Come see the violence inherent in the system

I think I’m pretty well on record as far as my feelings on police. I
think it’s a job description that naturally attracts bullies, the last
sort of person who should be given power over people. I, personally,
despite being about as law-abiding a person you might hope to find,
have had nothing but bad experiences on the rare occasions I’ve been
forced to deal with them. I think the militirization of our police
forces and rising use of SWAT teams against nonviolent, sometimes
innocent, civilians is appalling. I read Reddit, and see stories
almost daily of police abuse of power. I know from the public record
and from reading frank interviews with police officers that police
will protect their own, sometimes to the point of framing innocents if
it means keeping a fellow officer out of trouble. I think the
automatic characterization of police as “heroes” is stupid.

I am not a fan of the police.

That said, I’ve been seeing some really dumb stuff said about the
police lately, and it’s getting to be a bit much even for me.


Let me be clear, I’m opposed to the use of police force to break up
law-abiding exercises of free speech. If someone’s sitting in a public
park holding a sign which is not obscene by local standards, having a
cop come and pepper-spray them and drag them away is Not OK.

In recent days, however, the Occupy movement has started going beyond
plain speech. It has begun organizing shut-downs of public transit
facilities like buses and subways.

In this post I’m going to confine my comment to the use of police
force against protesters deliberately breaking laws or ordinances by
obstructing public services or right-of-way. I.e. civil disobedience.

Civil Disobedience

The way civil disobedience works goes like this:

  1. You pick a law to break, e.g. the one that says “Don’t block
    traffic”. Traditionally you pick a law you consider unjust, such as
    “black people can’t sit at the front of a bus”. But there’s precedent
    for breaking unrelated laws in order to draw attention to a cause, or
    to a whole system you think is broken.
  2. You break the law while in some way communicating your beef. If you
    did it right, people notice.
  3. At some point, the police come and either arrest you or force you
    to go away. You are prepared for this, because it’s part of the nature
    of nonviolent civil disobedience.

How to create a fiasco

Imagine you are a city administrator. Your job is to make sure that
the city functions smoothly. If you fail to do that, money is lost,
people are aggravated, and there will be hearings calling your
competence into question.

You have certain tools at your disposal for accomplishing this task.
If a water main breaks, you send in the Public Works people. If people
block traffic or transit, breaking the law in the process, you send in
the police to clear them out.

Let’s say you’re confronted with the latter situation Here’s how you
would go about creating a bloody disaster.

  1. Send in police officers trained to react to violence with deadly
    force. Send them in with just their shirt sleeves and side arms to
    arrest and/or disperse the protesters.
  2. Wait for one of them to panic and start shooting.

How to NOT create a fiasco

Here’s what you do if you want to avoid that scenario. You send in
cops dressed like these guys:

Cops in Riot Gear

Scary looking, aren’t they? One of my friends called them
“stormtroopers”, a moniker which, historically, misses the mark a

These cops are dressed in riot gear. Frightening as it looks, this is
actually a Good Thing as far as keeping things (relatively) nonviolent
goes. These are cops that know that unless things get really out of
hand, they aren’t going to be badly injured by a stray rock or elbow.
These are cops who are prepared to take some blows without immediately
reaching for their sidearms. In short, these are cops who probably
aren’t going to start shooting people.

Assuming a) the law is being broken, b) people are causing a public
nuisance, and c) these guys have been lawfully directed to round up
those people, I’m actually happy that they look like extras from
Equilibrium, sans automatic

But they are using tear gas and pepper spray!

Imagine you are charged with non-lethally breaking up an act of civil
disobedience. We’ll assume you can’t just ask them nicely to leave;
that would kind of defeat the purpose of civil disobedience. In civil
disobedience you don’t put up a fight, but you also don’t comply with
official directives to go away.

So here you are with a bunch of people in front of you that you need
to cause to not be where they currently are. True, you could go to
each protester one by one, read them their rights, and physically haul
them in jail. And at a lot of protests this is exactly what happens.

But I have to imagine that this doesn’t scale above a certain size.
And anyway, the costs involved have to be high. How much does it cost
taxpayers to arrest, haul away, charge, process, and incarcerate one
hundred people for a night? One thousand? It can’t be cheap.

Given those parameters, warning the protesters you will use tear gas
if they don’t move on, and then using it, seems like the pragmatic
thing to do. It gets the job done fast, no one is permanently harmed,
and the city is saved a lot of money.

Why can’t they just leave the protesters alone?!

