America's right to protest too-often hijacked by opportunists

by SHERIFF LEON LOTT August 24, 2017

sheriff Lott _ full by tc 600 px

America has a long history of organized protesting and public demonstrations. It is part of our national make-up. In fact, the seeds of war which spawned the very revolution which in-turn founded this great country were conceived in protest.

Perhaps best encapsulated in a recent article published by Cornell University's Roper Center: "Groups across the political spectrum have used rallies, marches, and picket lines to bring their agendas to the attention of the media, government and fellow citizens." Indeed, and they have in this country since at least the pre-Revolution Sons of Liberty, and other protest groups, and their now-famous Boston Tea Party of Dec. 16, 1773.

Protesting is a right. It is part of our culture. And we in law enforcement are wholly committed to protecting that right. But never at the expense of good order and public safety.

Protests and demonstrations have always been conducted as a means by which those with grievances - political and otherwise - have taken to the streets, to be noticed, to be heard, to have grievances aired, and to perhaps right some real or perceived wrong. And protesting has absolutely righted a number of national wrongs.

The problem in the 21st century is that far too many of the protestors demonstrating in our major cities are doing so with ill intent. Today, particularly after what we all witnessed two weeks ago in Charlottesville, Virginia (and which we've seen in other violent demonstrations over the previous two decades), it seems that it is no longer enough for those with sincere grievances to march with like-minds.

Today, semi-professional protestors are paid and bused in from other states to beef up the numbers of legitimate demonstrators, stoke the fires of whatever issue the march is protesting, instigate violence against those who are opposed to their actions, destroy property, generally create mayhem, and make a bigger media splash.

They often try to eclipse the legitimate peaceful protestors, and attempt to gain both control and ground-zero leadership of the demonstration.

Most of these semi-professional protestors are often young, gullible and ill-informed. Others - also paid, bused-in, and bent on violence - know precisely what they are doing, and why.

All are looking for a bit of adventure, a bus ticket to that adventure, a chance to appear on national TV, and, again, payment for their services. Many like to refer themselves as "anarchists." They embrace that title, largely because it sounds "hip" in a pugnacious sort of way, and they fancy themselves as anarchists with selfish disregard for other people.

Based on a few man-on-the-street interviews, most of the paid protestors have very little knowledge about what it is they are protesting. Nor do they care. The issue to be demonstrated is not their objective. They are simply opportunists and puppets often unwittingly directed by far more powerful agendas with different objectives, and they are playing a dangerously irresponsible game.

So what happened in Charlottesville and elsewhere? It was all of the above with the additional variable of the media's unwitting play to the tune of the worst offenders.

I don't blame the press for this. After all, the old media adage is "If it bleeds, it leads." And the reporters are simply doing their jobs. But it is true that if the cameras weren't there, the agitators would be far fewer. Perhaps non-existent.

Moreover, we as law enforcement leaders need to learn from our collective experiences. The Charlottesville police are not to blame for what happened two weeks ago. They were saddled with a very tough dynamic in a challenging 2017 law-enforcement environment.

So what do we all do going forward?

FIRST and fundamentally, we must always ensure that there is a robust police presence at these protest events. We cannot afford to risk miscalculating either the numbers of protestors or the nature of the protestors.

SECOND, there must always be a buffering police line in any protest.

What do I mean by a buffer? In any demonstration wherein there is even the remotest possibility that there will be protesters and counter-protesters, law enforcement must gain and maintain absolute control from well-before the beginning of the event until all groups have fully dispersed (ensuring, through adequate intelligence, that the dispersing groups are not reforming elsewhere a few blocks away). And that robust law enforcement presence must always be positioned between the two opposing groups.

If violence begins, the protest is over. Period. Protestors attempting violence or the destruction of property have given up their right to protest. But again, these are largely the outside agitators.

For those of us in law enforcement, this is not a left-right issue. This is not a Democrat or a Republican issue. This is not a black-white issue. THIS IS a public safety issue, and we are going to protect the public, and yes even the protestors who foolishly choose to fight. And in the end, we are going to win.

Leon Lott _ thumb 2016Sheriff Leon Lott leads the Richland County Sheriff's Dept., one of the largest law enforcement agencies in South Carolina, and one of six regularly featured LE agencies on A&E's hit TV series, LIVE PD. In 2010, Lott traveled to Erbil, Iraq - at the invitation of the Iraqi government - to assist in the establishment of, planning for, and training at the first-ever Iraqi female police academy.    

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