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.
The way civil disobedience works goes like this:
- 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.
- You break the law while in some way communicating your beef. If you
did it right, people notice.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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
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.
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
label. 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.