Political Rorschach in the Wyatt Protest


Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Steve Ahlquist’s overtly activistic coverage of yesterday’s protests at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls is as objective, or more so, than some of the headlines that an Internet search will easily produce.  Some of them, for example, are saying that a correctional officer in a pickup truck “rammed” the protesters, which is a contentious way to describe what happened, to say the least.  ABC News uses the verb “plows,” which is also not accurately descriptive.

In a similar way, much of the coverage is phrased ambiguously to make it seem as if the truck sent people to the hospital, when it appears that the hospital visits were caused by the use of pepper spray, which officers used to help disperse a crowd that had surrounded the pickup truck and was shouting, “Nazi, Nazi, you can’t hide! You support genocide!”

One of the major advantages we have, these days, is that we can view video of these events and decide for ourselves.  That limits the ability of people spinning the facts to work up masses of people who would react differently if they were acting on primary source material.  What’s fascinating, though, is that people can still essentially witness the incident and come to wildly different conclusions.  Here’s Ahlquist’s YouTube of the whole thing:

What do you see?

Attempting to be as objective as I can, what I see is protesters illegally blocking a roadway when a pickup truck comes toward them and stops, as any driver might do approaching a crowd that’s blocking a public way.  The protesters scatter in a notably dramatic way, largely clearing the path for the truck.  Another perspective shows that the only people remaining in front of the truck were some protesters standing and pounding on the hood, and the driver moved slowly forward.  As can be seen by the stance of the protester in yellow in the featured image of this post, one could reasonably suggest that they were actually prepared for the truck to move and were braced against it.

At this point, the crowd swarms around the truck shouting in the window aggressively, to the point that a protest organizer intervenes to move them back a little.  Next, correctional officers arrive on the scene and back the crowd out of the way using techniques not unlike what the protesters had been using to block the truck.  When the protesters on one side of the street offer greater resistance than on the other side, the officers use a spray to disperse them.

A list of “shouldn’t haves” can be helpful:

  • The protesters shouldn’t have blocked the road.
  • The City of Central Falls shouldn’t have (pretended) not to know this was coming and should have been prepared to prevent that blockage, rather than creating a conspicuous delay.
  • The truck driver shouldn’t have moved forward once protesters made clear they were not going to move from in front of his vehicle.
  • The protesters shouldn’t have blocked the vehicle, pounded on it, or surrounded it and shouted “Nazi” at the driver.
  • Although I haven’t found a camera angle that gives me complete confidence in this, the officers probably shouldn’t have used pepper spray.

But now, the protesters have the footage they wanted and will continue to work to capitalize on it.  Future protesters, seeing the advantage, will look to repeat the process.

The disappointing part is that if we were to trace this down to the individual people involved, we could find sympathy for them (a few agitators, like Aaron Regunberg aside) and look for ways to reduce the level of conflict in our society.  As a matter of fact, reducing such conflicts is what our system of participatory government is supposed to do.

Unfortunately, that system isn’t producing precisely what the protesters want, so they’re forcing conflict and division in order to get a different result.

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