Protests are often marred by senseless violence and the recent protest on Wall Street was no exception. One incident that has gotten extensive attention is the pepper spraying/macing of penned in women by Anthony Bologna, a relatively high ranking member of the NYC police. These sorts of incidents raise questions about the legitimate role of the police in regards to protests. My discussion is limited to the context of democratic states, such as the United States.
First, it is rather important to acknowledge that the police do have a legitimate role to play at protests. While protests are intended to draw attention and often aim to do so by creating a disruption of the normal course of events, a state of protest does not grant protestors a carte blanche right to interfere with the legitimate rights of others. As such, the police have a legitimate right to prevent protestors from violating the rights of others and this can correctly involve the use of force. Obviously, if it is argued that protestors have a right to protests, this would entail accepting that people have rights and intuitively the right to protest does not automatically trump other rights-especially the core rights of life, liberty and property. Those who claim otherwise would seem to have the burden of proof upon them.
To use an obvious example, people protesting a decision by the parliament or congress do not gain the right to loot the businesses along their path of protest and the police would act correctly in stopping these acts of theft. To use a less extreme example, protestors who are disrupting a legitimate business can legitimately be prevented from doing so by the police.
Second, while protestors do not gain a carte blanche right to violate the rights of others, peaceful protest is a legitimate form of expression and is certainly a form of free speech (far more so than spending money on political campaigns and some rather ludicrous “free speech” defenses launched by corporations such as Google). As such, the right of protest should be respected by the police.
Even when protestors act in ways that are technically illegal, provided that their crimes do not involve violence or property damage (that is, the protests are peaceful), they should be handled with minimal force. After all, the force used by the police should be proportional to the crime and the resistance being offered. Exceeding this would be, by definition, excessive force and hence a wrongful action. The police, after all, have the right to use the force needed to enforce the law. Force beyond that would go beyond their rights and hence cross over into assault and beyond (after all, once they cross the boundary of legitimate force, they have ceased to enforce the law and are engaged in needless violence and may rightfully be regarded as criminals-albeit with badges). Spraying women that have been penned in and are offering no resistance would be, from a moral perspective, an assault with a dangerous weapon and not a legitimate act of law enforcement. The fact that the perpetrator is wearing a uniform does not change this-except to make it an even worse action-a crime committed by someone who is supposed to prevent crime.
Naturally enough, violent and destructive protests can be met with legitimate force. As an example, protestors who are looting or attacking innocent citizens can be treated as the criminals they are and handled accordingly.
Third, there are cases in which violent and destructive protest can be justified. These would involve cases in which the wrong being done was such that it warrants such a response and there is no recourse to an objective, impartial and fair legal redress. In such cases, the police should be acting in defense of the people driven to such acts rather than fighting against such people. These situations are not common in the Western democracies, but have (and no doubt will) occur.
Thus, both protestors and police have moral obligations they should respect.