Editor’s Note: Jonathan Wackrow is a CNN law enforcement analyst and former agent with the US Secret Service, serving in the presidential protection division. He is a managing director at Teneo Risk, a strategic risk mitigation advisory firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Over the weekend, Rep. Maxine Waters – a vocal critic of President Donald Trump – directly called for her supporters to publicly confront members of the Trump administration over a “zero-tolerance” policy that separated children from parents who illegally crossed the southern border.
Protest and demonstration is common in our political environment, but the remarks by Waters, a California Democrat, signal not just dissent, they introduce the possibility of direct harassment of government officials — and not just in the public arena but in their private activities as well.
“For these members of his Cabinet who remain and try to defend him, they’re not going to be able to go to a restaurant, to be able to stop at a gas station, to be able to shop at a department store. The people are going to turn on them, they’re going to protest, they’re going to absolutely harass them until they tell the President: ‘No, I can’t hang with you,’” said Waters over the weekend during an interview.
These statements go beyond breaking the norms of civil discourse; they are dangerous, as they can be misinterpreted as a call to physical action or harm against an individual and people who associate with them.
As a former United States Secret Service agent, I am keenly aware of the evolutionary process by which a protest that grows around a politically charged ethos can act as the catalyst for violent action by an individual or group. Law enforcement has long known of the potential for such phases to transform rhetoric into destructiveness, or physical harm toward people.
The biggest concern is that individuals with malicious intent, often alerted and supported by social media, join those protesting over a specific incident or incidents, and co-opt the issue for the purpose of causing damage and harm. Often these individuals are not concerned or associated with the political protest that gave rise to the disturbance, but leverage the totality of the circumstances and take aim against targets of opportunity, in this case, administration officials.
Because incidents of civil unrest are dynamic and uniquely defined by the nature of the initial cause – in this case, the administration’s policy toward illegal immigration – government officials are individually ill-prepared to defend themselves from the physical threats they might face. They don’t know who will see them – players (maybe even bit players) in the administration – as a deserving target for violence.
As a public official, Waters should be held to a higher standard in her comments and actions. She has a responsibility, a “duty of care” of sorts, to prevent specific acts that one might foresee could provoke harm. But rather than exemplifying a higher standard, Waters has retreated along the behavioral continuum toward endorsing mob-rule to satisfy a political goal.
She is not the only one to have reached for this strategy, to be sure. When he was running for office, Trump himself repeatedly whipped up crowds to encourage violence toward protesters. It is always wrong, and its use by one political “side” never justifies its “in-kind” use by the other.
Where does this end? Do we allow roving bands of protesters throughout Washington to use direct harassment and potential violence as they try to address the myriad policy decisions made each day? I should hope that we are better than this.
Elements often found in law enforcement de-escalation tactics readily apply to today’s heightened political tensions. For example:
• De-escalation begins with the individual. Understanding how to prevent one’s comments from spiraling into a vortex of chaos exacerbating a situation is a necessary first step. Waters’ comments did the opposite; they caused the vortex to spin faster.
• Treat others with respect. Do not be the individual who causes the problems or makes situations worse; encouraging the harassment of others was wrong and disrespectful.
• Focus more on desired outcomes and less on what has happened in the past. Waters and others should seek to legislate immigration policy for a successful resolution, not use past incidents as a call to arms.
• Do not make issues personal and do not take issues personally when dealing with a conflict. Encouraging followers to “create a crowd” and tell people “they are not welcome” is personal.
Our elected officials, Democrats and Republicans alike, need to encourage civil discourse, not civil unrest. Calling for harassment of administrations officials and urging others to “push back on them” is the wrong approach. It only perpetuates a political environment filled with vitriol and hate.
I call on Waters to re-evaluate her comments and find a more productive pathway to address the immigration issues — one that brings help, not harm.