Regardless of how much patriotic propaganda surfaces about Philadelphia, the city fails to fully suppress the pervasive histories of violence against radical dissidents throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The reign of Frank Rizzo throughout the 1970s, the 1985 MOVE bombing, and the heavy-handed repression of protesters at the Republican National Convention in 2000 all serve as examples of Philadelphia’s most polarizing incidents. However, political policing practices have changed considerably over the past fifteen years. PPD leaders are increasingly aware of the damaging effects that repression against protesters has on the legitimacy attributed to the police. Although we continue to see abusive policing tactics in response to dissent throughout the country, Philadelphia’s police increasingly emphasize the softer side of political repression, posing new challenges for radical dissidents.
While engaging in political actions, protesters will most likely encounter officers from the Civil Affairs Divisions—recognizable by a red armband that has the PPD emblem on it worn over their civilian clothing. The Civil Affairs Division specializes in the surveillance of marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes, and other forms of “civil disobedience.” These officers are expected to “identify and establish lines of communication with protest leaders,” particularly the moderate, “reasonable,” “respectable” ones.[/text_output]
We had an officer with a busted lip. You can’t overreact to this stuff. There’s certain types of things you absorb as best you can.Charles RamseyCivil Affairs will also “attempt to arrange appropriate meetings with involved parties and/or representatives that may assist in resolving or abating the demonstration.”1 When Civil Affairs officers chat it up with protesters, presenting themselves as friendly and helpful, they are merely intelligence gathering—collecting information about the protesters (numbers, tactics, location, objectives, cause, etc.) which is then used to control and manage the action. Civil Affairs police monitor protesters the entire length of a protest, and coordinate with regular beat-cops to quickly respond to any disruptive protest tactics.
The police divisions coordinate their movements in unison in order to regulate the movement of the protesters. Civil Affairs officers often guide the march, while patrol cars cover the front and rear of the crowd. The cops on foot follow the protesters closely leaving bike cops to flank the sides of the crowd, often rapidly advancing ahead to prevent protesters from occupying any strategic spaces or routes. Cops mounted on horses are sometimes also mobilized, but only when the crowd is in the hundreds.
Rather than confront protesters, cops employ a strategy which has been described as “negotiated-management,” where officers try to peacefully manage protesters. “Protesters are citizens, not suspects,” said then Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan. “We engage every protest with the goal of making zero arrests and not having any confrontations.”2 As long as they aren’t blocking the flow of capital, the PPD allows a substantial degree of movement for protesters, even to the point of stopping traffic for them so that they can proceed unimpeded. Of course, this only happens as long as the protesters don’t try to block off a business, a highway, a railroad, a subway, or other points through which capital and labor circulate. Whenever protesters are headed towards any of these strategic choke-points, the police consolidate their numbers to cut off the protesters ahead of time.
The routine tends to play out as follows. The Philadelphia police (and sometimes the media) often arrive on the scene before a protest even begins. If the crowd is small (less than 40), there are sometimes more police than the protesters themselves. As early as possible, Civil Affairs attempts to establish a collaborative relationship with the “organizers,” or “leaders.” They assure protesters that they can express their messages and ideas as long as no one breaks any laws. Civil Affairs rapidly communicates any relevant information to other police units. Once the protesters begin to move, the cops try to surround the crowd as much as possible. If protesters are headed towards strategic choke-points (highways, subways, malls, ports, etc.), bike cops, cops on foot and in cars will try to block off access to these points in advance of the protesters. In this way, the PPD manages even the most radical sounding and looking protesters without resorting to blatant violence.
