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The Fog of Protest

“We could wrap this up right now,” a police officer said over the scanner traffic that I was listening to as I walked along Mission Street in San Francisco. It was late on the night of June 3rd, and I had joined a protest group walking south on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. The group was loud and a little rowdy, but not destructive. 30-something people trailed down to 20-something people — counts are always a little abstract in a group like this. We made a couple turns and walked back north, along Mission. “We could wrap this up…” the officer had said, and then the radio chatter moved smoothly onto the tactical part.

Motorcycle police trailing the protest through the Mission.

I was listening to the police scanner while walking with the group. When I do this, I often notice a disconnect between the police and the people on the ground, and sometimes between the police and the police on the ground. In this case, there was some panicky talk of the protestors building a barricade and setting it on fire after we turned onto Mission Street. I spun around to figure out what I’d missed. This didn’t seem like that kind of protest. Loud and rude for sure, we were hours after curfew and this was the proud hood crowd more than the carefully-stenciled-signs-of-unity crowd. But, not violent, and not even vandalous. From looking over the street behind me, I couldn’t see what the police were talking about. I did spot a newly-emptied trashcan on the sidewalk, but not in the street. No one was near it, much less ready to set fire to the mess. I’m not a fan of littering, but I’ve watched people build burning barricades across streets, mostly in France, and this wasn’t that. This was someone kicking the trash over.

The reason for kettling and arresting this group given by an officer on the scanner was the curfew violation. It was late, and there were “about 25” of us, an officer said over the radio. It gave me a sense that the police were done and wanted to leave. “We could wrap this up right now…” and they laid out a plan to bring in officers on both sides, close in, and arrest everyone. I ducked onto a side street and circled around to different sides of the area now blocked off by police, and tried to take pictures of the arrests. (I did not get many, Julian Mark of Mission Local got the best images while being detained.)

Some of the police and one arrestee.

These three things, curfew, the hour, and something about fire, became conflated later into a nebulous story about lighter fluid, when the cops were tired of following 25ish shouty people cussing at them, but not doing much else.

Police and arrestees line up for a police wagon.

None of this was extraordinary. Whatever problems are inherent to a protest situation, they are deeply compounded by police forces, and, to a lesser degree, protestors, all being very sure about what the other side is doing and thinking without having much real knowledge or insight.

I’m willing to say after more than a decade of doing this work that those arrests took place because the police were tired and wanted to go back to the station or home. But to get there, they really had to work up some other reason, whether they were aware of it or not. Police are mere humans, and subject to mere human follies. Protestors are too, but everyone knows that. Protestors look like a mess, even when they’re not. The police are the ones who dress alike and larp¹ being Perfectly Coordinated Machines of Order, instead of tired humans who just need to pee, damnit. This underlying humanity is scant comfort for those being arrested, maybe even less so for the one protestor that night who was taken away in an ambulance. When you’re supposed to be the perfect passionless embodiment of state violence, but you’re just a petty and tired as anyone, you can end up being a right bastard without knowing how, or that, you got there. This is what lies behind the sentiment ACAB: All Cops Are Bastards. It’s not a personal statement; it’s just what happens when role play gets out of hand, and in our society, the role play is always out of hand.

The other human bias police often suffer from in these chaotic scenes is that vigilance for the extraordinary generally leads humans to perceiving extraordinary things, whether they are there or not. Back on June 1st, when San Francisco was just getting started on its larger and more raucous protests, I was tracking people around the SOMA District (South of Market, a major dividing street in the city) protesting police violence. Scanner chatter was high, and the largest group was at the base of the Salesforce Tower, the tallest (and newest) building on the San Francisco skyline. There was talk of crowbars and vandalism, and the back-and-forth was working itself up into urgency. I started to run towards the tower, a few blocks away, because I know where this kind of talk usually leads. But another officer got on the radio. He was on the scene, and things were fine. “This is a peaceful protest,” he said repeatedly. “Don’t antagonize them.” He talked the chatter down.

The Salesforce building with minimal grafitti and no damage.

“Fuck 12” (12 means police) in spray paint was the only evidence of the protests. I’m sure it’s been cleaned up by now.

