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50-Year-Old Report Warns Against Police Tactics Used Today

The Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in 1999 are seen as turning point in how police handle protests. (Steve Kaiser/Flickr)
The Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in 1999 are seen as turning point in how police handle protests. (Steve Kaiser/Flickr)
June 5, 2020

SEATTLE - In the past week of demonstrations over George Floyd's death, videos on social media have shown police across the nation using force to subdue protesters. In some cases, the extra force has been a response to property damage.

The scenes are similar to the 1960s. In response Pat Gillham, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Western Washington University, says President Lyndon Johnson commissioned the 1968 Kerner Report, offering recommendations to police for managing protests.

But seeing the response this week with military-style vehicles and tear gas, Gillham thinks the report has been ignored.

"These things don't create positive relations between the police and the community they promise to serve and protect," says Gillham. "Just exacerbates things, which is exactly what the Kerner Report found 50 years prior."

Last weekend, the Seattle Office of Police Accountability received 12,000 complaints against officers. The Kerner Report suggestions included using fewer lethal weapons and a reasonable increase in protections for police.

Gillham says the report also made an important recommendation - for police to communicate with protesters. Perhaps in a sign these tactics were working, protests were largely calm in the 1970s, '80 and '90s.

But Gillham points to the 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle as a turning point, when negotiations broke down.

"Police there had not negotiated with everyone that was going to be involved, in part because not everyone that was there for protests wanted to negotiate with police," says Gillham.

Along with a breakdown in negotiations, local law enforcement gained access to billions of dollars worth of military equipment after the September 11th attacks. Gillham says this was on full display at the 2014 Ferguson protests after Michael Brown's death.

He notes the Kerner Report specifically discourages the militarization of law enforcement.

"This was a central recommendation, not to militarize," says Gillham. "And what's different from escalated force from the '50s and '60s today is that we now have a militarized police force."

Gillham thinks the country needs to address the priorities of law enforcement and the inequities that persist for communities of color in order to deescalate the civil disorder of today.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA