Protests, Violence, Terrorism, and Firefighting

Recently, two police officers in New York City were assassinated in their patrol car by a disturbed individual who, according to his own statements, was motivated by the protests over recent deaths of two citizens who were involved in confrontations with law enforcement. This heinous crime should serve as a harbinger and reminder. Coupled with the Boston Marathon bombing and the Ottawa and Paris terrorist attacks, whether homegrown or imported, threats to citizens and responders are vexing concerns.

As firefighters, we are often called to these situations to assist in the medical care of our fellow public servants and the citizens with whom they are involved. Whether they are victims of a crime or injured criminals, we treat them all the same. We are also called when explosive devices and fire are used as weapons-to extinguish flames or stabilize and search through debris. These events raise some interesting questions regarding free speech, the right to assemble, and protest and accountability. For firefighters, the current social unrest and increasing dangers raise issues of safety, duty, and responsibility.

Most of those involved in the current protests are decent people who perceive that there is concern regarding law enforcement and certain segments of our society. They are exercising their American privilege of expressing their opinion in lawful and nonviolent ways. Then there are other opportunists who are using this current debate for a more insidious agenda. The most egregious of these would be the “protesters” who marched down the streets of New York City chanting, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want them? Now!” They are not well-meaning social activists. They are anarchists. They are bad people.

These anarchists have roots that have direct ties back to a 120-year historical sociopolitical struggle between anarchists and our capitalist society. The goals have always been pretty much the same: One side wants the redistribution of wealth and the transformation of society to Marxism/socialism; the other side wants the preservation of capitalism, free enterprise, and preservation of our representative democracy.

The godmother of this movement was the radical anarchist Emma Goldman. She was a very eloquent speaker and inspired the violence of Leon Czolgosz, a 28-year-old blacksmith and immigrant German Pole living in Cleveland, who believed that our government was corrupt. Following Goldman’s teachings, he thought the government represented only the wealthy-it offered no protection to the masses that elected it. To make his point, he assassinated President William McKinley at the Pan American exhibition in Buffalo.

During the early 1900s, the anarchists were involved in occasional murders and bombings all across America in attempts to destabilize our economy and topple the United States government. In 1914, they killed 10 people and injured hundreds of others in a bombing in San Francisco. In 1919, they simultaneously bombed eight cities, including Washington, D.C.

In a manner eerily similar to the New York police assassinations, two anarchists named Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti robbed and murdered a paymaster and a bank guard on April 15, 1920, to help finance some of the anarchist movement activities. Their trial and subsequent death sentence was heralded as unfair and unjust in Upton Sinclair’s book Boston. Sinclair was another ardent supporter of the anarchist/socialist movement. It was revealed in 2005 in Sinclair’s own letters that he knew all along from conversations he had with Sacco and Vanzetti’s lawyer that they were guilty but, nonetheless, he portrayed them as innocent victims of an unfair justice system to promote his cause. Interestingly, what brought the anarchist movement to a standstill was economic success.

For the fire service, it is extremely important that we make a concerted effort, as is being done in many cities, to increase communication and cooperation between law enforcement and fire. In many communities, joint training is being conducted to ensure that responders have the optimal level of safety and security during responses. We do not have to go back 100 years to remember firefighters being tragically shot during the riots in Los Angeles. Nor do we have to go back that far to remember the fire apparatus that was dispatched to the North Hollywood shootout, driving directly through the line of gunfire.

Law enforcement responses generally involve containing what critical incident management jargon calls the “kill zone,” followed by creating an inner perimeter and an outer perimeter. We on the fire side generally respond directly to the fire, which is our “kill zone.” Our kill zone rarely moves, but law enforcement will systematically close down ingress and egress to contain bad guys. In cases of civil unrest and extreme violence, such as the Ottawa and Paris incidents, firefighters need to respond with our law enforcement counterparts-and we do. We need to remain outside of the kill zone until it is secured by law enforcement or we are placed under the supervision or protection of law enforcement.

We believe firmly in the words of Thomas Jefferson: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blind-folded fear.” We also appreciate the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.”

As firefighters, we will always defend free speech and the right to assemble. As it relates to the mission, we will respond unfalteringly, gaining in wisdom; knowledge; and, hopefully, safety with each iteration.


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