To Escalate or De-escalate, That is the Question

August 23, 2022

Fifty-four years ago this week, the dramatic violence outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago (August 23 to 28, 1968) defined an era of protest. It is now generally viewed as a “police riot.” The Chicago Police violently assaulted peaceful demonstrators, leading to numerous arrests and injuries, escalating the bloody street clashes. The mayhem was mostly broadcast on live TV, with the young protestors chanting, “The whole world is watching!”

In 2011, 43 years later those who studied the carnage from Chicago ’68 put those lessons to work. As the Occupy Wallstreet protests spread across the country, especially here in Portland, police utilized a new tactic – de-escalation. The old method of police knocking hippie heads tended to backfire and bring more civilians into the battle (and spurred increasingly costly lawsuits against police departments). In 2011, I spent many long nights in the three downtown squares claimed by Occupy protestors. The police kept their distance and let the people air their grievances. Eventually the protest ran its course and everyone went home. No teargas. No violence. The opposite was the case in 2020 when federal law enforcement arrived to quash the Black Lives Matter protests and turned downtown Portland into a war zone. I will never forget hiding behind concrete columns as feds, in heavily militarized gear, shot their weapons randomly down 5th Avenue.

Following the January 6th riot, we’ve re-entered the debate about de-escalating the violence. A 2022 University of California, Davis survey found that 1 in 4 Americans think violence against the government is sometimes OK and 1 in 10 feel political violence is justified right now. (Not surprisingly, these numbers are much higher among Republicans.) This call to violence has only escalated in the wake of the FBI’s warranted search (it wasn’t a “raid”) of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound to retrieve stolen classified documents. America suddenly seems close to falling into the tarpit of another civil war. Maybe the country needs to take a massive chill pill.

I’m privileged to be a part of a federally funded project to look at ways to interrupt extremist violence in America called Cure-PDX. The basic idea is that if there are individuals at risk of committing acts of political violence, whether they’re coming from the right or left or somewhere off the charts, there should be a way to get them to “de-escalate” and find a non-violent way to express their, perhaps legitimate, grievances. It’s not about de-radicalization. (As a sociology professor, I like to joke that I’m the radicalization field.) It’s about moving individuals back from the ledge of violence, before they go on a shooting spree, blow something up, or commit a hate crime.

The logic of de-escalation makes sense. Fewer victims of extremist violence seems like an easy sell. But our team ran to some push-back from some activists on both the right and left who argued, given the current state of affairs, this is the exact time TO escalate violence, before things tip over. Political scientists will tell you that extremists movements tend to have an apocalyptic element. The sky is always falling. But these days it’s hard not to share that sentiment. The left thinks democracy is one election away from disappearing and the right thinks the “Biden FBI” is coming to throw patriots into concentration camps. I will admit one thing, a part of me has considered arming up to protect my family from Proud Boys and the unorganized militias of the right.

I reflected on my time this spring in Ukraine. I was not involved in de-escalation. I was helping the Ukrainian army escalate the you-know-what out of things. The stuff I brought in from Poland in the back of a van ended up in the hands of soldiers in Irpin and very likely helped them kill many Russian conscripts as they valiantly reclaimed the city. I may have Russian blood on my hands. How do I sleep at night? Like a baby. I wish there was a non-violent solution but if you had seen what I had, you wouldn’t want de-escalation in that moment either. While there, I kept remembering a Bruce Cockburn song that went, “If I had a rocket launcher…Some son of a bitch would die.”

So who am I to tell other people to de-escalate?

Well, we’re not Ukraine, occupied by a civilian-slaughtering invader. We still have a Constitution and free elections. Despite Trump’s attempt to dismantle our democracy, the house still stands. Everything the left and right want can be addressed without violence. There are political strategies that can build the middle while giving voice to those who feel marginalized, including 70-something straight white cis men who are scared shitless by “woke politics” (whatever that is).

I just watched Netflix’s three-part documentary on Woodstock ’99. (I was briefly a Limp Bizkit fan, shhh.) The violent destruction at the 3-day festival, including the numerous sexual assaults, is a perfect example of the contagious nature of violence. Kids were suddenly burning down buildings. The madness of the moment consumed them. If I had been there (as I had planned to), I could have been one of them. America is at risk of “Woodstock ’22” becoming our descent into political violence as the mob mentality of us versus them sweeps the nation. Libtards versus Nazis. But, there is no us versus them, just us. And we have a brief window in history to de-escalate. If we miss it, it’s gonna make Woodstock ’99 look like Woodstock ’69. 

Recent data shows that 80 percent of domestic terrorist plots that have been prevented were stopped because someone known to the potential offender came forward. We all can play the role of “credible messenger” to those at risk of escalating to violence. “Hey Frank, I now you want to storm the capitol, but can we just hang out and watch some cat videos?” Frank just got saved from a world of regret. It is worth pursuing this approach first and save the insanity (and body count) of escalation for another day. Non-violence is still the preferred path.

One thought on “To Escalate or De-escalate, That is the Question

  1. I believe moderates are the key to deescalation, but most moderates see the radicals on either side as fanatic. And that perspective makes most in the center unwilling to risk themselves for the sake of arbitration.

    Like

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