Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On Police Brutality on Wall Street

The first video I saw was not that outrageous. Two officers of the NYPD were arresting a protester on Wall Street last week. The protester had gone limp, so the two officers carried him away from the demonstration to the curb so they could complete the arrest. Pretty much a routine arrest of a demonstrator doing civil disobedience: refusing the order to clear the street, then going limp as the arrest is made. In the confusion, he was set down on the pavement and then dragged across pavement, and somewhere in the interaction he sustained a small cut on his thumb. The suspect also remarked that his cuffs -- the plastic cord kind of cuff -- were a bit tight.

Eh. Unpleasant, but nothing rising to the level of "police brutality."

Then the weekend came, and it got a great deal more rough on Wall Street. There were scores of arrests, targeting people with cameras first, and for good reason: unprovoked police brutality was being used to divide and disperse the protest, chase away witnesses, and quash the action.

For the past nine or ten days, there has been a protest movement on Wall Street targeting the behavior of financial institutions and the investor class. The demonstrations have included marches and civil disobedience, including camping out.

The police have a job to do and the majority of officers appearing in the videos are seen handling the confusion with professionalism and even respect. Nonetheless, there is also footage showing police abuse: people holding cameras being targeted despite the fact that filming police in public is a legal right, including a young man taken down violently, head smashing into a parked car, and a PBS correspondent who was arrested for the crime of journalism. There is also the upsetting footage of NYPD supervisor Anthony Bologna approaching a small group of young women who had been corralled and contained, simply reaching in and pepper spraying them without provocation, inflicting pain and suffering without justification.

Were these protesters really causing anything more than an inconvenience down on Wall Street to make a broader point? Of course not. The point is to intimidate and discourage such actions.

The first amendment of our Constitution guarantees not only a right to free speech and freedom of religion, but also a right "peaceably to assemble" in order to petition government and air grievances. Although a right to civil disobedience is not explicitly guaranteed, organized protest including civil disobedience are forms of direct action that foster solidarity within a movement while hopefully attracting media attention. In the southern U.S., Jim Crow laws were eventually broken because thousands of citizens engaged in civil disobedience, breaking laws in minor ways to call attention to laws and policies that were far more harmful. Civil disobedience has also been employed to denounce wars, torture, unlawful detentions, unjust immigration laws, ecological destruction. It was civil disobedience, and the risk of arrest and police violence, that led to child labor laws and the eight-hour work day. It can be said that meaningful democratic participation in our governance and meaningful social change require action on the streets, require getting in the way, including even the risk of arrest or a blow from a truncheon. Clogging up the local system with arrests is another way of, so to speak, facing the tank and gumming up the machine. Personally, these actions are out of my own comfort zone, but I have participated because this, to me, is an aspect of citizenship.

Government and state powers, while charged by the Constitution to protect these rights (including also the fourth amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and fifth amendment guarantee of due process), have always pushed back against these popular rights using sedition laws, treating protesters as terrorists, federalizing local investigations, aggressive surveillance, infiltration and entrapment, and unaccountable violence and intimidation. The state has also invested heavily in a growing industry producing non-lethal weapons to use against civilian populations, something we have blogged about previously; while the government has passed laws that protect the operation of business from being disturbed by the protests of the citizenry.

Today's MLK will be doused with pepper spray, knocked to the pavement by water cannons, and perhaps struck with a tazer -- and will still be assassinated in the end if he does not quit.

J. Edgar Hoover, who once commented that justice is incidental to law and order, would like these developments very much.

1 comment:

quid said...

I'm musing about these protests, and can't help the comparison to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam marches of the 60's and 70's. Can't help but thinking that this is just the beginning of an "American Spring".