I stopped running, which I appreciated, and made my way over towards the building more slowly, taking some pictures along the way. The chatter became tense a few more times, but the original officer kept talking them down. “They’re peaceful,” he said repeatedly, and something like, “We have them,” as in he and the other officers on the scene were able to handle it. Another officer said there was vandalism, and the original officer said “Very minor” and again, “Don’t antagonize them!” He expressed the tension of someone who was talking his friends out of doing something stupid, which as it turns out, he was. In the end the Salesforce Tower was fine, and undoubtedly better than it would have been if the police had clashed with thousands of protestors at its front door. Cooler heads prevailed.

We who attend or cover protests have a saying which we often don’t say aloud because of the accusation of bias: “It ain’t a riot ’til the riot cops get there.” This isn’t universal, but it’s more common than most people think, including the police. Even well-meaning cops are in a system where they’re looking for something to do violence on, and looking for things hard enough makes humans tend to see what they’re looking for. It’s hard to understand what’s happening in a mass of angry people, but it’s violence much less often than you’d think.

I have seen actual riots that are riots from their very first moments, torrents of anger and grief that become a violent backlash on the physicality of society itself. But I’ve never seen a protest get much beyond turning over trashcans and spray painting things without police provocation. But that form of escalation is so baked-in to the dance of police and protestors now, I can’t imagine police can see it the way I do. The police look for trouble, they invariably find (and create) it, therefore they know there’s always trouble to look for.

Sometimes cooler heads prevail, sometimes there’s proportional responses, or no responses, and the crowd moves on without much damage, or the people drift off and go home tired at the end of a long day of exercising their First Amendment. On those occasions, protestors are often praised as peaceful, but not by me. I expect most protestors (except maybe the French) to be largely peaceful by default.

Instead, I’ve come to praise the cops more over the years, though it’s damning with faint praise. I praise them for not crashing hard into a crowd because a kid got out a can of spray paint. I praise them for just letting people walk it out late into the night, until everyone gets to go home and sleep. I praise them for not jumping at shadows and petty slights, for not getting frightened in the fog of protest and turning violent. Good cop, don’t hit anyone.

Honestly, the fog of war effect and confirmation bias are not just police problems, they’re human problems. They are the mistakes Homo Sapiens always make, and everyone including me, and you, would likely have the same errors of perception if we were suddenly part of a police force. As long as the police and people are other from each other, human biases towards the other will defeat our unity and progress.

The most heartening thing I’ve seen is police who took a knee, Kaepernick-style, against police violence. But I don’t believe police violence can be meaningfully curbed until the police are no longer a separate force from their communities, both sides lost in fogs of human bias.

  1. Larp stands for live action role play, a style of gaming involving dressing up and playing roles in a group.

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The Father of the DEA Dragnet Sics It on Free Speech

BuzzFeed had an important scoop yesterday, revealing that Timothy Shea — the Billy Barr flunky who presided over the US Attorney’s Office in DC long enough to interfere in the Mike Flynn and Roger Stone prosecutions who has since been put in charge of the DEA — requested authority to engage in domestic surveillance targeting George Floyd protestors.

On top of the problematic implications of the move, in the abstract, it’s worth considering what it might mean more specifically. It might be best understood as Barr deploying all the investigative tools he finds so inexcusable when used against Trump associates being cultivated by a hostile foreign government, using them against Americans exercising their Freedom of Speech and Assembly.

Using the DEA to surveil protestors gives Barr a number of things (in addition to more bodies to throw at the problem). While the DOJ IG Report on Carter Page revealed the FBI has a source with tentacles into all branches of society, the DEA’s informant network is understood to be even more extensive, and often more easily leveraged because of steep war on drug sentences.

There’s good reason to believe the DEA’s access to Stingrays used to track cell phone location escapes the close scrutiny of other agencies. As Kim Zetter noted on Twitter, that may include Dirtboxes, plane-based Stingray technology.

But the FBI and, especially, the US Marshals also have that technology.

What they don’t necessarily have, however, is access to a surveillance program the precursor to which Barr approved, with no legal review, the last time he was Attorney General.

In 1992, Barr authorized the DEA to use a drug related subpoena authority, 876(a), to start collecting the call records between certain foreign countries and the United States. Over time, the dragnet came to include every country the government could claim had any involvement in narcotics trafficking. That dragnet was the model for the phone dragnet that Edward Snowden revealed in 2013. While it was shut down in the wake of the Snowden revelations (and after it became clear DOJ was using it for entirely unrelated investigations), OLC had initiated the process of reauthorizing it in 2014. Given Barr’s fondness for surveillance, it would be unsurprising if he had gotten Trump’s supine OLC to reauthorize and possibly expand its use.

