Policing Protest

The Evolving Dynamics of Encounters between Collective Actors and Police in the United States
  • John D. McCarthy
  • Clark McPhail


Over the past three decades political protest has become an integral part of the political process in the United States. Accompanying the legitimation of protest has been a dramatic shift in the way police agencies approach encounters with protesters; a similar shift appears to be developing in Federal police encounters with dissident political groups. Protest policing shifted from a progressive escalated force policy in the 1960s to a negotiated management policy in the 1990s. One important consequence of these changes is that violent outcomes of such encounters have become quite rare, even when protesters are intent upon civil disobedience. There has been a parallel development in the paramilitary policing of encounters with armed dissident groups by Federal police. Paramilitary policing is carried out by special units that have undergone extensive training with lethal weapons. The policy for deploying these units by Federal police, until recently, was to display an initial show of force followed by the progressive escalation of force commensurate with resistance from members of dissident groups. The outcome of such encounters typically entailed significant injuries and deaths on both sides of the barricades. More recently, the FBI has followed a policy of more contacts, interaction and negotiation during confrontations with armed dissidents resulting in peaceful outcomes. It remains to be seen whether or not this trend will continue. Nevertheless, a review and comparison of these developments in the interaction of police with nonviolent protesters on the one hand, and armed political dissidents on the other provide an opportunity to explore how differences in policing policy and procedure can affect the outcome of encounters between agents of social control and citizens who challenge or defy the status quo.


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© Westdeutscher Verlag GmbH, Opladen/Wiesbaden 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • John D. McCarthy
  • Clark McPhail

There are no affiliations available

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