As both a military policeman during the Vietnam War and as a civilian police officer for 25 years, I was involved in dozens of demonstrations and all-out riots. I learned early on that no matter what the cause—the get-out-of-Vietnam-now protests and the anti-American riots in Saigon during the ‘60s, the anti- and pro-abortion protests that have caused death and violence over the last several decades, the anti George Bush riots that tore up cities in the ‘90s, and today’s occupational movement—such events always evolve into protesters versus the police, as the initial objectives of the protest are lost in the fray.

While protests begin with a primary cause, people with other concerns take advantage and join the crowd to wave cardboard signs and chant slogans about their interests. Anarchists, dressed in black and covering their faces with scarves, merge into the protest crowd with the sole purpose of causing mayhem.

It doesn’t take long until the assorted causes become secondary to one of outsmarting the cops and setting them up to look like jackbooted SS troops.

Since I am retired from police work, I have not been directly involved in the occupational movement protests that have rocked my city of Portland, Ore. Two of my fellow officers have been hurt in clashes, to include one who was thrown under a bus. One of my martial arts students, who is a police detective, has been involved and has used some of his well-practiced grappling techniques to control resisters.

There are many psychological elements involved in protests and riots. Let me briefly discuss three: the concept of dehumanizing and the concept of in-group/out-group.

Concept of Dehumanizing

To be able to kill in war, many combat troops find it helpful to dehumanize the enemy. It’s easier to pull the trigger when the opposing army is viewed as blue-eyed devils, gooks, rag-heads, imperialists, barbarians, krauts, nips, and so on.

Hearing these things and saying them repeatedly underscores the enemy’s differences, their less than human qualities, their evilness, and their opposition to what is good and what is right. It reinforces the belief that such people exist outside one’s own group, one that does have human qualities, is good, and is right. Dehumanization is a device that has been used by fighting men and women since the dawn of history for one basic reason: It works. Does every combat troop in the military apply it? No. But many, many do.

Now, I cannot speak for all protestors and all police officers, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that while dehumanization is done in the civilian world, it occurs on a much smaller scale than it does among combat troops. I’ve talked with and interviewed many police officers that have been forced to kill in self-defense of themselves and others, and never have any of them said they dehumanized their assailant before shooting him, or even spoke in such terms after the incident. Likewise, at protests and riots, I’ve never heard officers refer to the participants in dehumanizing terms.

Now, I have never heard a rioter who fired on civilians, police, and firefighters during riots, or thrown flaming Molotov cocktails at police officers, admit to dehumanizing their targets. However, if I had to make an educated guess, I would argue that most of these felons, in their rage, hate, and premeditation, would have had to.

In-Group, Out-Group—Two Sides of an Issue

“In-groups” and “out-groups” are two terms used most often in academia to describe two sides of a hot issue. When it comes to police vs. protestors, I would argue that these terms are more apropos than is the concept of dehumanizing.

The in-group is your group, a number of people with similar characteristics: the same nationality, religion, politics, sex, and/or the same righteous cause.

The out-group consists of those people who don’t share these characteristics and, therefore, are given labels: stupid, lazy, inferior, aggressive, violent, and so on.

The in-group will often label the out-group negatively even when the out-group isn’t doing anything that a neutral party would consider bad.

For example, there were times when I was standing with several officers watching people exercise their constitutional right to protest. Suddenly, they would turn on us with taunts, insults, and name calling in an attempt to bait us into reacting. When that didn’t work, they threw things. The irony was that as they hurled fruit, bottles, firecrackers, hype needles, urine, feces, and street barricades our way, they screamed that we were brutal fascists, that we abused the law, and that we enjoyed hurting people.

From the perspective of some police officers and their in-group, all protestors (the out-group from their vantage point) are anarchists out to disrupt peace and tranquility. They are seen as counter-culture types who need a cause to define them, to feel important, and to be heard. As such, these officers see them as naive, aggressive, hostile, and willing to disrupt law and order.

Members in both groups view the out-group as the cause of their problems. Many in the police in-group view protestors as disrupting peace, damaging city and private property, and draining tax money. They see the protestors as causing them to lose their days off and forcing them to work long overtime hours.

Many protestors view the police as guardians of whatever it is that they are protesting. For example, many pro-life people see the police as taking sides with the pro-choice group, while many pro-choice people see the police as siding with the pro-life group. Protestors arrested by deputies for blocking loggers from cutting trees, see law enforcement as being in partnership with those big corporations that want to destroy forests.

The so-called occupy protestors see the police as violent thugs supporting the very institutions that they are against. (Interestingly, the anti-corporation protestors communicate via Apple iPhones and iPads, and document their activities using Sony and Cannon cameras).

A Word on Scapegoating

A scapegoat is someone selected to bear the blame for something bad. It occurs when a person, a group, or a thing is seen as responsible for one or more problems.

  • In the middle of the last century, Nazis blamed Jews for Germany’s economic and political problems.
  • White supremacists today believe that minorities are the cause of rampant crime in America and a financial drain on our economy.
  • Some blacks blame the government for infusing drugs into their community.
  • Some non-blacks blame blacks for holding crime statistics at a high level.
  • Some whites blame Hispanics for draining the welfare system.

Maintaining Group Integrity

Just about the time that an in-group loses interest in the out-group or, perhaps, thinks of the out-groups’ members as “not so bad,” renewed conflict fans the embers of the differences, and once again everyone remembers why they didn’t like the out-group.

For example, there have been periods when the occupy movement has been quiet for a couple of weeks, other than to camp illegally in city parks. The police have been quiet, too, doing nothing more than monitoring the campers’ daily activities. So the protesters’ interest in the police wanes and the police think that maybe the group has changed their focus.

Then two officers move in to arrest one of the occupiers for a drug crime, the person resists arrest, and is injured. The protesters are instantly revitalized. They march on city hall, block streets, and clash with the responding officers. The police are called back into action and clashes are renewed.

There are often conflicts within each group, but they quickly evaporate in the face of the out-group. Two police officers that dislike each other will stand side-by-side to battle members of the out-group. Likewise, two protestors who don’t get along will raise their fists in anger and rebellion at a common cause.

The Chinese sage Mencius said eons ago, “Brothers who may quarrel within the walls of their homes will band together to drive away intruders.”

Indeed, any threat from the out-group, real or imagined, strengthens the unit of the in-group, no matter what in-fighting is going on within that group.

This is the human condition.