Transcript of Currents 005: John Robb on Protest Tactics & Reforms

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by John Robb. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: In this Currents episode we have on our regularly returning guest, John Robb, who’s got a military background in the Air Force and a key guy in building some of the technology that we use on the internet every day. And these days as a writer about things strategic and trend-wise about what’s going on in the world. He’s on Patreon and I support him on Patreon. I encourage everybody else to as well to support his important work under Global Guerrillas and, or John Robb on Patreon. Throw a few nickels at his dish, and we want the boy to be able to eat right? As usual on the currents episodes, I basically start with a single artifact or statement or thing, and then spiral from there.

Jim: And what caused me to reach out to John today was he ran a couple of tweets, two or three, four. I don’t remember how many, with excerpts from an extraordinarily interesting artifact. It’s I would describe it as an after action report on the siege and eventual capture and burning of the third police precinct in Minneapolis written at least nominally and it sort of feels like it, by one of the participants. And it’s what 34 pages long and quite remarkable explication of the dynamics that led to them being successful in the plan. So with that I’m going to turn it over to you John, and say what you would like about that article tease apart strategy, tactics, that kind of stuff.

John: Yeah. The one great thing about the way protests are organized in the States is that we get a lot of feedback on how things are organized. People are constantly writing about it, tweeting about it, posting about it. And this article is pretty well written and it goes over the tactics and the thinking associated with the protest from an insider’s perspective. Somebody who is trying to escalate the situation. And it goes over some of the core elements, breaking the protest into different groups of expertise. People who focus on medical support, people who scan outside media or telegram or airdrop to get information into the protests and then back out. And then the role of the peaceful protesters, the people who were there to protest non-violently who tend to be the vast majority of the people that are protesting. Even talks about how the looters fit into the overall equation.

John: So the interesting thing is the way that he thought about how they interacted. One thing in particular was what you saw was a reversal of the roles. I assume it’s a he, might not be. Reversal of the roles of between nonviolent protesters and the activists, people who are more kinetically focused. In previous protests in Hong Kong, for instance, the kinetic protestors were the ones who were protecting the nonviolent protesters from policing encroachment. Police violence being pushed back, being driven from the field. And in this protest, due to the volume and largely due to the nature of the protest, he didn’t mention this because it is about police violence and that the police were put on it into a defensive crouch and we’re trying to deescalate rather than engage on the whole. In all of the thousands of protests that went on globally is that the nonviolent protesters were extremely numerous and they were at the forefront and that they provided the cover for the kinetic protestors.

John: Usually people who are using ballistics, meaning throwing water bottles or rocks or any object at the police to prompt them into action. And so the nonviolent protesters were the shield because the police weren’t willing to barrel into them and engage with them. And that created an interesting dynamic in the sense that the kinetic protesters were able to force the police to widen their lines and engage in ways that ended up proving detrimental to their overall strategic position. They looked like they were aggressing on the nonviolent protesters and that caused calls for a deescalation. In fact, the third precinct itself was evacuated because the politicians in Minneapolis wanted to deescalate what they saw as a confrontation between the peaceful protesters and the police. That created a new set of opportunities for the way this protest will evolve over the next few months.

Jim: Yeah quite interesting. As I was reading it, I’m a player of war games, typically turn-based or quasi turn-based, sometimes real time, computer-based war games. And I suspect the author may have been as well because he essentially calls out the various units. It Reminded me of playing total war medieval or something. He talks about the nonviolent folks, but then he also explicitly calls out the ballistics. And then he talks about the specialty units, the laser pointer people, and he goes into quite deep, good detail on how and when to use the laser pointers. He talks about the fact that it’s important to have people on police scanners, listening to what the police are doing. He goes into the details of information security. Oh ,yeah. We use signal because we know it’s secure or at least secure enough, but we ought to be using on burner phones so that the stingrays, i.e. fault cell towers operated by the police, can’t get our personal information and track us.

John: Right.

Jim: So this was a person who actually thinks about unit types and how the tactics combined with the unit types. He also talks to how the looters actually help by being a distraction. Well, on three levels, he talks about it being a distraction, but also providing supplies and also building morale. I mean, remind me of my Clausewitz, right? As we know, at the end of the day, according to Clausewitz the person who wins is the one whose will breaks last, right? And so improving the will and spirit of your crowd, the morale is really important. And so I thought this to be a quite amazing, quite formal after action report that to my mind, painted a picture way more detailed than any I’d seen anywhere else.