Police are often criticized for the “hard” side of political repression—the explicit violence: the forceful disruptions; the use of “kettling” tactics, cornering and trapping large numbers of protesters and mass arresting them, sometimes hundreds at a time, usually using tear gas, pepper spray, batons, or tazers. Although this approach to political policing still prevails throughout much of the country, it’s a less commonly implemented tactic in Philadelphia. In fact, in the current period, activists in Philadelphia tend to experience the “soft” side of state repression, or what David S. Meyer and Sidney Tarrow call the “institutionalization” of protest:
“Institutionalization…is composed of three main components: First, the routinization of collective action, such that challengers and authorities can both adhere to a common script, recognizing familiar patterns as well as potentially dangerous deviations. Second, inclusion and marginalization, whereby challengers who are willing to adhere to established routines will be granted access to political exchanges in mainstream institutions, while those who refuse to accept them can be shut out…through either repression or neglect. Third, cooptation, which means that challengers alter their claims and tactics to ones that can be pursued without disrupting the normal practice of politics.”3
Police issue protest permits for protests; they maintain lines of communication with the protesters; they facilitate the movement of the protest throughout the streets. Sometimes, police and protesters choreograph the event ahead of time, agreeing on where the protest will move, how long it will last, and who will be arrested. With the rational management of dissent, expressions of class conflict are channeled into controllable, recognizable forms, while illicit expressions—which don’t abide by the scripts of civil disobedience and civil society—are violently repressed and excluded from official political spaces. In this way, the state not only disciplines radical dissent, but reinforces its legitimacy and power through the cooperative, obedient, peaceful dissidents.
The police never stop infiltrating, monitoring, or harassing radical protest groups.Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey mandated police officers to read the First Amendment at the start of every roll call. According to the ideology, officers are supposed to “safeguard the constitutional rights of all people.” Consider the adaptations the PPD has made over time. What police strategists call “21st Century Policing” doesn’t aim to suppress protest movements with ruthless force, but rather, aims to neutralize the process of radicalization altogether.
The rise of softer forms of repression—which emphasize management, tolerance, and minimal use of force—doesn’t mean that more aggressive forms of repression disappear. The police never stop infiltrating, monitoring, and harassing radical protest groups.4 However, police are also trying to work with activists and dissidents who will cooperate with them, to guarantee their right to peaceful and legal protest, to de-escalate any possible tensions, and to win over those in the middle. The state, through its inclusive authority, imposes new means of perception in order to subsume class conflict within the logic of bourgeois democracy and hegemony, to prevent the momentum of struggle from building to the point of open rebellion, when repression becomes much more costly for the state. In return, rebels should recognize and study the institutionalization and repression of dissent, in order to develop tactics for circumventing it.
While acting as Commissioner, Charles Ramsey worked hard to clean up the PPD’s tainted reputation and simultaneously refined the repressive capacities of the police state. On the one hand, he tried to win the hearts and minds of civil society, by building relationships with community leaders, activists, and school leaders. On the other hand, Ramsey pushed for and oversaw the installment of an immense network of surveillance cameras in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the implementation of predictive policing methods, and an increase of the number of cops on the beat.
Hand-selected by President Obama to serve as Co-Chair of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Ramsey was also appointed President of both the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA). Ramsey, and a growing number of police leaders throughout the nation, argued that the police needed to find ways to gain the trust and consent of the people they policed. This is often refereed to as “community policing.” Anyone who looks through back issues of the Police Executive Research Forum’s newsletter, Subject to Debate, can see that Charles Ramsey was a major theorist of this progressive approach to policing. 5
Ramseys successor, Richard Ross Jr. is also a proponent of community policing, negotiated management, and strategic incapacitation. The repression of dissent that we see today in Philadelphia can be described as a dynamic mix of negotiated management and strategic incapacitation, two distinct yet related strategies. Negotiated management policing aims for the institutionalization of protest, prioritizing the tolerance and management of dissent over its forceful dispersal. Strategic incapacitation, on the other hand, emphasizes a minimal, selective, and strategic use of force against illicit protesters whose dissent isn’t institutionalized. An outcome of this dual model is often the alienation and separation of the uncivil, transgressive protesters, from the civil, cooperative ones.
