Counterproductive Crackdowns  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The video I linked to on the weekend had spread widely as the week opened - Crikey's Bernard Keane had this to say - Occupy crackdowns perfectly illustrate the movement’s claims.

It’s the casualness of it, the apparent insouciance of the act, that catches attention the most. University of California policeman John Pike strolls in front of a group of seated Occupy protestors and bombards them with pepper spray like he’s using insecticide. The casualness, and the contrast — between the heavily-equipped, helmeted officer and his passive targets.

In a few seconds, Pike earned himself the sort of international notoriety reserved for southern sheriffs from the 1960s, another victim of the reversal of the panopticon, in which law enforcement are now the subject of ever-increasing surveillance, especially as protests are attended by a bank of cameras, phones and the occasional iPad recording everything.

It also replaced as an iconic image that of Dorli Rainey, who the previous night had, if only temporarily, provided the compelling image of the protests after she was pepper-sprayed by police in Seattle.

They were only the latest of a series of incidents involving police-on-protester attacks during Occupy protests, the most notorious being the Oakland shooting with a “non-lethal weapon” of Scott Olsen that put the Iraq veteran into a coma.

The police tactics had their counterpart here with the violent eviction of Melbourne protesters on October 21. In all cases, police tactics appear designed around responding to violent riots, rather than peaceful protest or passive resistance. But as Pike — since placed on leave-with-pay — may now understand, that has the potential to generate the sorts of appalling contrasts for which he will forever be associated.

There’s some important context here, of course: protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo over the last 40 hours have now left at least five, and probably more, dead (there are currently reports of up to 27 fatalities). There’s a tendency to glib equation of the Occupy protests with the Arab Spring, which overlooks not merely that the reaction of law enforcement to the protests in western countries hasn’t yet yielded a body count, but that even non-violent protesters in less dangerous Middle Eastern countries often risk their lives.

For a movement that has been persistently criticised for failing to articulate any sort of positive agenda, however, the images of police overreaction are enormously beneficial, not merely for cynical reason that they generate media coverage, but because they provide an effective illustration of what the movement is complaining about, a visual counterpart to the cut-through “1%” slogan.

While the movement’s complaints — the debauching of democratic government by corporate interests, the economic double standards of the latter, the skewing of capitalism against the interests of most of the community — are hard to articulate in detail, the overreaction of law enforcement encapsulates the basic notion that the governmental apparatus is hostile to even passive forms of dissent and dismissive of basic rights.

This is enhanced by the reaction of authorities in the aftermath of violent police crackdowns. While Seattle mayor Mike McGinn immediately apologised to Rainey, he was atypical of authorities, who have either had to reluctantly support police despite obvious misgivings about their behaviour, or have resorted to peculiar reasoning to justify actions against protesters. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg justified clearing Zucotti Park on “health and safety” grounds. Melbourne mayor Robert Doyle had a bizarre interview with Jon Faine in which Doyle dismissed the need for any independent inquiry into the violence inflicted on Occupy Melbourne protesters, or even that anything untoward may have occurred. Oakland mayor and former activist Jean Quan has tried to blame “anarchists” for violence in the crackdown in that city. They’ve been supported by some law and order commentators. “It is truly not excessive and I am surprised by how not excessive it is,” said one New York policing academic in the aftermath of violent crackdowns in the US.

Not excessive in a Middle Eastern context, true.

The result is a stream of images, accompanied by a stream of rhetoric, that appears to confirm exactly what the movement is saying: that governments now instinctively lash out at dissent and rely heavily on spin to protect themselves. It reinforces the cynicism of voters who have become all too aware of the credibility gap in western societies between the carefully-prepared talking points of government (and corporate) leaders and reality.

The problem isn’t so much John Pike, an employee who will bear the brunt of the reaction against law enforcement tactics, as the lack of faith voters have in authorities and the way those in authority so frequently give them good reason for that lack of faith.