John: I think it’s really a good, good report. Well written, covers all the angles. Does some analysis, trying to determine lessons learned from the engagement. Is willing to learn, willing to overturn in previously agreed upon tactics in favor of stuff that works. Trying to figure out how to use laser pointers in the U.S. context and the dangers of using a laser pointer is that you get singled out by the police and hit with rubber bullets or bullets that mark you. But if you’re in a dense enough crowd, you can pull it off. Or if you want to drive away helicopters, you have to have a concerted effort by many people in the protest acting at once. So there’s lots of interesting insight from somebody who’s clearly been on the ground.

Jim: Yeah. My guess is this was not his first ballistic episode. The level of maturity of his analysis struck me like this guy has done this before.

John: Right. Yeah, and he’s even talking about how they need to develop better ways of doing fact checking in the field. The same kind of thing that we do online when we don’t think as individuals completely in terms of verifying information anymore, we rely on our network to do it. Is that when somebody comes forward with a claim like the national guard is 20 minutes away and they’re marching towards us or if we burn this facility down it’ll explode, or that kind of thing, is that you have a large enough network of people who will actually verify it for you. I mean, give you the expertise, give you the insight, gather the information for you. So the crowd isn’t hurted or panicked into action that will be deleterious to their goals.

John: It’s cool to see somebody engaged in open source warfare, thinking about how all the pieces come together and that they’re more than just the different unit types. There’s people there with completely different motives for being there. He talked a little bit about the accelerationist from on the right, the [inaudible 00:09:16] boys. And then how they tried to insert themselves into the early days of the protest. But he doesn’t really go deep into the different types of people that are showing up at the protest with their different motivations. So beyond that, because I mean, when people look at it from the outside they tend to think of it, it has to be more than just anti-racism given the size and given the composition of the crowds. But the reason it still is anti-racist in its core form is that people are in support of that and they’re there in large part because of motivations that extend beyond that they’re sick and tired of the administration. They’re sick and tired of all this, everything else that’s going on in the world. And that this is something that’s actually proven itself capable of raising the large crowds necessary to mobilize a protest.

Jim: Yeah. And I think you’re right that the signal comes from multiple sources. I mean, while anti-racism is the key and the core, it’s also I think very closely related to racism, but not the same thing by any means is the tremendous increase in the militarization of the police over the last 40 years.

John: Right.

Jim: I remember being a kid and being somewhat of a bad boy and having my run-ins with the police. And I grew up in a place famous for its vicious, violent police, at least supposedly Prince George’s County, Maryland. They’re almost a watch word for bad police. But yeah, they would cuff you upside the head if you gave them any lip or lied to them. But they were human and they’d cut you some slack if you were polite and reasonable. They did not give off a militaristic vibe. If you fuck with me at all, I will shoot you dead. I think so much of the problems that come from policing in general, and it’s particularly in the black majority neighborhoods, is this ratcheting up of militarization. Even small cities now have SWAT teams. I think that really has pushed a lot of people to be looking for some serious systemic change. What seems at first an idiotic phrase, defund the police or abolish the police, probably has behind it a realistic goal of let’s rethink policing. Why have we allowed this hyper militarization hair triggerness to have increased and increased and increased every year, despite the fact that crime, both crime overall and violent crime, has been on a massive decline for 30 years now.

John: Right, yeah. There’s four times as many SWAT teams now, as there were in 2001. I mean and all that excess military equipment and all those terrorists funds, anti-terror funds float into the police departments and they bought this equipment in bulk. Hired a bunch of people who did a lot of work doing counterinsurgency work in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The militarization of police is probably the key point here is maybe instead of defund police it’s demilitarize the police, maybe a better on point goal. And also you got to look at the job itself. Surprisingly when you look at it, you find that it’s not a profession, even though it has the power of life and death. It’s not licensed and controlled like a profession work.

John: You have requirements for training the minimum standards, as well as continuous. You have licensure, you have ethic standards, you have an oath, and maybe this is regulated at the state level. But the oversight of that should be done by a professional organization that’s not a union and it’s not politicians and it’s not a committee of civilians. I mean, it’s something that has enduring investment in making law enforcement a high quality activity. And if you do something that results in an infraction of that, then you should lose your license to actually practice law enforcement in the state and potentially nationally. So that self policing would, instead of completely defunding police, is to actually build it back up. Another thing is that if you look at, you start diving into the salary tables and a lot of universities have been pulling up on state and local employees.

John: You find that a lot of these police departments pay these guys extraordinarily well. I mean, Palo Alto being one of the outliers, but there are guys pulling in with overtime $350,000 a year and those folks aren’t unusual. It’s police Sergeant $350,000 a year. That’s a lot of money. I don’t care whether it’s California or not. What this suggests is that these organizations become very self-dealing and very protective and unwilling to change, unwilling to adapt. And that we may want to start thinking about charter precincts. The privatization efforts that where citizens have a lot more control over who gets to contract and who doesn’t. Or cooperative law enforcement provably evolved model from the community policing, which focuses more on the soft services But citizens who are willing to step forward and spend time and take the training and do the training necessary to actually police and to do it in a much more cost effective way, as well as much more responsive to the community. But I don’t hear any of those suggestions.

Jim: Well I hear them. I’ll hear them floating around. There’s a couple of people put out long lists of reforms that would make the police more responsive and more responsible, including the professionalization idea that you float and one that went with that was a requirement just as it is a requirement for lawyers and doctors, that they have malpractice insurance. And then the insurance underwriters would have a substantial amount of skin in the game to make sure that they price the policies right. So a cop that’s got 31 reports for excessive of violence, his policy is 300 grand a year. And then very quickly the town says, “Fuck, that this guy’s out of here. We can’t afford $300,000 a year for it.”

Jim: And then the other one that again, you mentioned in passing, but again, a total change over the last 40 years are the police unions who’ve unfortunately not only worked for improvement of pay and benefits, but have been very instrumental in developing contractual methods to make it very, very difficult to even investigate a crime by police. I mean, typically oftentimes in big city police departments that have strong unions the contract literally says that, and it has the force of law because it’s with the city itself, that the police cannot be questioned by the prosecutors for two to five days sometimes. If the officer interposes that right.

John: Right.

Jim: And those of us who know little bit about the inside baseball of policing, therefore realized it was quite a smart tactical move in Minneapolis for them to fire the police officers, which then made them not subject to the union interposition of investigation. So those things need to be gotten rid of.

Jim: I mean I’m from a police family. My dad was a Washington DC police officer for a full career. And then he retired and then he went back and did some federal law enforcement. My younger brother was a career federal law enforcement. One of my closest first cousins was a career police. So I understand the police perspective, but I do understand that they need to protect, have protection to do their job and to not be subject to vindictive citizens. I mean, hell every time you get a traffic ticket for a borderline offense, it’s very tempting to go make the police officer’s life hell.

John: Right.

Jim: Police need to be protected from that. But on the other hand, to be able to forestall a criminal investigation for felony misconduct strikes me as gross overreach in the police unions and that needs to be stopped.

John: Yeah. But it’s really hard to reform anything having to do with government employees and government services. There’s just too much stop energy available. And they try to-

Jim: Yeah that is true our whole system.

John: And whenever they put these civilian commissions together, these blue ribbon panels or whatever we’ve heard so many of these, had so many of these in the past. They come spend 18 months writing report and by the time the report comes out, no one listens to it. Reforms don’t get instituted, nothing gets changed and the panel is disbanded and they go away. So what we need is more take advantage of this opportunity. I mean, I see these big consensus actions, these big where the network pretty much agrees that this is something we need to do, like with the pandemic. And then now with police reform is that we should take advantage of these opportunities to get something done. Every one of these things is giving us a gift. In this area, in this zone of focus, we have the ability to actually do some meaningful reform.

John: I mean we live in a cold war, super power Relic, really not well fitted for the modern world. It’s not adapting well and needs reform and try out new things and try to get some new energy going in. We’re just not … Ane here is this mechanism for actually making it possible where virtually everybody, I mean 60% or so agree, 70%, agree that we should go do something substantial in police reform. I mean, for instance, with COVID I mean, there were opportunities that presented themselves. Like for instance how do we stimulate an economy where it’s laying flat on its back and we’re still flat on our back. Well, we think new ways. We think in new ways, maybe emergency UBI or something that could get everybody spending all at once and give people the confidence to plan out three or four or five months of spending in the future and that gives them the ability to jolt this thing to life.

