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Saturday, November 19, 2011

America's Tacit Approval of Police Brutality

Updated Below

Via Angry Black Lady at Balloon Juice comes this story about Occupy Davis (UC-Davis), where “a police officer approached a group of students sitting in a line peacefully on the ground, walked up and down the line and pepper-sprayed them directly in the face – as one would spray pesticide on weeds.”  If you click over to ABL’s post you can watch the 8 minute YouTube of the incident, and here is a photo:

(h/t Atrios)

My first thought, when I spotted that photo at Eschaton, was the same as ABL’s:  anger at the cops’ decision to deal with these student protesters in such a casually cruel way.  “They’re treating people like things,” I thought to myself, “nothing more than an impersonal nuisance to be dispersed.”

But, upon reflection, I don’t think my initial impression was correct.  The truth is, the cops were not dealing with these students as mere things, but definitely as people.  And while the decision to pepper spray them directly in the face seems from the photo and the video to have been casually made, I’ll bet it wasn’t. 

I think the truth is that the cops decided to spray these kids directly in the face because they are in fact consciously inflicting unnecessary pain on people both to hurt the actual students sprayed and to intimidate anybody else who might be sympathetic to those students. 

The tell comes in the video when, immediately before he commences spraying the line of kids, the cop flourishes his pepper-spray bottle over his head so that everyone watching can see it and understand what it is he is about to do.  In that moment he looks for all the world like a magician about to perform a stunning trick.  And, in a way, I suppose that is exactly what he is, because by his actions he galvanizes the crowd.

But the truly sad thing is that this kind of behavior by the police shouldn’t surprise anyone.  They’ve been doing this kind of stuff to peaceful protesters for a long, long time now, but nobody’s paid attention or gotten upset about it because, well, most of the protesters to have been treated this way are people whom the American media trivializes – environmentalists and animal rights protesters, for example -- and whom the American public consequently dismisses as annoying troublemakers.

Indeed, while law enforcement personnel are almost routinely being captured using unnecessary force against peaceful Occupy protesters – unprovoked pepper-spray attacks on college students, pregnant women and old ladies, firing a tear gas canister at the head of a protester, tossing out flash-bang grenades, beating students with truncheons for having linked arms – we really have no right to act shocked.  By the tacit approval of police brutality against “troublemakers” that it has extended in the past, American society has basically given law enforcement the green light to act precisely as they are now.

It took me a while to remember what the Occupy Davis incident reminded me of, but I finally recalled a case from the late 1990s cited here.  In that case, sheriff's deputies in Humboldt County, California had been called out to dislodge logging protesters who had chained themselves to logging equipment.  Now, the normal way to arrest such protesters is to cut the chains with a bolt-cutter and simply arrest them.  Easy-peasy.

But this time the sheriff's deputies decided to teach the protesters a lesson, and instead ordered them to unlock the chains themselves.  The protesters refused (it isn’t clear from the link, and I don’t recall from when I first read about this over a decade ago, whether they even had the key to unlock the chain).  Accordingly, “the deputies held the protesters’ hair and heads, forced open their eyes and swiped them with cotton swabs soaked with pepper spray.”

Remember, there was no reason for this, the deputies had the ability to take the protesters into custody at any time, but they chose instead to simply hurt them.

But what really made this a story, and not just an isolated incident of police brutality, was that despite these uncontested facts the federal jury who were called upon to entertain the subsequent lawsuit alleging unreasonable force – wait for it – deadlocked.  That’s right . . . a jury of American citizens, when asked to determine whether law enforcement might have overstepped their bounds when they tortured peaceful protesters by gratuitously swabbing their eyeballs with pepper spray could not come to a conclusion on that issue.  If law enforcement were seeking validation for their brutality, surely this provided it.

And that may go a long way toward explaining the WTO riots in close-by Seattle just a year or so later.  To the extent those riots are remembered at all today, what generally is remembered are video images of WTO protesters acting violently.  But, in fact, it is important to keep in mind that it was the police who by their illegal conduct started the riots:

In December 2003, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman said the police lacked probable cause to arrest the protesters outside a “no protest zone.”  Pechman said the police had done an “atrocious” job at record keeping, as well as citing the use of improper warrant and arrest procedures to round up protesters.  Fearing civil lawsuits that were sure to follow that legal determination, the City ran to beat the lawsuit, with a settlement offer they certainly fought earlier.  Since ex-Seattle Police Chief Stamper was in charge during the WTO riots, and he resigned right after the WTO riots in disgrace, that would also make it a bit harder for the City to win over a jury in courts, for several reasons.  The City agrees that it would be the Mayor and the Police Chief that are ultimately responsible for the WTO riots in 1999 if it went to court.  And since they would be the liable parties, and they are the City representatives, that is why the City of Seattle, itself, is footing the bill for this disgrace, rather than the individual officers, for example, who should have all been tried for violent criminal behavior on top of this, in my opinion.  It is sickening that protesters who did nothing wrong were criminally bullied, processed and charged, while the violent police never were charged for violent crimes they DID commit.

