block a Cleveland street to prevent a protest march from deviating from the
approved route. (Contributed photos)
both major political conventions this summer, an East Carolina University
sociology professor is shaping new research around large-scale protests and
police response tactics.
There is a
continuous adaptation and evolution between large-scale protesters and the
police dispatched to keep them under control, said Dr. Bob Edwards. “It’s sort
of a dance, where each side is aware of what the other is doing, and adjusts.”
working with a team of sociology and criminal justice faculty and students that
hails from several institutions – ECU, Western Washington University,
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Arcadia University – and has been observing
and documenting protests since 2001. They monitor the web pages and social
media of both protest groups and police in order to attend planned and
spontaneous protest events.
delicate and constantly shifting balance between security and free expression,
Edwards said. “In many ways, in many people’s minds, those are competing ideas,
which is one of the broader ideas of this research.”Below: A small group of protesters in Cleveland is ringed by police, who are surrounded by multiple rings of press.
protest events each day during the political conventions, the team met to talk
through what they’d seen and plan for the following day. Now that the
conventions are over, they have a massive amount of notes and photos to sort
through, but several observations stood out.
“In both cities
the protests and the policing of them remained overwhelmingly peaceful with
relatively few instances of conflict or overt contention between police and
protesters,” Edwards said. There was one significant episode of contention
between police and protesters in Philadelphia, but it was mild compared to past
political conventions during the Iraq War, Global Justice protests during the
2000s or the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, he added.
There was a
noticeable difference in the approaches to policing between the two
conventions, with a much larger police presence in Cleveland. Edwards said the
city of Philadelphia took measures to reduce the number of arrests after facing
lawsuits related to the arrests made during past protest events.
“A number of
actions the Philadelphia police had previously arrested protesters for were
decriminalized for the DNC, indicating a more hands-off policing strategy,” he
said. “A new citation system was also implemented allowing the police to
detain protesters, remove them from the scene, and then issue misdemeanor
citations without a formal arrest.
“By the third day of protests around the DNC, activists
prone to acts of disruptive but non-violent, non-destructive acts of civil
disobedience as a way to express the intensity of their grievances seemed to
have figured out the new policing strategy.”
During a pre-demonstration meeting of activists Edwards
observed a discussion of how few arrests were being made and what demonstrators
would have to do to be arrested, short of violence or property damage.
“Current demonstrators were adapting to a new police
strategy, which itself was an adaptation to lawsuits brought by previous
demonstrators over prior protest policing strategy,” Edwards said.
In Cleveland, approximately 300 bicycle officers were used
extensively to manage protesters and bystanders, forming mobile barricade lines
to steer marchers into pre-defined routes, forming rings around groups of
protesters to separate them from each other or from their audience, and riding
through or near small groups of protesters to make their presence known.
“By the third day of the RNC, several activists were
observed accompanying protest marches, themselves on bicycles,” Edwards said. “They
rode in ways that disrupted the bike officers' ability to ride in formation.
They seemed to be assessing, experimenting.
“As police make more use of bicycle officers, my colleagues
and I expect to see more protesters on bicycles testing the limits of this
emerging police tactic, thinking of ways to incorporate bicycles into
protests, developing new ways to impede or disrupt police efforts to control
The most surprising aspect of the two sets of protests for
Edwards and the team was the lack of protest and contention in Cleveland,
compared to expectations and to the massive police presence. Several thousand
officers were brought in from at least 20 different states to assist the city’s
“We have not yet fully compiled our data,” he said, “but I
think that police significantly outnumbered protesters at most events. The
magnitude of officers deployed to small protest events in Cleveland far
exceeded deployments in Philadelphia for comparable or even larger events.
“Similarly, the amount of press personnel on hand in
Cleveland seemed equally excessive … The press presence at times overwhelmed
protest actions and impeded police efforts to manage events.”
As the group’s notes and photographs are organized and
annotated, the members will compare the two events and look for illustrations
of changes in strategy and of how the two police agencies worked differently.
“We are already outlining research articles to write based
on the work,” Edwards said. “I will be working on developing a presentation on
the RNC-DNC project and its background, as well as ways to incorporate some of
this into the Department of Sociology website.”
block a street in Philadelphia during a protest march.