John: During the pandemic, we couldn’t build an app for helping us track it and beat it and continuously beat it because we didn’t trust companies and we didn’t trust the government. We didn’t trust each other with data. We had this outdated model of privacy, of private data, versus something that actually would be dynamic enough to actually work like data ownership, where everybody owns their own data and then the government rents it for a period of time in order to build an app and make an app available to allow us to be better prepared and act as a unit against an external threat like this, like COVID was or is. But, we’re not making any of the reforms and in large part, we can’t even see them yet. So maybe it’s going to take another decade before we start to see these threats as opportunities. And we start to see the new ways necessary to actually solve them.

Jim: Yeah, maybe this time it’ll be a little different, I don’t know we’ll see. The Minneapolis City Council formally voting to defund the police, that’s an interesting, more than a thought experiment, right. Whether they actually go through with it, we’ll see. Yeah, I think as you know our mutual friend, Jordan Hall just published a very interesting essay on medium titled “Defund and Redesign Everything” which basically reinforces your point that we’re living with grossly obsolete, social operating systems. Maybe, just maybe this point is a tipping point where we are more open than we’ve ever been before to an effort to really look at each of these things and say, “Yeah.”

John: One thing I think we’ll see out of this is that in the near future is a return of something akin to occupy groups of protesters taking over a space in downtown, sprawling over and refusing to leave. I mean, the police right now are in such a defensive crouch and a lot of the aggressive tactics allowed them to throw people out during the occupy movement, aren’t possible right now. And that occupation can serve as a good way to ensure that this protest doesn’t completely die off. And saw a little early example right now, there’s what they call the Capitol Hill autonomous zone in Seattle, which is an early example of this. Suspect we’ll probably see a lot of these in many major cities.

John: In terms of a defunding, yeah it’s going to be interesting to see what happens as a result of the defunding effort, like in Minneapolis, who has a hope that community policing, or maybe a new department that arises out of the ashes will be better than the one that they had. But wholesale reform like that is really tough and it tends to not go well. When you burn everything to the ground and try to rebuild it. But on the other hand, if people pull together, they could probably do a pretty good job of it. So we’ll see, see what happens. Though early indicators are probably not that great. I mean did you see the video of the interchange between the mayor and the crowd when they were putting the question to him, asking him whether or not he would defend the police?

Jim: I did not see it, but I’ve heard second or third hand reports of it. So why don’t you tell people what happened and what the implications are?

John: Yeah, there was a large crowd and somewhere up on a podium, the leaders and the mayor was by himself surrounded by the crowd. It looked pretty imposing. I mean he’s probably pretty scared when he was being questioned and they said, “Okay, we don’t care about any of this negotiation. We just really want to ask you one question, will you defend the police?” And he goes, “No.” And then the cat calls and the potential for him getting attacked was really high. They kept on screaming at him and then they opened up a corridor for him to walk, do a walk of shame out of the protest. It was very similar to what you’d think would happen during the Chinese cultural revolution or very similar even to The Game of Thrones situation. So it was an interesting dynamic and it doesn’t really point to a constructive engagement to reform the police, given the defunding of it.

Jim: Yeah. That’s about exactly what I heard. I had the same reaction. This sounds an awful lot like the early days of the cultural revolution. And then we remember where that ended up, right? Which is very ugly. I hope that people can take this moment and be constructive, but it may not play out that way, which is something we should all keep our eye out in terms of the branching of the contingencies here as this unfolds. I wanted to go back a minute here to your suggestion, that one of the things that may emerge from the new environment and the new sensibility of what’s going on is a resurgence of something like occupy and put that back in the context of this after action report on the third precinct. Do you think that the circumstances at the third precinct were unique to that situation or do you think the tactics, the unit types, et cetera, are more generally applicable to action in the streets going forward?

John: Well, the specialization works, specialization of roles. The fact checking works across protests. The dynamic between nonviolent and kinetic protesters that works, particularly in this context, particularly in the U.S. How that plays into something like an occupy effort is pretty interesting because if you surround yourself with nonviolent protesters in a strategic position, that then puts you in a position of being able to bombard everything that goes by, or keep up pressure on a key building or a key location, either through fireworks and lasers and bricks or catapults like they did in Hong Kong. And that it’s incumbent upon the police to actually try to remove it, remove that location. And it puts them into a situation where they’re confronting nonviolent protesters, at least according to the media and the court and the way that things will be portrayed. The story here, the narrative here, the pattern matching that’s locking this view of the protest in place is pretty inexorable. It’s hard to see it any other way, online.

