By now the comparisons of the Hell's Angels Missoula ride to the Seattle World Trade Organization protests of 1999 are coming at us faster than automatic gunfire: Protestors taking to the streets in unexpected numbers, squads of police facing off with them in riot gear, activists unable or unwilling to obey orders to disperse, peaceful citizens subjected to pepper spray and physical attack, reports of civil disobedience, arbitrary arrests, police intimidation, excessive use of force, and hard questions being posed in the aftermath.
Like any act of civil unrest, the truth remains shrouded in the haze of conflicting eyewitness accounts and perceptions clouded by anger, fear and professional agenda. What is known is that last Saturday night, following an 8 p.m. peaceful protest at City Hall by about 150 Missoula residents against what they considered to be an excessive and wasteful police presence, the marchers spilled onto North Higgins Avenue and were met with police resistance at the intersection of Higgins and Main Street. Nearly four dozen arrests ensued, involving many citizens who say they were acting peacefully and nonviolently, or were simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Later that night, following the departure of the Hell’s Angels, dozens more arrests occurred as the police conducted what Police Chief Pete Lawrenson describes as a “measured, tactical response” to dangerous and illegal activities in the Front Street area, necessary, he says, to answer a 911 call of an injured woman down.
As the smoke clears, comparisons to Seattle cannot sit well with Lawrenson who, like former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper (who resigned over his mismanagement of that ordeal), spent much of the last six months preparing for this event and trying to foresee every eventuality, only to have it blow up in his face in a way no one imagined.
The irony is that Lawrenson himself predicted an event like this eight months ago. During a meeting last November with about a dozen downtown tavern owners, Lawrenson told them, “When police are responding into the area, we’re threatened almost on a nightly basis. We’re primed to have some sort of a civil disobedience take place in the downtown area … and the potential for injury and property damage is just extreme.”
Thankfully, the injuries and property damage were not extreme, and technically speaking, Lawrenson is correct when he says, “We accomplished our mission with total and complete success. Riding in Missoula, the Hell’s Angels recognized that law enforcement had the resources, the training and the capability to appropriately manage them.” In other words, no serious injuries or arrests of Hell’s Angels occurred all week.
Then again, you can kill a mosquito on your knee with a hammer, though you have to ask yourself if the bruise you’ll get is worth the bite you save. Clearly, Incident Command never took into account the deep Libertarian streak that runs through this community. Simply put, Montanans don’t take kindly to strong-arm police tactics, even if they’re meant to protect us.
As news accounts and public discourse unfold in the coming weeks, we are likely to see the same blurring of facts as occurred in Seattle; namely, the assumption that all the police officers were out of control and all the people arrested or maced were disorderly, riotous and had it coming.
Numerous eyewitness accounts say that while some of the cops acted responsibly, others clearly did not. For example, all Missoula officers are required to wear nametags while on duty, but at least three independent eyewitnesses saw Utah officers without nametags. Citations were issued without officers giving their names or badge numbers, and some people taken into custody say they were never read their rights or told the nature of their offense.
Likewise, there were plenty of drunk and disorderly people who ignored police orders to disperse, walked around with open containers and climbed on awnings. Then again, there were also people like Briel Johnson who says, “I watched as people I knew were thrown off their bikes, put on the ground, handcuffed and arrested merely for the sole purpose of riding their bicycles on the street.”
Undoubtedly, Lawrenson is in a treacherous spot. Even the slightest intimation of police miscalculation can ensnare him in a legal and political bear trap. But when he makes statements like, “We have reason to believe in the law enforcement community that there were people who may belong to organizations that have agendas requiring civil disobedience,” he is not merely deflecting blame. He is dismissing outright the valid concerns of Missoula citizens.
As Lawrence Turk, an arrested protestor puts it, “We are not for the Hell’s Angels or against the police, who we know have a difficult job. Instead, we’re merely average citizens who love our Constitution.”
The visible scars of last weekend’s mayhem are obvious: The bruises on the wrists of Su Gregerson and Justin Lawrence caused by handcuffs locked too tight. The white rocks of the Mount Jumbo “L” rearranged into the rhetorical “Law?” The peace sign on Waterworks Hill, repainted into a swastika by someone making a bold statement about police states.
Those scars will fade. What will take longer to heal, however, are the psychological scars inflicted upon a community whose peace and quiet was disturbed less by the raspy growl of Harleys and the smell of burning rubber than by the invasion of out-of-state surveillance helicopters, the sting of pepper spray and the fear and anger induced by aggressive police tactics. Those are wounds Missoulians are not accustomed to, the wounds inflicted when people suspect that their police force is no longer their own.