Glenn Greenwald at Salon has his usual rather long winded look at the events - The roots of the UC-Davis pepper-spraying.
The now-viral video of police officers in their Robocop costumes sadistically pepper-spraying peaceful, sitting protesters at UC-Davis (details here) shows a police state in its pure form. It’s easy to be outraged by this incident as though it’s some sort of shocking aberration, but that is exactly what it is not. The Atlantic‘s Garance Franke-Ruta adeptly demonstrates with an assemblage of video how common such excessive police force has been in response to the Occupy protests. Along those lines, there are several points to note about this incident and what it reflects:

(1) Despite all the rights of free speech and assembly flamboyantly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the reality is that punishing the exercise of those rights with police force and state violence has been the reflexive response in America for quite some time. As Franke-Ruta put it, “America has a very long history of protests that meet with excessive or violent response, most vividly recorded in the second half of the 20th century.” Digby yesterday recounted a similar though even worse incident aimed at environmental protesters.

The intent and effect of such abuse is that it renders those guaranteed freedoms meaningless. If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed — or hears that an Occupy protester suffered brain damage and almost died after being shot in the skull with a rubber bullet — many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power. That’s a natural response, and it’s exactly what the climate of fear imposed by all abusive police state actions is intended to achieve: to coerce citizens to “decide” on their own to be passive and compliant — to refrain from exercising their rights — out of fear of what will happen if they don’t.

The genius of this approach is how insidious its effects are: because the rights continue to be offered on paper, the citizenry continues to believe it is free. They believe that they are free to do everything they choose to do, because they have been “persuaded” — through fear and intimidation — to passively accept the status quo. As Rosa Luxemburg so perfectly put it: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” Someone who sits at home and never protests or effectively challenges power factions will not realize that their rights of speech and assembly have been effectively eroded because they never seek to exercise those rights; it’s only when we see steadfast, courageous resistance from the likes of these UC-Davis students is this erosion of rights manifest.

Pervasive police abuses and intimidation tactics applied to peaceful protesters — pepper-spray, assault rifles, tasers, tear gas and the rest — not only harm their victims but also the relationship of the citizenry to the government and the set of core political rights. Implanting fear of authorities in the heart of the citizenry is a far more effective means of tyranny than overtly denying rights. That’s exactly what incidents like this are intended to achieve. Overzealous prosecution of those who engage in peaceful political protest (which we’ve seen more and more of over the last several years) as well as rampant secrecy and the sprawling Surveillance State are the close cousins of excessive police force in both intent and effect: they are all about deterring meaningful challenges to those in power through the exercise of basic rights. Rights are so much more effectively destroyed by bullying a citizenry out of wanting to exercise them than any other means. ...

(2) Although excessive police force has long been a reflexive response to American political protests, two developments in the post-9/11 world have exacerbated this. The first is that the U.S. Government — in the name of Terrorism — has aggressively para-militarized the nation’s domestic police forces by lavishing them with countless military-style weapons and other war-like technologies, training them in war-zone military tactics, and generally imposing a war mentality on them. Arming domestic police forces with para-military weaponry will ensure their systematic use even in the absence of a Terrorist attack on U.S. soil; they will simply find other, increasingly permissive uses for those weapons. Responding to peaceful protests and other expressions of growing citizenry unrest with brute force is a direct by-product of what we’ve allowed to be done to America’s domestic police forces in the name of the War on Terror (and, before that, in the name of the War on Drugs).

The second exacerbating development is more subtle but more important: the authoritarian mentality that has been nourished in the name of Terrorism. It’s a very small step to go from supporting the abuse of defenseless detainees (including one’s fellow citizens) to supporting the pepper-spraying and tasering of non-violent political protesters. It’s an even smaller step to go from supporting the power of the President to imprison or kill anyone he wants (including one’s fellow citizens and even their teenaged children) with no transparency, checks or due process to supporting the power of the police and the authorities who command them to punish with force anyone who commits the “crime” of non-compliance. At the root of all of those views is the classic authoritarian mindset: reflexive support for authority, contempt for those who challenge them, and a blind faith in their unilateral, unchecked decisions regarding who is Bad and deserves state-issued punishment.

It’s anything but surprising that a country that has cheered as its Presidents seize the most limitless powers against allegedly Bad People — all as part of the ultimate instrument of citizen degradation: Endless War — cheer just as loudly when that same mindset is applied at home to domestic trouble-makers. The supreme threat has never been from foreign Terrorists, but rather from what was done by our own public- and private-sector authorities (and the mentality they successfully implanted) in their name.