This is a fair question. Why not just leave them alone and let the
city route around them for a while?

Well, again, if you’re in charge of a city, leaving obstructions alone
is pretty much exactly what people expect you not to do. People are
losing time, money, and patience, and they expect something to be done
about it.

But there’s a bigger problem. You can’t just ignore the protesters. If
it goes on long enough, sooner or later some fed-up commuter is going
pitch a rock at a protester and before you know it you’ll have a
real riot on your hands. So if you leave the protest be, you still
have to keep a police line around it 24/7. This, again, is not cheap.

Why not just give them what they want?

Since Occupy has explicitly declined to come up with a specific list
of demands, that’s not a possibility right now.

Bottom line

The use of police does not make the US a police state. In an actual police state, you are arrested before you get as far as creating an actual protest. And if you somehow do manage to protest, you get shot or put away for life.

If you expect civil disobedience to occur without any police force
used at all, you clearly didn’t read the
. This is how
the civil disobedience game is played, and as far as I can tell
everyone is playing their parts admirably. The protesters are getting
their voices heard on national TV, the cops haven’t killed anyone,
nobody’s been carted away to mass detention camps. Considering that
the way this sort of thing has been handled through most of history
(and still is, in many countries) is to just start shooting people
until they clear the streets, I have to reluctantly say to the cops
involved: this time, you done good.

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  1. While I agree with much of what you say in principle, having personally been on the business end of ‘non-lethal’ tactics by police in DC and elsewhere, I can report that your initial assessment is correct: the job itself attracts the worst of bullies, and the real problem is that they so rarely get to use the levels of force they trained for, that any type of force is taken to the maximum possible level, and a bit beyond. For instance, if they’re allowed to use tear gas, they’ll ‘accidentally’ use CN tear gas, which is not allowed for use against civilians in the US (and most other countries), instead of the much less-toxic CS. In addition, police deliberately attempt to cause injury with their ‘non-lethal’ weapons, when the weapons are designed to merely cause discomfort. Sure, if you engage in civil disobedience and then cry that the pigs weren’t nice to you, you’re being a pansy. But the reality is that the cops are like anyone else: give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile. They truly enjoy any excuse to inflict grievous harm on anyone who gets in their way. I’m not excusing unreasonable actions on either side, but there are many valid reasons for specific tactics used by protesters in recent years (like the black bloc) that are in direct response to questionable tactics by police. Political protest after Chicago 1968 is basically low-intensity warfare. You go in expecting that, or you come out hurt, or worse.

  2. The only thing this eminently reasonable and cogent assessment omits is the trend of NYPD arresting credentialed journalists, and asking the media choppers to leave right when the cops are about to start the pepper-spraying. If the city needs to move the protesters, fine, but kicking out the press is inexcusable.

  3. I think that you are using an extremely narrow definition of the term “police state”, and even those criteria you are only applying to these protests. You are also assuming that all protesters are actually violating any laws. True, so far no one has been killed in these protests _yet_, but people have been critically injured, including people that were not even part of the protests, but were merely in the area. Further, the police have been routinely beating and arresting people, knowing that they are not actually violating any laws, all while covering their badges in an effort to hide their identity, even though this is clearly against the law in most, if not all of the US. They have also established check points on public streets, demanding identification. As one New Yorker tweeted, “Iranian-born co-worker said ‘they used to do that in Tehran.'” We’ve poured billions into a massive surveillance network and shredded the Constitution to enact laws that are used more than 99% of the time in non-terrorism related investigations. We are now subject to invasive, and yet, totally ineffective searches at airports, train stations, and bus stations, and our movement is tracked globally, with massive travel restriction lists. All internet traffic is mirrored and analyzed, and yet there are still calls for more power over the internet.When I compare this country with the country I came to know in the 1970s and 1980s when I was a child and young adult, I am shocked by the amount of corporate control and police militarization and abuse we have allowed to permeate our lives. Growing up I was used to seeing protesters clashing with police to end the Vietnam War, and for other causes. I feel this is different. The police, across this country, have declared war against the very people they are supposed to protect, and have been let loose to use all of the toys and training they have been itching to use for almost a decade.

  4. Moosch: I made it very clear that I was talking only about civil disobedience, which by definition involves breaking the law. Any more comments which ignore what I wrote in order to go on a tangential rant will be removed.

