May 2012

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The Police and Occupy

by Jonathan Wallace

The other day, I was at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in a little urban park in Manhattan. People at demos seem to stir around aimlessly like swallows on wires; finally, there is a purposeful burst of activity, and the birds form into files flying south. Similarly, after a lot of stirring around, the demonstrators started to leave the park.

And a white shirted officer, a "chief of patrol", stepped in front of them. As a tactical decision, by doing so he assured that every blue uniformed cop in sight would run in to protect him; and that ensured that a line of violent, testosterone-infused men, and women behaving like them, would be pushing back demonstrators who might get angry, or attempt to dodge through; and that meant that a moment later, cops would be slamming people, none too carefully, to the pavement, and tying their hands with cheap, disposable plastic tie handcuffs.

As a more experienced observer of such incidents pointed out, the whiteshirt could have stayed back and sent the blue shirts in to form a line; there might have been some pushing back and forth; it might not have resulted in arrests. By putting himself in the way, he assured it would become a mass arrest incident. His motivation was unclear; it could have been a random impulse, or a decision that the march was not to leave the park in that direction. Or it may have been a decision to take out those particular demonstrators, the so-called "black bloc", wearing black kerchiefs over their mouths.

The Supreme Court established a long time ago that items of dress are symbolic speech, protected by the First Amendment. Someone wearing a kerchief over their face in the cold is committing no crime, while someone doing so at a demonstration becomes suspect: the difference between a permissible use and a banned one is a First Amendment-protected thought. There was no actual lawless behavior: all they were doing was exercising a legal right to cross a street on a green light. There was no violence, nobody threw anything or hounded the cops, and the police (as was also true when I was arrested in November) never issued any kind of warning, never said, "You cannot cross the street."

As New Yorkers, we are used to the police hounding and even arresting people because of the way they dress: young black and Latino men in "ghetto" attire who are stopped and frisked merely walking down the street. And we blame the victim by saying, "If they dress that way, they should expect the attention."

I told the story of the "black bloc" because I witnessed it personally, but it is possible I lost you the moment I mentioned the black kerchiefs. On the night of my own arrest, neither I, the working journalists, the passersby or scores of demonstrators arrested with me were wearing black kerchiefs. The sweeping up tactic is universal, not just applied against people who might frighten you on the street. And arresting them because they look frightening is of course an arrest for a thought crime, for being the wrong way, in the absence of a criminal action.

Because I wanted to write about things I personally witnessed, I will mention only in passing the other notable police violence which occurred at Occupy demonstrations. The photo on the top page is of a bestial officer who went berserk and punched out an already subdued demonstrator in the park on the night of the eviction. The white shirt who without provocation tear gassed some peaceful women trapped behind a barricade. There are two components to police brutality: the sickness of some people who join the force, and more significantly, the command structure which either orders them to be violent, or turns a blind eye and protects them when they act out.

Later in the day, I saw something even more disturbing. The cops pulled three bicyclists from their bicycles. I didn't see the beginning of the incident, but by the time I got there, one had a bloody head. And they wrapped a shirt around his head for a while, for no discernible reason except to prevent him from being photographed. For a moment, I had the insight that we live (unbeknownst to most of us) in a savage third world country. A second arrestee was an older man who was loudly demanding medical assistance, and naturally no ambulance arrived in the ten minutes it took the cops to load the people into a van and take them away. I saw this in November too: cops resist calling for medical aid for people they have beaten.

A few feet away from the bloody bicyclist, an old man was haranguing the police that they were too merciful, presumably that they should beat all of us, harder. More incipient violence was in the air; I realized that, based on a lifetime of experience as a New Yorker, I regard NYPD as a dangerous armed gang which can blow at any time. Since I was arrested on November 15, every time I go to a demonstration I have to do a mental calculation: how do I feel about getting arrested again? Will I be able to avoid it? I know I can be arrested at any time, for doing nothing, as I was before, simply for being there. This knowledge certainly has served as a deterrent, has kept many people I know away from OWS demonstrations. That is the point of the exercise, I think, making sure that the only people who will risk coming out are the most marginal, the most arrestible. The First Amendment then becomes a kind of meaningless icon, shining up in the air, giving no protection on the ground.

In the Times the next morning, the arrests at the park were described as resulting from a "clash" between protestors and police. This is an amusing example of the spin the papers achieve in trying to be overtly fair, and take no sides. Buried in the article there was a brief acknowledgement that the protestors were simply trying to cross the street.

The NYPD's methodology, as first demonstrated in the Brooklyn Bridge arrests last fall and clearly in evidence the night of the eviction when I was arrested, is protest control via groundless mass arrests which can be dismissed later: get them off the streets tonight, and what happens later doesn't matter. I was arrested for standing still on a sidewalk, and so were hundreds of others that night whose charges were dismissed within a month or so for lack of evidence--a phrase which takes on an ironic tinge when you know that the reason there is no evidence of a misdeed is because you never committed one. The police use tactics like "kettling"--funneling hundreds of protestors behind barricades, then taking them all-- and "smash and grab", in which a white shirt fifty feet away points out protestors, and a squad of uniformed cops plows into the crowd and takes them down. The stunning randomness of the selection has been evident at many demonstrations, and was at work when I was arrested: the Deputy Commissioner who pointed me out evidently thought I was someone, a planner, some kind of gray haired radical.

