Policing Protests in Philly

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Protestors confront bike cops blocks from City Hall.

This writing will analyze the techniques by which the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) neutralizes and contains large protests, specifically public rallies and marches against police violence. Up until rather recently, the PPD has not been the most effective in managing resistance movements. During the North Philly rebellion of 1964, for example, every last officer in the city’s police force was needed to suppress the riots, which lasted several days.1


A rebellion first began in early August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police murder of black teenager Mike Brown. Militant solidarity protests spread across the country, and have since intensified following the non-indictment of the cops who killed Brown (also, Eric Garner in NYC). This wave of protests against the police represents the largest, most radical movement in this country since the 1960’s.

The crowd-control and counter-insurgency strategies of the PPD are much different today even from just 15 years ago. During the protests against the Republican National Convention in 2000, the police attacked and arrested hundreds of protesters for simply taking the streets, which led to a media backlash that framed the police as violent and unrestrained. This was under the leadership of then Police Commissioner John Timoney. However, a major strategic shift has taken place under the leadership of current Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who now leads President Obama’s Task Force on 21st century Policing.

Although the police still rely on outright violence and repression to counteract protest movements, Ramsey and others nonetheless place a much greater emphasis on passive containment over direct confrontation. Rather than simply opposing the protests and trying to disrupt them, the strategy of passive containment aims to work with them, in order to better control them, redirect them, and prevent their radicalization. This was the policing strategy during most of the Occupy Philly protests in 2011. The police provided a permit to the encampment outside of City Hall, allowed daily protests to take place in center city, usually without permits, formed alliances with moderate protesters, and avoided major arrests up until the very end. Unrestrained police violence can radicalize people and make them more defiant of authority. That‘s why Ramsey and other police leaders prefer to avoid open conflict. This strategic approach to policing protests is very effective in neutralizing and managing potential threats. It is an approach which has been gaining ground in police departments across the country.

A number of urban spaces throughout the U.S. followed the lead of Ferguson, with street fights against the police, property destruction, looting, de-arresting protesters, occupying police stations, and disrupting major highways. However, in Philadelphia, for the most part, disruptive protest tactics have not been very popular, even as the police continue to brutalize black people with impunity (most recently, Brandon Tate-Brown). This is not to say that there hasn’t been any direct action tactics here. There has been some. Early on, when the protests first began in Philly in late August in response to the murder of Mike Brown, there was a “Fuck the Police” march in West Philly. During the march, protesters threw trash cans into the street, balloons filled with paint were thrown at a cop car, and two protesters were quickly arrested.2 In another example in late November, following the non-indictment of the cop who murdered Mike Brown, protesters in center city attempted to take the major highway I-95, but were prevented from doing so by the police, and two were arrested. In the past few weeks, there was an unsuccessful attempt to take the highway in center city, and some anti-police graffiti was put up in West Philly.3

Compared to other urban areas, this is a lot of police, even for a major city.

Why are militant protests in Philly not more widespread? For one, like other police departments in the North East, the PPD is a very large, well funded, and very effective organization. The PPD has nearly 7,000 officers for a population of almost 1.5 million.4 Compared to other urban areas, this is a lot of police, even for a major city. Phoenix has a higher population than Philly, 1.6 million, yet the Phoenix Police Department comprises only 3,000 officers, that is, less than half the amount of the PPD.5 The size of the PPD is closer in proportion to that of the New York Police Department, which has about 35,000 officers for a population of 8.4 million.6

Another very important factor is the PPD’s strategy of passive containment. Again, it goes without saying that the police still actively intimidate and arrest protesters. This is easy enough to recognize. What is not as easy to recognize is how the police counter the protests without having to attack protesters. This is an innovation of modern policing strategy which needs to be reckoned with: the ability of the police to contain struggles without having to engage in overt violence.

During this recent round of protests, there was minimal arrests and minimal use of force on the part of the police. When protests took place, the PPD arrived beforehand in large numbers which sometimes matched those of the protesters, occupied strategic points in the streets, and closely followed the crowd with a loose police net (not a literal net, but a net of police bodies, ready to make arrests). Rather than antagonizing the protesters, as happened during the RNC in 2000, the protests were allowed to take place within reach of the police net (as occurred during Occupy). Meanwhile the police guided the crowd, blocked off the entrances to any major highways or important buildings, and closely monitored the protesters. Regardless of how radical and inflammatory the rhetoric was, no matter how much militant posturing took place, as long as protesters didn’t block major highways, occupy buildings, or destroy capitalist property, then the police avoided direct confrontation and allowed the protesters to march through center city as much as they wanted. Of course, the few times that protesters did engage in disruptive tactics, the police net tightened, and a snatch squad closed in to makes arrests, if not right away, then later on. It is very difficult, and takes considerable organization, to escape from within a police net after employing radical protest tactics.

With the police containment strategy, the capitalist state not only neutralizes political challenges to its power, but also directly prevents such challenges from even taking place. The very threat of immediate arrest is often enough to prevent direct action tactics from happening. The Philadelphia police also attempt to win the hearts and minds of the protesters, which is often a much more effective method of policing. Politicians and specialized political police, the Civil Affairs Unit, attempt to form bonds with the more moderate protesters, especially those which are quick to throw the more radical ones under the bus. Using their relationship with moderate protest leaders, Civil Affairs officers physically guide the direction of protests as they take the streets, and make sure that they stay within the purview of the police net. Of course, if protesters get out of hand, Civil Affairs works with the regular cops to make arrests.

More important than the power of the PPD and the effectiveness of their containment strategy, the main factor behind the lack of confrontational tactics in the Philly protests is the lack of a revolutionary political culture. Although the city was home to very radical movements and struggles in the past (Abolitionists, Industrial Workers of the World, Revolutionary Action Movement, Black Liberation Army, etc), today there is no revolutionary tendency willing to directly attack state power. There are elements in Philly which could form the embryo of future insurgent struggles, but they have yet to make their appearance outside of the small examples described above.

About the Author
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Arturo Castillon

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Arturo Castillon is an artist, writer, fast food worker, and educator, who loves mangoes, hates social divisions, and lives in Philadelphia.

  1. Maurantonio, Nicole. “Standing by: Police Paralysis, Race, and the 1964 Philadelphia Riot.” Journalism History 38, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 110–21.
  2. Albert, Joshua. “Protester Tazed and Arrested during March in West Philly.” News. The Philly Declaration, August 24, 2014. https://phillydeclaration.org/2014/08/24/two-protesters-tazed-and-arrested-during-march-in-west-philly/.
  3. “‘Cop Lives Don’t Matter’ Spray-Painted on Fence in West Philly.” CBS Philly, December 19, 2014. https://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2014/12/19/cop-lives-dont-matter-spray-painted-on-fence-in-west-philly/.
  4. “Philadelphia Police Department.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, April 18, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Philadelphia_Police_Department&oldid=657062012.
  5. McGlade, Caitlin. “Phoenix to Hire 300 Police Officers over next 3 Years.” News. AZ Central, August 17, 2014. https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/phoenix/2014/08/11/phoenix-hire-police-officers-next-years/13924721/.
  6. “New York City Police Department.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, May 12, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=New_York_City_Police_Department&oldid=662052670.

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Cite this article as: Arturo Castillon, "Policing Protests in Philly," Praxis, January 4, 2015, https://praxis-research.info/2015/01/policing-protests-in-philly/.

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