  5. The problem with responding with tear gas instead of handcuffs is that it engages in collective punishment, denying the protestors and any bystanders due process. It may be cheaper than making arrests, but it is, itself, illegal on its face. It may be the least harmful intervention, I can’t disagree, but the bar to its use is far too low. Witness: passively sitting, being pepper sprayed by a uniformed policeman for no apparent reason. That’s assault, plain and simple.Finally, it’s at best ambiguous if the Occupy Wall Street folks specifically have been, by occupying city parks, breaking any laws. It’s arguable that the constitutional right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances supersedes municipal restrictions on loitering and sleeping in public.

  6. Here’s a longer video that makes the context of the UC-Davis incident blindingly clear:!

  7. This made me happy. I’ve been reading some pretty irrational things lately and this was refreshingly rational. The police and government response so far is the huge difference between places like Egypt, Iran, Syria and Libya and places like the U.S. Those hoping to cause a Tahir square uprising will be disappointed.

  8. To be abundantly clear: I do not support or condone the UC Davis incident or anything like it. Again, this post is about deliberate acts of civil disobedience ONLY.And yes, Occupy has moved on from “public square” occupations to planning occupations pf subway and other transit systems. Check the news, or just read their websites.

  9. Civil disobedience does not by definition mean breaking any laws. Look up the term in most dictionaries. For example, Merriam Webster says, “refusal to obey governmental demands or commands especially as a nonviolent and usually collective means of forcing concessions from the government”. Demands and commands are not laws, and part of my point is that the demands and commands issued by the police and governments are not lawful. Most longer definitions make a point that civil disobedience _does not even imply_ breaking laws.

  10. Avdi – your blog title is “Come see the violence inherent in the system” and you chastise moosch – seems to me you should be a little more lenient with the posts and let your readers do their own censoring based on their own common sense – there’s the letter of the law and there’s the spirit of the law and the same can be said for blog articles – seems to me the spirit of this article “Come see the violence inherent in the system” is one that is large in it’s scope (spirit).One should really resist the urge to censor unnecessarily – it’s a way of killing what may be a somewhat off topic comment that is informative or insightful and closely related to the topic at hand which I believe is “Come see the violence inherent in the system”

  11. Oh oh – my bad – I forgot to mention in my previous post that I liked your article and found it to be balanced and thoughtful and I think your definition of what constitutes a police state was a good stab at a definition.Was it too narrow or too wide?? – you can fuss over that all day and not get the article written – I have no serious problem with your definition and I liked mooch’s counterpoint view – gives me something to think about from two perspectives.

  12. Gunnar Scheffels November 19, 2011 at 22:17

  13. Another thought occurred to me. When the police break up acts of civil disobedience using extrajudicial collective punishment tactics, they deny the protestors the right to use the legal system itself in their petition for redress of grievances.

