Maybe the cops watched “Zulu”

Did the St. Louis cops stay up late watching old movies?


From a story at Slate, St. Louis police tried an … unusual … method of crowd control Wednesday night after more violent protests erupted following the killing of yet another young black man by police.

According to local black newspaper the St. Louis American, around 8 p.m. a line of police officers began “moving towards the crowd and started beating their batons on the ground” in unison. The paper reported that as the officers “advanced down the street,” the synchronous taps “seemed to further enrage the individuals who had temporarily formed pockets on the side street.” According to the paper, demonstrators seemed to take “the batons hitting the ground as taunts.”

Whatever the intended effect, the tactic did little to calm or disperse the crowd, and from there things escalated. Fires were set, nine people were arrested, and when it was all over there was even more community outrage at what was perceived as heavy-handed police response.

Apparently the tactic, while fairly common in Europe, is rarely seen in the United States. Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College who was interviewed for the Slate piece, said:

“The idea is a kind of ‘shock and awe’ effect. It represents a concrete threat that the police are prepared to use force to disperse people. On the one hand it is an organized, measured, and intentional show of force. On the other hand it can be very provocative, inviting additional throwing of rocks and bottles.”

Other experts weighed in as well.

Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD officer, echoed that explanation: “Think of the Roman soldiers banging on their shields to instill fear in the opponent,” he wrote to me. “It’s all about a psychological advantage.”

But how can a tactic that is now uncommon, and somewhat inscrutable, send a clear message? According to Doug Wyllie, editor in chief of the law enforcement news and commentary website PoliceOne, that’s sort of the point. “It really is just a matter of doing something that’s completely nonviolent,” he said. “The intent is to get people to think, ‘This is gonna get weird in a minute.’ ”

Personally, I don’t think the cops were looking to follow the example of their European counterparts. Nope, I think they were inspired by the classic 1964 war movie Zulu. Don’t believe me? Watch the clip below and judge for yourself.