So one thing Barr may be using is the kind of dragnet civil libertarians are celebrating the cessation of in Section 215.

But there’s another DEA dragnet that would be more powerful in this circumstance, and would not need reauthorization: Hemisphere, which was first disclosed in 2013. That’s a program operated under the Drug Czar’s authorities (and therefore substantially hidden under White House authorities). Rather than collect a dragnet itself, the government instead relies on the dragnet AT&T has collected over decades. It asks AT&T to do analysis, not just of call or text records, but also co-location.

A DOJ IG Report on the DEA’s various dragnets released in March 2019 makes it clear (based on redactions) that Hemisphere is still active.

There are many reasons why Barr might want his flunky at DEA to get involved in surveilling Americans exercising their First Amendment rights. Chief among them probably include DEA’s extensive informant network and DEA’s practice of mapping out entire networks based solely on subpoenas served on AT&T.

Both of those are things that Barr has said were totally inappropriate surveillance techniques deployed against political activity.

Curiously, he no longer has any apparent concern about deploying invasive surveillance against sensitive political issues.

Assaults on Free Speech and the Cities We Didn’t See

Last night I thread a series of tweets documenting law enforcement abuses including attacks on journalists in different cities across the country during protests against police brutality.

I collected more than a half dozen reports from Minneapolis alone of attacks on journalists from different news organizations. This number doesn’t represent the entire number of journalists attacked in that one city.

Those attacked included:

Michael Anthony Adams, journalist, VICE
Tom Aviles, photojournalist, CBS affiliate WCCO
Jennifer Brooks, columnist, Star Tribune
Julio-Cesar Chavez, cameraman, Reuters and
Rodney Seward, security advisor, Reuters
Carolyn Cole, photographer, Los Angeles Times
Molly Hennessy-Fiske, journalist Los Angeles Times
John Marschitz, sound engineer, CBS (national)
Unidentified team member with Omar Jimenez, CNN
Unidentified camera person (reported by CNN but doesn’t appear to be on their team)
Nina Svanberg, journalist, Express-Sweden
Linda Tirado, freelance photographer
Ali Velshi, correspondent, MSNBC (and his team including Morgan Chesky and Richard Lui)

It’s not clear from Jennifer Brooks’ tweets from May 28 that her identity was clear to the police vehicle indiscriminately spraying tear gas out of a window toward the crowd.

Linda Tirado lost the sight in her left eye after being hit with a rubber bullet in the face.

I don’t have any tweets from Louisville KY but I’ve read that there was at least one more incident yesterday involving a member of the press. If you have anything about this and other police attacks on media not listed here, please share in comments.

Los Angeles was at least as bad as Minneapolis in terms of attacks on journalists.

These aren’t random accidents. This is a clear pattern of behavior.

Law enforcement across the country is attacking the exercise of the First Amendment.

They aren’t doing this relying on qualified immunity; their attacks on members of the press are violations of the Constitution where the identity of the media is clear, where law enforcement has made zero effort to validate the identity of the media persons they attacked.

Law enforcement are doing this with qualified impunity — assumed but not granted by voters.

Ignoring the rule of law which is the foundation of law enforcement’s existence means law enforcement has de-legitimized itself.

They are criminal gangs when they break the law and fail to protect and serve the public’s interest by attacking media which informs the public.

It’s absolutely essential that elected officials and the public demand accountability from law enforcement for their attacks on media during protests this week, before law enforcement becomes even more unaccountable for a broader range of failures to protect and serve the public

~ ~ ~

While Twitter has been awash with reports of police abusing protesters and the press — which interestingly failed to stop many white instigators engaging in property damage across the country — there were three cities I noted which did not devolve into riots while observing protests of police brutality.

They were Santa Cruz, California and Flint, Michigan.

I’ll let these tweets speak for themselves.

There weren’t reports in my timeline of property damage and rioting in either of these cities last night.

There also weren’t reports in these two cities of white agents provocateur escalating tensions by damaging property as there were in every city where police abused protesters.

It’d be nice to know if there is a more direct link between police brutality during protests and the appearance of white agitators.

This is an open thread.