Monday, February 06, 2006

Greensboro, North Carolina: Opinion - Editorials: Lesson to be learned from an ugly protest : There are distinctly different accounts of what happened on South Elm Street Tuesday night when Greensboro police confronted anti-Bush protesters. What we do know is that seven people were arrested on a variety of disturbance-related charges including inciting to riot. Several police officers received minor injuries in the ensuing melee.

A drum-banging, obscenity-shouting crowd estimated at 150 people came downtown to protest the State of the Union address. Similar demonstrations were held nationwide by World Can't Wait, an organization calling for the end of the "Bush regime.'' The timing coincided with the president's appearance before Congress.

Police say the demonstration here spilled from the sidewalk into the street, blocking traffic and causing detours. Ten officers had to be called in to augment the dozen already on hand to keep order.

The ugly encounter further deteriorated when protesters reportedly spotted a plainclothes officer videotaping licenses of cars parked on adjoining streets. A confrontation followed resulting in the injuries and arrests. Witnesses say, at some point, an officer confronted by the unruly crowd brandished a gun.

Had there been better communication between city officials and protest leaders, the outcome might have been different. If organizers had any inkling that the turnout would overflow into the roadway, they should have opted on the side of caution and obtained a parade permit.

And police must make it clear that they're acting within the law when photographing vehicles and even demonstrators congregating on public streets. If the situation were to threaten public safety or if a crime occurs, pictures could prove invaluable.

Nonetheless, it's troubling to hear reports that a gun was drawn and demonstrators carried concealed weapons. The close confines of downtown streets, an angry crowd and the chance of an unsecured weapon could lead to needless tragedy.

Police should be privy to sufficient prior information so that their initial response allows them to keep the upper hand. Likewise, protesters who show up at a supposedly peaceful rally with a concealed knife or police baton, as some are accused of doing, should be prepared to accept the consequences of their actions.

With the notable exception of the bloody 1979 Death to the Klan march near Morningside Homes that claimed five lives, Greensboro police have an enviable record of dealing effectively with protest gatherings.

Four decades ago, demonstrators rallying against racial segregation walked the same street without serious incident. An honest exchange of information with police was a key factor then, and it's a lesson worth remembering now.

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