By Tommy Weigle
The memo written by Police Chief Spruill about the police reaction to the protest in Athens on Sunday contains many false statements. The most generous possible reading is that Spruill had no clue what he was doing, and made the decision to use tear gas based solely on incorrect information and wild speculation. It’s also possible that Spruill is flat-out lying. The specific claims made in the memo have been addressed elsewhere. I want to focus on some passages that are (unintentionally) revealing with regard to the role of police and why it is that they just can’t seem to stop hurting people.
“At various points during the event, streets were blocked off and traffic was redirected to allow for the protestors to safely assemble and march.”
This was in the daytime, and there is an important detail omitted. The protest was not coordinated with the police, and no police presence was really necessary to make sure protesters weren’t run over. A march of 2,000 people through the street is going to stop traffic on its own. The police invited themselves.
In the evening: “At one point the group, which was assembled at the UGA Arch on Broad Street, moved into the street, sat down and blocked Broad Street traffic in both directions. ACCPD chose to overlook this unlawful behavior at this time to avoid instigating conflict. Instead, traffic was rerouted to streets around them.”
The action of rerouting traffic during the day was claimed to have been taken out of concern for the protesters' safety. The same action, taken at night, is framed here as a gesture of mercy. In other words, the Chief of Police is saying that the protest only happened thanks to the benevolence of police protecting people from danger; later, it was due to the restraint shown by police when they could have chosen to use force on people. By blocking streets ahead of the marchers in the daytime, what the police truly did was deprive the protest of its own agency, making it appear to be something which was allowed to take place - and therefore something which could be disallowed.
If a protest must be allowed to exist, what can then be protested? Who makes those decisions? These should be troubling questions for anyone, and especially so if those decisions are made by a Police Chief who reacted as follows:
“I made the decision to utilize gas as a final attempt to get the crowd to disburse without having to use higher levels of force. It should be noted that gas is the industry standard and preferred method of disbursing crowds because its effect is temporary and goes away within a short period of time with no lasting injury. This is as opposed to the use of rubber bullets, batons, bean bag rounds or conducted energy devices (Tasers), which are much more likely to cause lasting injury.”
Here is the same condescending attitude of graciousness, of allowing protesters to sustain less physical harm than could have been inflicted, and the threat implied earlier is now stated clearly: “We could brutalize you in any number of ways, at any moment, for any reason. Be glad we didn’t break your bones this time.”
The uniform of a police officer is a constant threat of violence and a shield of legal justification. This threat was present throughout the entire day, even when the police were apparently only blocking traffic, because the purpose of a police officer is to bring the threat of state-endorsed violence into a situation. Police enforce laws by threatening both physical violence and the psychological violence of incarceration, and Police Chief Spruill essentially admits as much here. His explanation for using tear gas acknowledges that he could have used any of the other methods listed above, and no matter how much harm it caused, he would have been legally justified in doing so.
The police say they came prepared with riot gear from fear of the protesters turning violent. This is laughable and easily disproved by all of the available photo and video evidence. There were no piles of bricks inside the tents, the minuscule group of people carrying firearms had left hours earlier without incident, and the police’s statement that “six of the arrested individuals had addresses outside the ACC area” is so loosely defined as to be effectively meaningless. The clearest proof that no “outside agitators” were present, however, is that there was no agitation. Nevertheless, the police issued an order to disperse via a drone hovering high enough overhead that many protesters only heard it faintly, if at all.
In truth, only the flimsiest of justifications was needed, and the reasons given are only for show. If a 9:00pm curfew can be announced at 9:47pm, then the police and government can essentially fabricate any reason they want for their actions. Let’s take one more look at the memo to see if we can find the real explanation behind the use of tear gas.
“I made the decision to utilize gas as a final attempt to get the crowd to disburse without having to use higher levels of force.”
The protesters needed to be dispersed before they did anything that would make the police become more violent. Victims of domestic abuse might recognize the twisted logical strategy used here. Police can only control people by using violence, and they lash out when they feel they don’t have complete control. It should now be clear to anyone that the police are the aggressors. Their reaction was always going to be somewhere on a scale of “less violent force” to “lethal force.”
Police Chief Spruill claimed the march and protest on Sunday were “in remembrance of the Mr. George Floyd.” Either he missed the point, or he deliberately obfuscated it. The protest on Sunday was against the killings of black people across the United States by police and vigilantes protected by police, an institutional massacre which has gone on uninterrupted for centuries, the state always forcibly suppressing dissent and claiming “law and order.” Perhaps the Athens police and government were taking it personally. If so, good. They should have been.
I know the local news cycle has probably moved past the memo by now, but we need to make it clear that the police misinformed the public and harmed civilians. We can't let this go back to "normal."
Tommy Weigle is a 25-year-old Athens resident and a 2017 University of Georgia graduate