Jim: At least for the moment. I think the other one I was thinking about it while you were talking about occupy, the other tactic that could easily be adopted is the one that the fellow in this paper talks about, which is essentially taking advantage of raiders, and in this case the Minneapolis looters. But one could imagine occupy having flying squads that head out and raise chaos two or three miles away. Set 25 fires in 25 locations in various places to pull off the police at critical moments, to thin their lines. Again, this is classic Clausewitz, right? Or even the art of war guy, right? Make the guys spread out their lines before you make your decisive move. Let’s say this occupy is in front of Goldman Sachs and their real goal is to burn Goldman Sachs to the ground. They could use this flying squad, raider technique, not dissimilar to what both sides did during the American Civil War to make life more difficult for the people confronting them.

John: It’s something that Hong Kong protesters did too. So be everywhere was one of their mottoes. It said if you live far away from the main protest site, you can still contribute by doing things locally that would cause the police to split apart and they’ll respond to that. The looting was in particular is interesting. In Hong Kong, they did it a little bit differently than here. The protesters use it as a way to align shops and businesses to their cause. If the company was aligned with the Chinese government, which the Chinese government was trying to force through back channel means through legal means, the company was aligned with China, they would vandalize the storefronts. Whether it’s a bank or it’s a big retailer, and they would leave alone the local businesses that supported the protest. And so you’d go down the street and you see pristine storefront, pristine storefront and then vandalized bank.

John: And in this protest, it didn’t seem … I mean the big box stores got hit, a lot of the big chains got hit. Clearly they think that there was align with the system as is, and there was a certain amount of self identification of stores, local stores locally owned places that tried to say that we’re separate, we’re different, whether it’s black owned business or we support the protests or ways of indicating that they were aligned with the protest. I thought it was interesting though, in the days following the protest, in Boston and in other places, the local stores and local restaurants that got hit hard immediately turned around and said even though they’re standing in the ashes of their life’s work, is that they were saying, “Okay, we support the protest.” Granted it’s genuine sentiment, but it’s also a self defensive measure. They don’t want to get hurt or again, in the future, they want to align themselves with the crowd and their potential customer base.

Jim: Yep, extortion is a very old game, right? It was the original business of the mafia, right? And we should expect that tactic to be used as well. Because again, the thing I always tell everybody, when one group invents a new tactic or in this case a system of tactics, guess what? Other sides, maybe even their direct antagonists, are going to pick and choose amongst those new tactics and use them as well. I nobody gets a monopoly on coming up with a new set of tactics. It becomes part of the common intellectual property of humanity, unfortunately.

John: Yeah, it’s unclear that there is much the police can do in order to counter this, that won’t get them in trouble in terms of amplifying the violence or responding to these attacks. Deescalation seems to help a bit. Accepting the take a knee, bend a knee pledging support for the protest seems to deescalate. They’ve used that interact to deescalate.

Jim: Yeah. I will say that a lot of the deescalation seems to be coming from the young, very thoughtful Black Lives Matter people who’ve gone on the media and said, “Hey, we don’t want this to be violent. You outside assholes stop doing that.” And it basically has, at least for the time being, stopped. And so there is a moral authority I think that has been helpful in at least the later stages in the final deescalation or at least the current deescalation. I don’t want to say final yet. We’ll see what happens.

John: Well, there’s definitely a struggle between the nonviolent core of the protests and the kinetic groups and the fact that even in the article we were discussing earlier, he had to mention that if you are engaged in kinetics, that you have to do it as a group. Because if you’re a lone person throwing a water bottle or water bottles or rocks or whatever, the nonviolent enforcers will come grab you and eject you or isolate you and deal with you in a way that ejects you from the protest. So the group actually protects them against those enforcers from actually imposing their will on how the protest is conducted.

Jim: Amazing, amazing. I think on that note, we’re going to end it. This has been a wonderful dive into really thinking through what’s going on and what new tactics are evolving and thinking through possible implications of that. So again, John want to thank you for being here.

John: Well, thanks Jim. It was fun.

Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller