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A sheriff and a former mayor on hearing protesters while maintaining peace

Peaceful protests around the U.S. continue Monday night, but there will likely also be charged confrontations and more looting and destruction. How can law enforcement defuse these fraught situations and minimize violence while acknowledging protesters’ voices? Judy Woodruff talks to Sheriff Christopher Swanson of Genesee County, Michigan, and Michael Nutter, former mayor of Philadelphia.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As you have been hearing, there are more protests planned around the country tonight, and many organizers say they want them to be peaceful.

    But there is no certainty they will stay that way.

    We talk now with two people with experience managing unrest in their cities.

    Michael Nutter is the former mayor of Philadelphia. And Christopher Swanson is the sheriff of Genesee County, Michigan. He received national attention for his approach to demonstrators in Flint this weekend.

    Here's how some of that went.

  • Christopher Swanson:

    We want to be with you all for real. So I took the helmet off. They laid the batons down.

    I want to make this a parade, not a protest.

    So, you tell us what you need to do.

  • Protester:

    Walk with us!

  • Protester:

    Walk with us!

  • Protester:

    Walk with us!

  • Protesters:

    Walk with us! Walk with us! Walk with us!

  • Christopher Swanson:

    Let's walk. Let's walk.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Protesters:

    Walk with us! Walk with us!

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Sheriff Swanson, watching that video, why did you decide to do that? You were expressing solidarity with these protesters.

  • Christopher Swanson:

    You are right.

    And thanks for having me.

    And I can tell you that that night on May 30 made history on how to handle protests in a way that was honorable. Our city is already under enough oppression. We are already dealing with economic issues, a water crisis, and a pandemic.

    And it was just the right thing to do. As a veteran police officer who knows the community, I saw acts of kindness with fist bump, a small hug. And I went to my right, and I saw that. And I said, I'm taking the helmet off. We're putting our batons down and I'm walking in the crowd.

    And when I did that, that act of vulnerability, probably wasn't the best tactical move, by any means. It sent a message. And that message was that I need to say, we don't agree, that's not who we are, what happened to Mr. Floyd.

    And when I said that to the crowd, the second question, what do we need to do now is to walk with us, that changed everything, because now they had a voice. And they wanted somebody to listen to, and that's what was the change agent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mayor Nutter, former Mayor Nutter, how often does something like that happen, in your experience?

  • Michael Nutter:

    Unfortunately, Judy, it's pretty rare.

    And, Sheriff Swanson, thank you for your leadership.

    I also understand that something similar happened in Camden, New Jersey, just across the river from us here in Philadelphia. I think, increasingly, Judy, these issues, these challenges can only be solved by partnership and cooperation, by police and community working together.

    But, also, because of the racial aspect of this, the — black Americans need to hear that white people really do understand, and are not only listening but they're hearing what we say.

    The issues and challenges, you know, if you think about the last three, four months, what has happened? Suddenly, worldwide pandemic, everyone forced into their home. Virtually, no one can work. Thousands, millions of people have lost their jobs. Forty-some million Americans have filed for unemployment.

    And then we see the video from Ahmaud Arbery's assassination, chased down by two or three white people, kill him. We see Mr. Floyd killed in the streets, and a new autopsy report, homicide at the hands of police. We see or hear about Mr. Cooper in Central Park, where, unfortunately, a white female used his race as a weapon to — against Mr. Cooper, who was doing nothing. And that could have turned out very badly.

    And incident after incident after incident, and people are just tired, Judy. They are really pissed off.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sheriff…

  • Michael Nutter:

    I hate to say that on PBS.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that's the way a lot of people feel.

    Sheriff Swanson, how do you know? How does someone in law enforcement, in your position, know when the moment is right to do this? Because, as we said, there are a lot of people who want these protests to be peaceful, but there are sometimes — you know, things get out of control.

    People get involved who take things to a different place. How is law enforcement to handle that? What's the best approach?

  • Christopher Swanson:

    Well, first of all, you got to know your community. The mayor is spot on. I'm sure he knows Philly better than anybody.

    But if you separate yourself, especially as a police executive, from the streets, and how you go, and you lose touch, you become tone-deaf to what the language is, that separation creates a divide.

    And now it just so happens that divide is police against African-Americans that has set the tone. But that tone can be reversed. And we saw that here in Flint, Michigan. In eight minutes and 46 seconds, one individual who wore the same uniform and badge, but isn't who we are, he eroded and raced years of inroads that communities have built with their people, that law enforcement has tried so hard, that mayors in townships and cities across the nation have tried to build.

    But those relationships were key. And I walked into that crowd. I'm going to tell you, being 27 years on the job, it wasn't just something that I thought of. I would like to say that I strategized. And it wasn't it.

    I love my people. I love the people of the community. I have served them for my entire adult life. I felt comfortable, although not the best tactical decision, as I mentioned. But I knew that, if I laid down my weapons and I walked in, in a position of vulnerability, they would see this as an action, not just words.

    Just like the mayor said, people are tired of words. They're tired of empty promises. And when they saw that, it changed their hearts.

    And we haven't stopped there. Day two, we had demonstrations right on the front of our lawn. We took care of people. We served them. No issues. Today, we had more demonstrations. Served them, protected them. Three days, no arrests, no fires, no injuries.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mayor, let me just finally — we have less than a minute, Mayor Nutter.

    President Trump today is calling on governors to get tougher. He's saying, if you don't dominate, then you are seen as weak, they will see you as jerks.

    Is this a message that law enforcement should be heeding, governors should be heeding?

  • Michael Nutter:

    That is just accelerating the feelings of oppression that black people, Latino people, other people of color have already been feeling.

    Donald Trump has no idea how to manage in a crisis. He has no — as the chief talked about, he has no feeling of the street. This is not about domination. This is about working with people.

    But, Judy, you alluded to something, and I want to take it head on. But there are some people at these protests whose interests are not about Mr. Floyd, whose interests are not about black people, whose interests are not about equity and justice.

    There are people who want destruction. They want chaos. They want confusion. And they mesh into, they meld into some of these crowds. And the next thing you know, you have chaos.

    Now, Donald Trump likes chaos. And he likes this environment, because he can now play to his political base that he has to keep these people in control. This is a political game that he is playing. And we're talking about life and death, the life and death of people and the life and death of communities.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mayor Michael Nutter, Sheriff Swanson, Sheriff Christopher Swanson, thank you very much.

  • Christopher Swanson:

    Thank you.

  • Michael Nutter:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Christopher Swanson:

    Thank you.

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