  14. As pointed out in the comments above, civil disobedience does *not* by definition involve breaking the law. Avdi, I find most of your post here on this topic to be logical, but I am dismayed that our collective public conscious can’t distinguish between public protests that are annoying (such as crowding out the entrance of a business) and illegal activity (such as physically damaging private property on purpose.)In a grand historical sense, we can agree that the police response thus far has been appropriate. It is appropriate because civil disobedience has given us virtually every law and legal precedent that makes our country decent. A small sampling for context: civil rights, suffrage, child labor laws, health care laws, worker safety laws, the 40-hour work week, and weekends. Intertwined with the civil disobedience that led to those historic victories are administrators who overstepped their legal obligations and police and militia who acted the part of thugs, violently putting down protesters and agitators who ultimately won the rights that make life here for you and I tolerable.So in a grand sense, police violence is an American tradition. Perhaps the tradition deserves to be respected.If I understand the main point of your post, Avdi, it is that characterizing our system as a ‘police state’ is hyperbolic. I disagree. Avdi, you assert the following requirements of a ‘police state’: “In an actual police state, you are arrested before you get as far as creating an actual protest. And if you somehow do manage to protest, you get shot or put away for life.” Can we agree that this statement is an exaggeration?For a moment, let us consider what traits might characterize a police state: *) massive arrests, *) indiscriminate arrests, *) political prisoners, *) militarization of local law enforcement, *) unprovoked violence committed by police with impunity, *) illegal actions committed by police officers with impunity.The test of a ‘police state’, and of our state of freedom in general, does not come when administrators are comfortable and business continues as usual. The test of freedom comes when civilians try to disrupt the status quo, and the state is forced to react.If there is any doubt that the United States does not satisfy the above, very conservative and reasonable characterizations of a police state, then I believe that you are not fully informed. In this country, which has almost half of the world’s prisoners, keeping almost 1% of its population behind bars, the 12th richest man [Bloomberg] just directed the world’s 10th largest armed body [NYPD] to disperse a gathering of civilians. When those civilians got a court order to prevent the police action, the police force ignored it. That is illegal by the way, whereas the encampment in Liberty Park was not, at the time, illegal.In fact, the woman who carried the court order to Liberty Park, the legal document which should have protected the civilians from the actions of the police, was punched in the face. Civilian with legal document => punch in the face by police officer. So apparently the law will not protect civilians; on the bright side, it won’t protect people in positions of power either: a member of the NYC City Council was arrested in a mass arrest the same day. He wasn’t even protesting. He was a bystander. A witness. An elected official. Luckily, this elected official of our supposed democracy was held in a container alone for 12 hours without access to a lawyer. It could have been much worse: he could have been detained for several days without access to a lawyer in a garage where he would receive chemical burns from unidentified industrial waste; or he could have been chained to a desk for several days with a bullet wound, fed a McDonalds cheeseburger once a day and denied access to restroom so that he had to piss himself — tactics that the NYPD has recently taken with other innocent citizens — innocent citizens that the police also arrested without cause.Avdi, you seem to object to the police behavior being characterized as a police state, but the fact that the police are using violent force against innocent civilians, civil disobedients, and law-breakers alike is key to that characterization.In the past two weeks, we have been inundated with video of police action including: forcing open womens’ mouths to force down pepper spray, beating pregnant women in the stomach with batons, slamming heads into pavement, dragging women by the hair. Just this morning I saw video of a woman who was complying with an order to disperse, walking away from a police line, get charged by an officer on bike, from behind, knocked to the ground and arrested while screaming in pain from the wounds on her face, hands, and head.There is another tangent here that I won’t follow to conclusion, but I will simply mention that all feminists, and by extension any man who loves a woman in any capacity, should condemn the police for committing these acts of violence against women. It doesn’t matter whether the women are breaking the law or not. Violence cannot be condoned. Directing the police to commit violence against women is unacceptable. These municipal administrators directed the police to use violent force against civilians, knowing full well that women are among those who would be injured. Avdi, you should condemn that out-of-hand, irrespective of whether or not the violence causes ‘permanent damage.’ [Note: You mean permanent *physical* damage, since the emotional impact of terror like this is incalculable.]The fact that an administrator was tasked with keeping open an intersection does not justify the means. The fact that pulling aside protesters, one-by-one, and arresting them with due process might not scale well is unfortunate for the municipality, but that is irrelevant. The social contract that our society relies on is much better served by respect for the law on both sides, and it is imperative that violence used by anyone, regardless of position or capacity, against unarmed civilians is unacceptable. It is flat-out unacceptable. That is a pillar of civilized society, and any excuse for violence used in that capacity is a disservice to our greater human nature.Lastly, let’s keep in mind that these city actions are now being coordinated with DHS and many of the police forces are using military weapons and tactics perfected in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Witness the tanks being rolled out in some cities.The prison system in the United States is big business. The police force is now clearly a branch of the military industrial complex. [On this point, I believe that you and I are in agreement, Avdi.] The police operate outside of the law, above the law, and at the discretion of politicians who for the most part bought that power. [I take it for granted that we live in a plutocracy, but that is also tangential to your post.] Let’s not forget that many of the city officials directing the police force are appointed, not elected.For what it’s worth, the Tahrir Square protesters agree: “And let’s say, frankly, that we’re happy for finding the people trying to correct the pathway of democracy even in the United States.”You can watch an interview with Asmaa Mahfouz, the young women who set the mass protests in Egypt into motion, herself in person at Occupy Wall Street expressing solidarity with the movement online here:, I think the restraint shown by the protests has been admirable thus far. I think the evidence that the police have undue power and enforce the will of the State in defiance of the greater interests of the commonwealth is overwhelming and growing daily. I do not think it unfair to characterize the pattern of police action used to break up the #occupy camps as befitting a police state, even when those actions were directed towards those who purposely committed civil disobedience, of which crowding into a public building is an example. I hope that upon further reflection you decide to denounce all police action that is violent, particularly violence directed against unarmed women, children, and the elderly — regardless of whether those civilians are committing a crime or not.

