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Monday, November 21, 2011

No Sympathy For John Pike

Over in The Atlantic Alexis Madrigal has an extremely interesting (though unfortunately titled) article that briefly traces the recent history of how protests have been policed in America.  This history runs from using “escalated force” against protesters in the 1960s, to “negotiated management” with protesters in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, to the “Miami Method” that evolved as a result of (i) the 1999 Seattle WTO riots, (ii) the 9/11 attacks, and (iii) 2003 Free Trade of the Americas protest in Miami.

As I’ve recounted here, the 1999 Seattle WTO protests were, in fact, sparked by the Seattle police.  They resulted in both the police chief and the mayor losing their jobs and the city having to pay out about $1.8 million to settle the claims brought against them by citizens whom the police abused.

And I was actually in Miami for the 2003 protests, although I did not take part.  But I recall following the investigation afterward into police overreach that the local independent press reported, and I remember the evidence presented of massive unlawful arrests, routine use of unnecessary force, and undercover police agents provacateur that infiltrated the protesters.

I found Madrigal’s article interesting for two reasons especially.  First, toward the end, he intimates that protest policing methods may be about to evolve again as a result of our now ubiquitous recording technology and social networking sites:

The large-scale deployment of video recording technologies combined with high-speed media diffusion channels have allowed everyone to see what only a tiny number did back in 2003 in Miami.  They are seeing kids getting pepper sprayed and hundreds of protesters getting arrested.  They’re watching police throw flash grenades into groups of American citizens.  These images are coming to them through the same Twitter accounts and Facebook updates that show them photos of their friends’ new babies and the score of the USC game.

While it’s easiest to note the incidents of police violence, the protesters’ cameras also record what’s *not* in the images.  Authorities have long claimed that they were merely battling the “black bloc” of violent anarchists.  But when you look at all these videos, the bogeyman isn’t there.

Instead, it’s a dozen scared kids and a police officer named John Pike spraying them in the face from three feet away.

Second, Madrigal argues for a sympathetic understanding of just why Pike did decide to pepper spray those students:  because that is what current protest policing methods taught him to do, and that “while it’s his finger pulling the trigger, the police system is what put him in the position to be standing in front of those students.” 

But while I understand the point Madrigal is making here, I am a lot less sympathetic toward John Pike than Madrigal wants me to be.  Count me instead as one of the “[m]any . . . calling for Pike’s firing.”  To begin with, regardless of what the current police system taught Pike to do, his behavior is abominable and ultimately he is the one whose finger is on the trigger of that military grade pepper spray with which he’s dousing peaceful college students.

Moreover, if we are in fact looking at the beginning of a change in how protests are policed in this country, then the way to effect that change is for the people who actually engaged in terrible conduct under the old system to suffer consequences for that terrible conduct.  This can only underscore the lesson that brutality by the police will simply no longer be tolerated in our country.

And sure . . . maybe it seems a little unfair to punish people like Pike who might only have been playing under the existing rules of the old system, but what is the alternative?  “Sorry for the police abuse, people, and we’re going to change the rules so that doesn’t happen anymore but nobody who engaged in it is actually going to be punished.”  What are the odds that will get your local cops to change their ways?  I’d say slim to none.

So, sorry, but Pike really should be flushed away.

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