Negotiated management and strategic incapacitation are two sides of the same overall strategy, the objective of which is to preserve the hegemony of the police and the constituted arrangement of class relations. When policing dissent, the PPD emphasizes a discourse of tolerance, builds relationships with the “civil” protesters, facilitates the right to protest according to the rules of “civil society,” and tries to limit arrests to those who are perceived as criminals and troublemakers. This combination of negotiated management and strategic incapacitation policing contrasts with a policing model known as “escalated force,” which relies on the gradual use of force and mass arrest tactics.
Escalated force characterized police responses to the waves of convergence protests that began with the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 and continued with the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000. Ramsey has a history of using escalated force policing during this period. As the former police Chief of Washington, DC, he oversaw the arrests of 400 people during the World Bank protests in 2002, including journalists, bystanders, and legal observers. These mass arrests cost the city $22 million in legal settlements and led to new crowd-control laws. When asked about this in 2015, Ramsey said, “We made mistakes in that particular situation.”6 Escalated force was also used to contain Occupy encampments in Oakland, Berkley, Los Angeles, and New York in 2011 and 2012. During these Occupy protests, hundreds of people were arrested at a time.
In contrast, the synthesis of negotiated management and strategic incapacitation prioritizes rational management of protesters and minimal, strategic arrests of “radical agitators,” if there are any arrests at all. As Traci Yoders argued in A Tale of Two (Occupied) Cities, negotiated management was the primary policing strategy used in response to the “Occupy” movement in Philadelphia. Except for the final eviction, when about 50 people were arrested, most arrests at Occupy Philly were scripted, or took place according to the strategic incapacitation model. In the hopes of minimizing the violence that characterized most Occupy evictions throughout the nation, Ramsey even banned the use of pepper spray by police when dispersing protesters in Philadelphia.7
Negotiated management and strategic incapacitation also prevailed in Philadelphia before Occupy, during protests against the police beating of Askia Sabur in 2010. This strategy continued post-Occupy, most notably during the protests that emerged in solidarity with the rebellions in Ferguson in 2014 and Baltimore in 2015. While the police around the country responded aggressively to these rebellions and solidarity protests,8 the PPD responded with negotiated management policing. There were a few incidents where dissidents engaged in militant and illegal protest tactics in Philly during this period. However, the arrests were not in mass, but instead strategic arrests of a few agitators.9 10
People tried to occupy major highways several times during this wave of protests, resulting in tense stand-offs with the cops, who blocked off various entrance and exit ramps. During an interview with Ramsey, journalist Joel Mathis praised how the PPD handled a large, antagonistic protest, which was in solidarity with the Baltimore rebellion in 2015. During this protest of about 1,000 people, some demonstrators got into a shoving match with police at the entrance to the Vine St. Expressway, which goes to highway I-676. Protesters cursed out the police, tried to take their batons, and threw plastic bottles at them.11 Contrasting the PPD’s response to other police departments around the country, Mathis argued that the PPD “kept the peace” at this protest. In this interview, Ramsey highlighted the basic tenets of negotiated management policing, stating:
Elements of the strategic incapacitation model were also evident in the way that police leaders framed these protests. “Things went well for the most part,” said Philadelphia Police Lieutenant John Stanford. “There were many decent, respectable citizens who just wanted their voices heard and wanted real change. However, whenever there is a large crowd, there will be a handful that are looking for confrontation and we had a number of these mixed in the crowd, too.”13
We should not expect the PPD to repress protesters during the upcoming DNC in late July in the same way as during the RNC in 2000. While there are aggressive aspects of political policing that continue unabated, such as infiltration, surveillance, and entrapment of protest groups, overall, the PPD is more likely to manage and institutionalize dissent rather than simply trying to stamp it out with mass arrest tactics. While the PPD absorbs most forms of dissent, it also simultaneously isolates and targets antagonistic protest elements, which unfortunately are currently in the minority. With the combination of negotiated management and strategic incapacitation policing, the PPD is able to wear out crowds of radical protesters over time, and portray them in a negative light—all without using heavy-handed policing tactics. If major highways are entered, if violence breaks out, or if police or capitalist property gets sabotaged, the police will no doubt begin to arrest “unlawful” protesters, but even then, arrests and use of force will likely be kept to a minimum.
