In video after video and in city after city, you see the same images. Wild melees break out in the streets. Men and women kick, punch, beat, and mace one another — in broad daylight. Lawless crowds surge through towns, vandalizing property, suppressing free speech, and sometimes even attacking speakers. And, while sometimes you see a strong police presence, all too often you don’t. All too often, the police seem to be entirely absent.
At Berkeley in February, police stood by and watched Antifa protestors riot. They burned buildings, beat Trump supporters, and took control of the streets. There was only one arrest. Berkeley police were so passive that they effectively granted the mob an enduring heckler’s veto over conservative speech. At Middlebury in March, left-wing protesters sent a liberal professor to the hospital. There were no arrests. Do you detect a theme? At key moments, not only are the police failing to prevent violence, they’re failing to hold rioters accountable after the fact.
Last weekend in Charlottesville, the violence escalated. While no one can credibly claim that the police could have prevented the alt-right terrorist attack, multiple observers on both sides of the battles have reported not just that the police failed to separate the two sides, they stood and watched terrifying and vicious brawls and beatings. Some witnesses claim that they never saw the police intervene in any fight. While the police can’t be everywhere, and they’re certainly not omnipotent, this pattern of abdicating control of the streets to the violent mob is extraordinarily dangerous.
Police passivity threatens individual liberty. As my friend, and former colleague at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Robert Shibley, wrote in USA Today, “freedom of expression . . . gives us the ability to hash out societal issues through argument instead of physical conflict, but it is only meaningful when people are reasonably confident that they will be physically safe while they speak and listen.” Or, to put it more simply, when people are frightened that they’ll get hit by a bike lock if they open their mouth, they’re less likely to speak.
Sadly, an increasing number of public-university officials are sacrificing liberty for safety, declaring time and again that safety is their “highest priority.” But this is a false choice. Their priorities are misplaced. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and. In other words, if the police help keep us safe but don’t help keep us free, then they have failed.
The stakes just keep getting higher. Given the utterly abysmal response to the violence in Charlottesville — with President Trump giving the alt-right aid and comfort and an unacceptable number of liberal elites celebrating Antifa thugs — the stage is set for an escalation. Both Antifa and the alt-right have reasons to feel empowered. Antifa, for example, has attacked and threatened to attack even mainstream-conservative events. Will it restrain itself now that it’s actually been compared to the American heroes who stormed the beaches on D-Day?
America is on edge, and one way to help an anxious nation climb back from the brink of even greater violence and greater polarization is to let the Constitution work. Give people the release valve of free speech. Answer terrible speech with better speech. And do not give in to mob rule.
Yes, that’s asking that police officers endure greater risks. Controlling an angry mob is far more challenging than controlling an unruly suspect, and, truth be told, I suspect that the “stand down” orders are in part explained by concern for officer safety. Most police officers don’t have comprehensive and effective training in riot control, and when poorly trained police confront vicious rioters, the risks skyrocket. In ordinary times, we’d think twice before asking men and women in uniform to accept such heightened dangers.
These, however, are not ordinary times. Extreme polarization threatens national unity, and few things fray civil society more than blood in the streets. It’s one thing to watch angry men and women yell at each other separated by a phalanx of police. It’s another thing entirely to see brutal beatings live and in living color.
Do not give in to mob rule.
If the clashes continue, there is no way to moderate or control the effects. It’s only through sheer good fortune that this weekend’s terror attack didn’t exact a far higher toll. We’re only a few trigger pulls away from a true massacre. Americans have long extolled the “thin blue line” that’s vital to maintaining our security and our liberty. As our nation’s angriest and most violent citizens threaten both, that blue line has to step forward once again. The Constitution can’t protect itself.