By Steve Pomper
With all the rioting going on over the past year and continuing, perhaps it’s time to learn something you might not know about the issues cops deal with during while on demonstration management lines. What is it like for an average police officer? Now, there is no way that any single police officer could relate the myriad anecdotes created out of all cops’ experiences, but let’s start the conversation. If we were in a pub, the stories would last all night.
I worked for a department infamous for riots: Seattle. Like other major cities, Seattle has had occasional riots throughout its history. From labor unrest in the early to mid-20th Century, to the political Vietnam War upheaval in the 1960s, to the 1990s with far-left radicals beginning their social justice surge. But that was nothing compared with the political rioting that has rocketed to the stratosphere in the 21st Century.
Many Seattleites viewed the WTO riots of November 1999 as a turning point where Seattle went from an innocent big town to a riot-prone big city. Even though Seattle was already a big city in area and population, it seemed to have thought of itself more as a large small town, reflected in its up-to-then, more or less, prevailing live-and-let-live ambiance. This atmosphere of tolerance and inclusion attracted my wife and me to the city in 1986 and was part of why we wanted to make it our home.
WTO marked the most significant large-scale event in my law enforcement career despite routinely dealing with aggressive to riotous crowds, particularly during the last 15 years before my retirement.
The thing that strikes me first about my experiences during WTO seems so mundane. It was how uncomfortable my Kevlar helmet was. Fortunately, I am not plagued with migraines like some folks, but after wearing that helmet for so many hours so many times, I think I can sympathize.
The next thing I recall was the first time I had to don a gasmask during riot conditions. I was at about 6th Ave./Pike St. outside the Sheraton Hotel, and SWAT had just deployed chemical agents. They probably announced it, but I couldn’t hear crap with the crowd noise. My mask didn’t seal properly (see how I blame the mask), and I got a snoot full of the caustic fog. Fortunately, I cleared my mask quickly and returned to action.
The helmet and gasmask are just two personal experiences of personal, physical discomfort. Every officer who has been on a riot skirmish line will have his or her own stories. There are other stories, also mundane, some unexpected, and others not so well known to non-cops.
On another WTO day, outside the Sheraton, I was standing in a line of about 25 officers facing a crowd of about 10,000–20,000 agitated protesters, some dressed as sea turtles. A small group of protesters nearest to us were sitting at our feet.
Those still standing were hurling the usual taunts: “How can you sleep at night?” and “You know you’re just supporting a fascist regime,” and the hackneyed “no justice, no peace.” Stuff that seems so canned you just can’t believe these aren’t actors playing a part.
Then, a young woman and man began bantering with us like real people. They asked questions about our equipment, why we enjoyed being cops. One even told us a story about when a cop had helped her and admitted we weren’t all bad—just “misinformed” (the irony of which made me chuckle silently). She and her cohort even told us jokes. I don’t remember a single joke, but I remember that civil interaction amid some pretty uncivil behavior we’d been witnessing.
Then there was back in 2010, or so, some Occupy Seattle demonstrators offered us donuts—and not cynically. We had to turn them down for obvious reasons, but we appreciated the gesture, which seemed genuine. Especially since we’d been keeping an eye on them for several hours—the people, not the donuts.
I can’t imagine the jokes or donut offer happening with a BLM or Antifa crowd. Still, those incidents were anomalies, but I think it’s important to share all experiences to show people what cops face positive (not much) and negative (plenty). Sadly, some of those protesters telling jokes or offering donuts later broke out windows at Starbuck’s or Nike.
One common tactic by leftists in crowd control situations is to cull out newer officers on the line, the ones with unsullied uniforms and who look nervous. Demonstrators lock onto these officers and try to engage and distract them. This can also distract nearby veteran officers looking out for a rookie, and a distracted officer is an officer at risk. Demonstrators also look for cops who will engage with them in conversation. Again, this distracts officers.
A 2020 video showed protesters haranguing officers outside my old Seattle Police East Precinct, which the mayor ordered officers to abandon. It’s located within the borders of the infamous, now collapsed, CHOP/CHAZ “autonomous zone” or Durkanistan in honor of Seattle’s Summer-of-Love Mayor Jenny Durkan.
People were particularly nasty this day with, according to MyNorthwest.com, a charming gentleman making this request, “SPD, I need you to do me a favor. Take your guns, put them onto your chins, and pull the trigger,” the man yelled. “I need you to kill yourselves. That’s your only redemption. Go ahead, save us the trouble of tearing you apart and *****ing kill yourselves. Did I stutter? I said, ‘k-k-k-kill yourselves.” This behavior is deranged, but it wasn’t the worst part of the incident.
While this act is egregious by itself, more offensive were the five Seattle City Council members nearby who not only refused to condemn the vile verbal assault on their city’s cops but seemed to support it. To this day, I do not believe one city council member present has condemned that man’s sentiments or apologized to the cops for not defending them. Rather, some council members actually defended the lunatic as “justified.” But since they can’t be bothered to even visit officers injured during the riots who wind up in the hospital, this is not a surprise.
This was just a microscopic snippet of some things non-cops might not think about that occurred to me off the top of my head when thinking back about my experiences with riots. In fact, if I think more about my experiences, I could probably write a book. Oh, wait… I did. Two of them that deal at least partially with riots: De-Policing America (Post Hill Press, 2018) and, of course, the newly released book, which I wrote for the National Police Association, The Obama Gang (NPA, 2021). How’s that for ending on a transparently selfish promotional plug?