The policing of political protests is one of the most political and controversial aspects of the police role. The approach that police take to a particular protest or protest movement is likely to have a profound impact on the way the activists and the cause they represent are publicly perceived as well as the practical outcomes of the protest and the welfare of individuals involved.
One of the fundamental differences between liberal democracies and more totalitarian societies is that liberal democracies are more tolerant of dissent and protests. Totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, treat all dissent and protest as criminal. In totalitarian or authoritarian states the police display a consistently repressive and frequently violent approach towards dissent and protests.
In Australia the police attitude towards activists and dissent has varied markedly over time and between different protest movements and protest events. Protests regularly take place with little or no tension between police and activists. On these occasions there is likely to be liaison, communication and negotiation between police and protest organisers and police may assist in facilitating the protest by, for example, managing traffic along the route of a march.
However, there are many examples both throughout history and in contemporary times of police behaving in a repressive and violent manner towards protesters (Barry 1987; McCulloch 2001: Ch 2 McCulloch, J Lawson 2000; Finnane 1994: 52-59).
It is important for activists to understand the role of the police in relation to political protests and the type of factors that influence the response of police to particular protests and protest movements. This section describes the various functions of police in society and how these relate to the policing of political protest. It also sets out two competing perspectives on the role of police in society and how these perspectives assist in illuminating the history of policing and understanding contemporary trends in policing.
One perspective considers police as basically a politically neutral force that acts primarily to enforce the law and protect the public. The other more radical perspective considers police as a repressive force that is instrumental in the maintenance of an unjust social system. This section also sets out to explain the type of tactics police have used when policing protests and to analyse the type of factors that influence the police response to protests.
Also see Police tactics at protests