Two other themes of mass OWS arrests: the cops increasingly are taking anyone pointing a camera at them, including working journalists with their press passes around their necks. And they are beating a lot of people. In the holding cell at Police Plaza on the morning of November 15, every third man was bleeding from a cut to the head.

I first saw a New York City police riot in 1971, outside the Fillmore East on its last night of existence, when the cops charged in to a crowd of hippies disappointed they couldn't get in to see the Allman Brothers, and beat them bloody. When I was working on New York City ambulances, a cop once went berserk and started hitting a psychotic who had kicked me, and I saw a female cop slam a resistant prisoner who was already handcuffed and lying face down. I know about stop and frisk, the indefensible program under which the cops stop young black and Latino males randomly and search them, and which ensures that a large proportion of that populace spends some time in prison during their lives. I myself was stopped and frisked, when I was fifteen and had shoulder length hair.

Do privileged white New Yorkers not know how the cops behave to other people, or do they not care? I think its impossible not to know; you simply have to read the papers, despite the spin, to get some sense of it, especially since the stop and frisk debate has become public. Move around the city enough, and you will peronally witness cops taking down black teenagers somewhere, sooner or later. I think white people live in a combination of denial--"it can't be quite as bad as they say"--and a comforting double standard, in which the cops are the Thin Blue Line against those Other People, but would never treat Us that way.

One of the hallmarks of lawless countries is that there is a very great divergence between the official rulebook, and the situation on the ground. Chile in the murderous years after the coup continued to have a constitution which contained the words "Torture shall not be applied". Our Constitution is becoming such a document. Under the official rulebook, a cop will not arrest you unless he has a warrant or observes you committing an illegal act. On the ground, the cops can do whatever the fuck they please. Police in their armor, hardware and tactics are becoming ever more militarized, and are using their might against unarmed, peaceful people, many of them barely out of their teens, who are trying to cross streets peacefully and whose only sin is to have evaded parental, social and governmental control in their desire to speak. As a result, they are being "kettled", slammed to the ground, beaten and jailed on charges which cannot stand up even for a minute.

The police report ultimately to the mayor, who tries to present a mild mannered, liberal face, but these tactics, the kettling, the beatings, ultimately trace back to him. The mayor has dropped snarky comments, like a tinpot dictator, hinting at his own knowledge of the situation on the street: "You want to get arrested? We'll accomodate you" at a press conference in March.

I have frequently described my encounters with good cops. My life was possibly saved in 1970 by a cop detailed to my high school, who refused to stand by and let us be beaten with chains by counter-demonstrators. That was the day after police on Wall Street stood by while demonstrators were savagely beaten by construction workers. On the night I was arrested in November, two cops apologized to me for what was happening.

At Occupy briefings, you will increasingly hear the point that you shouldn't overly trust friendly policemen. Some of the time, you are being played, in the classic "good cop/bad cop" scenario. Some cops are simply assigned to be putatively friendly in a meaningless way, such as the Community Affairs officers. And even the ones who are honestly friendly and remorseful form part of a structure which is being used by its bosses not merely to keep law and order any more, but to police a political divide, to put certain kinds of peaceful, lawful behavior beyond the pale. At most of the demonstrations I have attended, the only people blocking traffic, engaging in disorderly conduct, and attacking anyone, are the police.

The saddest part of this is that: the police are us. They are hardworking, blue collar union guys, and the same billionaire class they are working so hard to protect in New York has shown its gratitude by trying to break their unions elsewhere. Like us, they are struggling with mortgages and student loans, wondering what the future holds. When their job requires them to become tools of a selfish, chaotic billionaire class, they should nonetheless reflect: when things go to hell in a handbasket, and the billionaires leave for New Zealand in their Gulfstream IV's, will there be a seat for me on that plane? When the billionaires run into their safe rooms, will they hold the door open for me? Or am I cannon fodder, to be used up and expended, as "disposable" and disregarded as the OWS demonstrators against whom I am deployed?

One of the most inspiring and hopeful elements of the Arab Spring has been the soldiers in Syria and elsewhere, who laid their guns down, refused to shoot unarmed protestors any more. We haven't had a case yet in New York of a cop who decided not to to arrest lawful protestors, who refused to run in and protect the whiteshirt blocking peaceful people. Not that we know of, anyway. But I hope it starts to happen.

In some cities, we have seen a different model of policing, in which minorities, the poor, look out the window at the neighborhood cop, and think: He is one of us. He is here to protect me. In New York, the cops have deliberately remained the enemy for all these decades, stopping and frisking every black or Latino male several times or more in his lifetime, while almost all whites have never had the experience.

As during the Vietnam war, there is a section of the American middle class willing to turn a blind eye to the violent suppression of peaceful First Amendment dissent. A part of this is the old blaming the victim phenomenon: if you exercise your rights of Free Speech around jittery cops, you are asking for it. Then there is the contingent of us--they have always existed--who are comfortable not living in a democracy, like the old man the other day who was calling for more blood, more beatings.

When you endorse, don't object to, don't protest against, don't vote against, the creation of a powerful, lawless police force, you are running the risk of a very educational encounter of your own. When a cop hits you in the face one day, what will you say? "You're not supposed to do that to me....only to black and Latino youngsters and scruffy OWS demonstrators"?