(3) Beyond the light it is shedding on how power is really exercised in the U.S., this UC-Davis episode underscores why I continue to view the Occupy movement as one of the most exciting, inspiring and important political developments in many years. What’s most striking about that UC-Davis video isn’t the depraved casualness of the officer’s dousing the protesters’ faces with a chemical agent; it’s how most of the protesters resolutely sat in place and refused to move even when that happened, while the crowd chanted support (this video, taken from a slightly different vantage point, vividly shows this, beginning at 4:15). We’ve repeatedly seen acts of similar courage spawned by the Occupy movement.

It was the NYPD’s abusive pepper-spraying, followed by Mayor Bloomberg’s lawless destruction of the Zuccotti Park encampment, that prompted far more people than ever to participate in the next march across the Brooklyn Bridge. A tear gas attack on Occupy Oakland was followed by a general strike of 20,000 people. And this truly extraordinary, blunt and piercing open letter demanding the resignation of the heinous UC-Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi was written by a young, untenured Assistant Professor — Nathan Brown — who obviously decided that his principled beliefs outweigh his careerist ambitions.

This is the most important effect of the Occupy movement: acts of defiance, courage and conscience are contagious. Just as the Arab Spring clearly played some significant role in spawning, sustaining and growing the American Occupy movement, so too have the Occupy protesters emboldened one another and their fellow citizens. The protest movement is driving the proliferation of new forms of activism, citizen passion and courage, and — most important of all — a sense of possibility. For the first time in a long time, the use of force and other forms of state intimidation are not achieving their intended outcome of deterring meaningful (i.e., unsanctioned and unwanted) citizen activism, but are, instead, spurring it even more. The state reactions to these protests are both highlighting pervasive abuses of power and generating the antidote: citizen resolve to no longer accept and tolerate it. This is why I hope to see the Occupy movement — even if it adopts specific demands — remain an outsider force rather than reduce itself into garden-variety partisan electioneering: in its current form, it is demanding and re-establishing the indispensable right of dissent, defiance of unjust authority, and sustained protest.


Alex Steffen points to an interesting follow up at UC Davis, with a large contingent of silent protesters simply filming the responsible Chancellor as she crosses campus.



And finally another one from Salon, this one noting that the military government in Egypt is cracking down rather heavily on the tahrir Square protesters who are still hoping to install a democracy in the country - As Egyptians Return to Tahrir Square, the Obama Administration Sides with the Military.
In the nine months since Hosni Mubarak stepped aside, the Egyptian military has monopolized political decision-making. The SCAF has broken its promise to lift or modify the Emergency Laws, which have been in place since 1981 and give the state sweeping powers to detain citizens and restrict free speech, even though repeal of the laws was a central demand of the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square.

Since assuming power in February, the military has broken up protests, suppressed trade unionists, and imprisoned dissidents, journalists and bloggers. Human Rights Watch has accused the SCAF of subjecting between 7,000 and 10,000 civilians to military trials in the five months following the revolution. The recent imprisonment of blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah drew the attention of the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights, which expressed concern about “what appears to be a diminishing public space for freedom of expression and association in Egypt.”

One of the more egregious incidents was the death of 27 Coptic Christian demonstrators at the hands of what many suspect to be military personnel on Oct. 9 at the Maspiro State Television building in downtown Cairo. The military blames the demonstrators themselves for the violence.

“Instead of identifying which members of the military were driving the military vehicles that crushed Coptic protesters, the military prosecutor is going after the activists who organized the march,” reported Sarah Whitson, the Middle East North Africa director of Human Rights Watch.

The U.S. government shrugs off these abuses, attributing them to the SCAF’s inexperience. At a Nov. 3 press conference in Washington, U.S. Ambassador for Middle East Transition William Taylor asserted that military abuse can be attributed to the fact that the military is unaccustomed to governing and may be overwhelmed. “[Governing] is not what the Egyptian military is trained to do,” explained Taylor.

Nadeem Mansour, the executive director of the Egyptian Association for Economic and Social Rights, a Cairo-based NGO, called Taylor’s assertion baseless. “You don’t need to torture civilians because you are overwhelmed. They [the SCAF] are a repressive force by nature and they require an authoritarian environment. After all, they were all appointed by Mubarak, served him well, and still represent this mind-set,” he told Salon.

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