COMMENTARY: After a small number of people became violent outside Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rally in Albuquerque last week, City Council President Dan Lewis accused activist organizations of inciting a riot and called them “hate groups.”
One of those groups, SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP), then blamed police, saying law enforcement and the Secret Service “seemed to stage the controversial event to provoke confrontation between protesters and rally attendees” by placing the groups next to each other.
Lewis, in turn, said it was naïve for SWOP to invite protest “and then honestly expect they are able to maintain control over those who gather.”
The political fighting was a disappointing response after police and SWOP courageously worked to de-escalate tensions so rally attendees and protesters could all exercise their First Amendment rights.
It’s important to recognize the heroism of police, SWOP members and others that minimized violence. We should also recognize the vast majority of demonstrators – including SWOP members who infiltrated Trump’s rally and were removed by security – for making their points peacefully.
Trump’s words are inflaming existing tensions. Confrontations are breaking out at rallies in many cities. In Albuquerque, some Trump supporters shouted racial slurs at protesters. Some protesters’ signs displayed insulting, offensive messages. I’ve heard that protesters shouted profanity at people in line and called them racists.
Allowing protesters to get that close to people waiting to enter Trump’s rally was a mistake. I hope organizers learn from the experience.
But I see no evidence that police intended to spark confrontation. Their actions suggest the opposite. While people were hurling rocks, urine bombs, and burning objects, police showed restraint and used de-escalation tactics to disperse crowds and move people back. Firing their guns might have been justified in certain instances. Instead, police worked to calm the situation.
Members of SWOP were also instrumental in keeping the peace. They wore yellow vests and worked to de-escalate tense moments. When dozens of people broke through a barricade and rushed toward the convention center and police in riot gear, members of SWOP blocked them, forming a shield with their bodies.
The police and SWOP should be praised for bravery and maturity.
What of the 30 or so people who became violent? The Associated Press reported that some people “openly admitted that they set out to cause disruption,” and “Many in the crowd were seen with gang tattoos and at one point chanted to Trump supporters that they controlled the streets.”
Those who were violent should be prosecuted. Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry called them “thugs” at a news conference last week and pledged to find them.
Berry’s rhetoric was inflammatory and unnecessary. We need to avoid egging on people who have little hope and live on the edge of anarchy by using them as props in our political debates.
Those rioters – like people who attended Trump’s rally and those who protested outside – are feeling disenfranchised. Ignoring each other’s pain won’t help us work through it.
We all have a duty to try to make our society better. Kudos to people who attended and protested Trump’s rally. But instead of hurling insults and blaming each other for violence, let’s work together toward our common goals – like police and SWOP did in a dangerous situation.