  15. I don't see what bearing the sex of a protester has whatsoever. Are we still protecting the "weaker sex"? Our Social contract includes using violence (force) to compel obedience to laws. That is the basis on which our entire system of governance-as well as the system of every other country on earth-is based. You obey the law voluntarily, or the government uses their monopoly on force to compel you to. Personally, I look forward to a day and a place where that is not needed. But the vast majority of our fellow humans-including most of those protesting-believe it is good and right for the government to use force to enFORCE the law. All they disagree on is what those laws should be.

  16. Avdi, I understand the conventional wisdom or political correctness of the quotes around “weaker sex” but let’s do a reality check.For want of a better stat, who in 99 out of 100 cases of physical domestic violence is on the receiving end of a beating – women – because *on average* they don’t have the body mass, height and arm reach to slug it out toe to toe with a man. In the case of children and seniors, sex doesn’t matter they’re the losers when it comes to physical domestic violence *because they are weaker*.So a cop beating on a woman is an extremely repugnant event to most people who have a modicum of common sense. Because, in the overwhelmingly large number of cases, he has a large physical strength advantage over the woman and, as a result, he has other less violent force options than going “toe to toe” or roughing her up to show her “whose the man in the house”.The litmus test of a culture/society/country is how it treats it’s weak, weak economically, weak in health (physical and mental), and weak in the sense of being able to defend themselves against physical violence. As a kid I looked south and I truly loved and admired America and its ethos of the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. But more and more I see a bullying culture and I know full well a bully is anything but brave – and that scares me to know that an entity as strong and powerful as America is becoming less and less “brave”.Where do I see the American sense of bravery trying to raise it’s gorgeous head once again – OWS. There’s going to be a need for a lot of bravery from them to take their beatings and keep pressing – I’m hopeful that the old America I loved so much is making a come back.

  17. I think this is a challenging approach, Avdi, but I’d point out a few things.The role of the system is not simply to preserve business as usual and make sure things run smoothly. Sure, that’s part of it. But what civil disobedience is designed to do is not merely get people arrested as some sort of symbolism. It’s designed precisely to call the question on business as usual; to gum up the works. This is legitimate because the system also has duties to justice that, when honored, are not matters of efficiency, convenience, or expediency. They are not things that you can simply send a cop to perform — they are foundational to why we’d agree to the constraints of the system in the first place, foundational to why we’d WANT the system to be efficient and run smoothly.So when a group of people tie up traffic as a protest against, say, corporate domination of our political institutions, they aren’t simply saying, “I hope I get arrested because THEN everything will change.” They are telling both the system and their fellow citizens, “Civil society is a convention, an agreement we have to behave in a certain way that benefits us all. This isn’t working anymore for us.” In General Assembly we have a symbol in our consensus decision making process called block. Block means “I will leave the movement if this goes forward.” This is basically what civil disobedience is about. The systems that let people live their ordinary lives are not beyond questioning. If it takes people threatening to no longer honor those things people take for granted in order to bring fundamental issues of justice to the forefront, I don’t see why that’s a bad thing or even undesirable.You can say, well, they shouldn’t do it in such a disruptive manner. But that assumes that the system running normally is a higher value than the system running justly.

  18. One more thing:Well, again, if you’re in charge of a city, leaving obstructions alone is pretty much exactly what people expect you not to do. People are losing time, money, and patience, and they expect something to be done about it.Somehow, when the obstructions are tents in parks, or people in the road, immediate action is required.But when the obstructions are corporate and financial gaming of our system in quite blatant ways, immediate response isn’t really warranted, is it?I’m fine with your essay insofar as it goes. I get that you’re not a reflexive fan of cops and that you think there should be some order ’round these parts. I just think you don’t quite understand civil disobedience nor the reason why OWS is using these tactics.It comes down to this: what do you do when the system isn’t merely operating unjustly, but the system has become defined by it’s injustice? Working within it doesn’t work. You need extralegal means — just as the cops employ effectively extralegal intimidation and policing tactics (such as covering their names and badge numbers, hiding their faces, escalating force without life at risk, etc.) to maintain the system.I’d ask you frankly what makes a social system or government legitimate, and then to judge whether OWS is going about things the right way based on that. It’s a different approach than assuming the system is legitimate at the outset and then wondering, jeez, why are all these folks so teed off?

  19. There appears to be no common sense to the police application of force – talk about invigorating your civil disobedience problem: force option: three cops as a team – one to handcuff, two to then lift and take a demonstrator to the police wagon – relatively peaceful and job number one done. Interesting the cop’s casual walk and demeanour while inflicting incredible pain …

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