According to The Seattle Times, by the time the last of the lawsuits against the City were resolved in 2007, Seattle had been forced to pay out about $1.8 million in compensation to protesters whose rights had been violated by the Seattle police.

But the great thing about the American media’s memory hole is that virtually no one remembers these facts – if anyone ever was made aware of them in the first place.  All that anybody remembers are the scenes of rioting that filled their TeeVee screens 12 years ago.  And so the police – who acted abominably then – are again entrusted with “keeping the peace” and are again given the benefit of the doubt when violence occurs at a protest.

And this why nobody blinks as America’s police forces become de facto paramilitary units, equipped with storm trooper gear and the ability to inflict agonizing pain – and perhaps permanent injury – with a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) if The Powers That Be decide a protest has gone on long enough and it is now time to break the protest up.  Note that this is the same kind of LRAD that was carried by the NYPD and allegedly used this week on OWS protesters who were singing the national anthem:

And this instinctive albeit unwarranted trust the public has in the police when it comes to dealing with protesters is why Charlie Pierce, writing at Esquire, can be filled with such dismay at the images of violence being broadcast from Occupy Wall Street, and the reflexive reaction with which middle America greets such images:

Hard eyes along the A concourse at the Memphis International Airport today.  America’s business travelers are not liking what they’re seeing on their teevee monitors at the gates.  There’s an interview with a guy on CNN, who is talking about how he saw a New York cop get hit with a battery this morning in lower Manhattan.  The cop’s head was bleeding.  The guy on CNN is saying that he came to the Occupy demonstration because he was in sympathy with the movement’s goals, and because of “the crimes of Wall Street and in Washington.”  He also says that the cops exercised “great restraint” this morning “considering what they’ve been subjected to.”  Everybody at Gate 29 nods, almost in unison.

There is no excuse for the militarized assaults on the various encampments around the country earlier in the week.  Hell, there’s no[] excuse for the kind of militarized police forces we have in this country, period.  But this can’t be the way this movement ends. . . .

Cops are dragging kids away by the hair.  They’re whacking people around and then preventing medical personnel from responding to treat their wounds.  The whole world is, indeed, watching.  And it’s trying to make up its minds.


. . . .  But this cannot be the way it ends.  A few days of ghastly videos . . . and out comes a new narrative that in a dozen different ways excuses the bloodletting and then minimizes it, while strangers wait for airplanes, silent applause in their eyes.

* * *

Our public moralists – people like David Brooks and his ilk – never tire of talking of American society as if it were all one large morality play, with the successful, the rich, the corporatocracy and our largest public institutions the de facto arbiters of that morality.  To challenge any of these is – in the eyes of such people – not merely to dissent, but to sin.  Unfortunately, many Americans have to a very large degree internalized that lesson, and among the most powerful of the moral arbiters we now recognize are our law enforcement agencies.  How not?  Their very purpose, of course, is to enforce the law – it’s right in their very name.

But sometimes the laws are unjust (see, e.g., segregation), and sometimes – in fact, quite often – these agencies are not enforcing the law but are instead enforcing the Power.  Sometimes – in fact, quite often, as we see now – they are even breaking the law to enforce that Power.  This isn’t always the case, and not all law enforcement personnel act this way, but some do.

If Brooks, et al, were truly concerned about the alleged “coarsening of our society” they would do well to decry the popularity of television shows like Cops, which make an entertainment of poor and powerless citizens being harassed – often unconstitutionally – by the police.  They would use the valuable real estate they command in our nation’s newspapers to condemn the thuggish tactics we now see being deployed to break the Occupy movement.  And they would scream bloody murder about Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s refusal to allow the media to report on his allegedly “peaceful” raid on Zuccotti Park.

And, yeah . . . the rest of us might want to think about trying to undo some of the power and public relations imbalance that we have allowed to creep into law enforcement’s favor by our past apathy in the face of public abuses.

Despite what they’ll tell you, and what we’ve been conditioned to believe, the cops are not the law.  The law resides in a system, not in a person, not even in a group of people.  Cops are merely citizens – just like you and me – who have been given special dispensation to arrest people under certain circumstances and then turn them over to that system . . . and nothing more.

And it seems to me that America would be a lot better off trying to keep that basic fact in mind.

Update: Like me, Digby also was reminded of the Humboldt County pepper-spray incident from the late 90s. She has a post up at her joint that fleshes out what happened there, including the fact that one sheriff deputy apparently was recorded telling the young woman whose eyeballs he had coated with pepper spray: "We're done torturing you now." Additional fun fact: it took 12 years and 3 separate trials (the first two, apparently, ended in deadlock) but the protesters did eventually win their suit against the county and its deputies for use of excessive force. Each plaintiff was awarded $1 in nominal damages.

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