Despite its strengths, there are many contradictions inherent to negotiated management and strategic incapacitation policing. There are always going to be officers who do not follow the strategic orientation of their bosses. While the PPD leadership relies on an ideological discourse—which emphasizes freedom of expression and tolerance for lawful assembly—this discourse doesn’t actually match up with the continuing reality: the violent policing of the urban poor, particularly of lower-class black people. Police leaders will pay lip-service to a discourse of inclusion and tolerance for some people that serve their ends, at the same time as they use heavy handed policing tactics against other people who don’t.
The advent of negotiated management and strategic incapacitation sharply limits the possibilities of radical social struggle. Ultimately, it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to allow the police to define our resistance, or whether we’re going to develop strategies of our own for out-maneuvering them. While the combination of strategic incapacitation and negotiated management represents a powerful innovation in political policing strategy, this multi-faceted model also contains weak-spots (which have not been elaborated on here) that can be potentially exploited by determined radicals who are willing to take action outside of the institutionalized forms of dissent that currently prevail in Philadelphia.
- Philadelphia Police Department, Directive 8.3, Issued Date:11-20-92, Subject: Demonstrations and Labor Disputes. httpss://www.phillypolice.com/assets/directives/D8.3-DemonstrationsAndLaborDisputes.pdf. ↩
- Dana DiFilippo, “Will Philly Police Pass the Protest Test?” News, Philly.com, April 9, 2015, https://articles.philly.com/2015-04-09/news/60947561_1_philly-police-protesters-police-brutality. ↩
- David S. Meyer and Sidney G. Tarrow, eds., “A Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century,” In The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century, 21, People, Passions, and Power, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998. ↩
- “Statement on Philadelphia Police Department Intimidation and Surveillance of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” Up Against the Law Legal Collective, December 15, 2014, https://upagainstthelaw.org/statement-on-philadelphia-police-department-intimidation-and-surveillance-of-the-blacklivesmatter-movement/. ↩
- For example. Subject to Debate, a Newsletter of the Police Executive Research Forum, Vol. 29, No. 2, March/April/ May 2015, PDF available online. ↩
- DiFilippo, “Will Philly Police Pass the Protest Test?” ↩
- Miriam Hill, “Tactics to Disperse Occupy Shaped by Police Experience, Lawsuits,” News, Philly.com, December 4, 2011, https://articles.philly.com/2011-12-04/news/30474574_1_arrests-demonstrators-protesters. ↩
- Radley Balko, “After Ferguson, How Should Police Respond to Protests?” The Washington Post, August 14, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/08/14/after-ferguson-how-should-police-respond-to-protests/. ↩
- Joshua Albert, “Protester Tazed and Arrested during March in West Philly,” The Philly Declaration, August 24, 2014, https://phillydeclaration.org/2014/08/24/two-protesters-tazed-and-arrested-during-march-in-west-philly/. ↩
- Joseph A. Slobodzian, “10 Arrested at Raucous Town Meeting Acquitted,” News, Philly.com, June 12, 2015, https://articles.philly.com/2015-06-12/news/63310514_1_protesters-two-officers-meeting. ↩
- Daniel E. Slotnik and Jon Hurdle, “Clashes in Philadelphia as Freddie Gray Protest Neared Highway,” The New York Times, April 30, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/01/us/clashes-in-philadelphia-as-freddie-gray-protest-neared-highway.html. ↩
- Joel Mathis, “How Philly Police Kept the Peace during the Philly Is Baltimore Protest,” Philadelphia Magazine, May 6, 2015, https://www.phillymag.com/news/2015/05/06/philly-police-kept-peace-philly-is-baltimore/. ↩
- John Kopp, “Hundreds in Philly Rally against Police Violence,” PhillyVoice, April 30, 2015, https://www.phillyvoice.com/hundreds-rally-against-police-violence/. ↩