the use of media to protect protesters from police brutality and police misconduct. In my research of the media and technology practice in the Farm Worker Movement of the 1960s, I have been able to find many events where the presence of the press were able to thwart police efforts to disrupt political protest. For example, during the Peregrinacion (pilgrimage) from Delano to Sacramento California in 1966, the United Farm Workers (then the NFWA) were visited by Walther P. Reuther of the United Automobile Workers, which created a very large media spectacle. The following day after Reuther’s visit, the United Farm Workers became aware of the plans of local police to put an end to the Peregrinacion by proclaiming it as an unauthorized assembly. However, the UFW were able to harness the presence of different members of the press that had traveled to California to cover the Reuther visit, and with an increased attention on the Peregrinacion, the local authorities were unwilling to disrupt the mobilization. This still occurs today, especially with the advent of mobile live streaming video. For example, in Los Angeles, undocumented youth part of the Dreamer Movement were able to set-up a live streaming feed using a cell phone during a sit-in at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters last year. In both these examples, nearly 40 years apart, protesters have been able to harness available media to keep authorities honest and avoid any possible misconduct.

The last two points that I wanted to cover in this blog are in regards to the relevance of permits in the types of mobilizations that we see in the information age, and also the practice of provoking police as a means to secure media attention. For one, I wonder how relevant the current permit system is to mobilizations that occur in impromptu fashion among loosely affiliated strangers that have gathered under a common cause. With the rise of crowd sourced mobilizations and “Flash Mobs,” the idea that authorities can receive formal permits and head counts ahead of time seems unfeasible. What measures can be taken to protect the first amendment rights of individuals who mobilize under these conditions?

Furthermore, I wanted to quickly comment on the practice of provoking police as a means to gain media attention, especially “viral” media coverage. A strength of nonviolent disobedience is the spectacle that it can create in the media, especially the images of peaceful protestors being violently attacked by authorities. However, many protester who are aware of this strength can threaten the integrity of movements by deliberately taunting and provoking police, attempting to incite violence to create a media spectacle. Protesters should avoid this because it can invalidate the cause of a movement, especially if formed under the premise of injustice. Provoking police to gain media attention is cheap and un-original, and it places authorities in positions where they are forced to use violence that can lead to overall animosity towards police. Protesters should not jeopardize the legitimacy of a nonviolent movement by provoking police and in an attempt to create a media spectacle through images of police brutality. From my research of the Farm Workers Movement of the 1960s, and also current Immigrant’s Rights Movements, I have seen that media coverage that is earned through creative and imaginative means is the most effective in generating public support. On the other hand, accusations of “staged violence” to gain media attention on behalf of protesters can taint social movements, which directly affects the integrity of a movement. If protesters feel the need to resort to provoking police to gain media attention, then it should send a “red flag” within the movement to return to the drawing boards and seek more creative and imaginative ways of earning media attention.