Social Protests in the 1990s: Planning a Response

Article excerpt

During the 1990s, many communities have witnessed a resurgence in protests and civil disobedience demonstrations reminiscent of the civil rights and antiwar movements of earlier decades. Major issues today include abortion, nuclear proliferation, environmental protection, service and access rights of the physically challenged, and continued civil rights concerns. Any community with product- or service-oriented businesses or military installations may be targeted for action, either by local activists or national organizations.

The City of Melbourne, located on the southeast central coast of Florida, has been the focus of such actions in recent years, primarily due to the presence of the only abortion clinic in a county with almost one-half million residents. In addition, the clinic's highly outspoken owner makes her home in Melbourne, as does the leader of Operation Rescue, a national pro-life organization. These factors have made the city a hotbed for the abortion issue.

The intensity of pro-life and pro-choice sentiments and the multitude of proponents on either side required the Melbourne Police Department (MPD) to meet this challenge head on. Yet, despite hundreds of arrests, lengthy trials, lawsuits, and attempts by both sides of the issue to challenge the department's neutrality and professionalism, the MPD continued to maintain a positive public image, as demonstrated in television coverage, press reports, and editorials.

The department has learned a great deal since its first encounter with activism several years ago. Agency administrators have identified and established methods to address several issues common to the protests they faced. In many ways, these issues represent features typical to most contemporary activist movements, regardless of where they operate or what causes they support.


For the most part, the general public's perception of social protests has focused on the fringe - a picture of activists as a few misguided malcontents driven by extreme viewpoints. Images of barefooted flower children dressed in tie-dyed shirts and old jeans usually come to mind.

Protesters today are more likely to arrive at the scene conservatively dressed, some even wearing designer clothes. They are committed to a cause, but operate from what would appear to be a less radical position. Whereas the old school proclaimed to Middle America, "We're different," the activists of the 1990s claim, "We are Middle America."

Activism, once the domain of extremists, now is viewed as a valid form of creating social change. Christian activists, in particular, come from conservative backgrounds and depend on the belief that most Americans share their basic values to build their ranks and project an image of legitimacy onto their activities. Protesters who once would have been considered reactionary now may be seen as courageous proponents of a cause. This change in public perception creates some particular challenges for law enforcement.


Intelligence Gathering

Florida law allows law enforcement to collect and maintain intelligence on persons and groups if the surveillance is conducted with "a reasonable, good faith belief that it will lead to detection of ongoing or reasonably anticipated criminal activities"(1) (emphasis added). Unfortunately, incidents of past abuse create a negative public perception of police efforts to gather intelligence information on activist groups.

Nevertheless, the necessity for intelligence gathering cannot be over emphasized. To cope successfully with a major incident or a series of announced protests, the police must collect information about the leaders and members of the sponsoring group(s). The Melbourne Police Department assigned a full-time detective to intelligence duties with the advent of large-scale abortion protests. The detective and the department met the challenge of intelligence gathering in a very direct way. …