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While I truly empathize with the victims of the use of force by police against Occupy protesters these past few weeks, the fact that these acts of abuse occurred has served a very useful purpose. For the first time in a long time, the role of police in a society that calls itself democratic is being questioned. As anyone who has been paying attention knows, in the past few weeks police have beaten, pepper-sprayed, shot rubber bullets and other projectiles, used concussion grenades and other wise attacked Occupiers, their supporters and journalists at protests across the United States. In addition, individuals at other protests against tuition hikes, pay cuts and other economic issues have been brutally attacked by police. Video of these attacks, while rarely appearing on mainstream television, have been seen hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube and other social media.
The German philosopher and sociologist Max Weber wrote in his book Politics As Vocation that one condition of a legitimate government depended on how “its administrative staff successfully upholds a claim on the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in the enforcement of its order.” When that government feels it is under attack and believes that nothing but force will work to end those attacks, then it brings out the police and gives them free rein. In the United States in 2011, that means tear gas, pepper spray and truncheons; in Egypt of 2011 it means that and much more. Nor does it matter if one government is an elected nominally liberal civilian government, a dictator, or a military regime.
As far as the US and the wave of protest occurring there goes, the State has a firm monopoly on violence. Indeed, the increasingly violent police attacks on Occupy protests have been met with an even greater chorus of civilians calling for nonviolent witness. Any protester that challenges this insistence on nonviolence is quickly challenged as a potential police provocateur, a selfish jerk, thug or some other variant of deviant. While the fact exists that nonviolent witness is an incredibly powerful tactic of protest, it is a moral protest. Therefore, it assumes that those whose actions one is protesting actually have morals similar to the protesters and can be convinced to change policies by the moral power of the protesters’ arguments. Unfortunately, such is often not the case. For example, the chancellor of University of California (UC) Davis, whose actions created the situation last week where several students were pepper-sprayed at point blank range by campus police, seems to be truly shaken by the police actions her orders unleashed. However, given the history of UC policing, I doubt very much that there will be a sea change in how UC police use force on campus. Furthermore, one has to wonder if that chancellor would be having the moral misgivings she seems to be having if the pepper-spraying incident had not received the coverage it has.
Do I think the recent police violence against protesters in the US means that it’s time for protesters to move to armed struggle or even throw rocks at cops? No, of course not. My only intention in pointing out the limits of nonviolent resistance is that those limits are something that the authorities don’t necessarily recognize or care about.
Like many folks that have been involved in opposing the state, I have had my share of physical run-ins with the police. Truncheons, tear gas, pepper spray, all of it. Yet, the worst beating I ever received from the police was not at a protest. It happened when the police answered a noise complaint at an apartment I was at one night. After an argument between the cop and one of the apartment residents, the cop kicked in the door, tearing it off its hinges. He called for backup. I went outside through a back door. As I tried to leave one of the six policeman standing around saw me and attacked. Within minutes I was on the ground with three officers on me. One was twisting my arms around to cuff me and the other two were pushing my face into the concrete of the sidewalk. Another was beating my legs with his nightstick. I was thrown into the car of the cop who began the whole episode and as we drove to the station he told me that my friends and I were dead meat if he ever saw me when he was not in uniform. I said nothing. When we got to the jail he placed me in a holding cell and began to beat me with his fists and club. If it weren’t for the jailer arriving, he probably would have beat me unconscious. This experience is not that uncommon, especially in poorer neighborhoods (and especially in neighborhoods populated by people of color.)
Police handled the attacks on the Occupy camps, which in the authorities’ minds were nothing but magnets for those without houses, much as they do any attempts to roust the homeless. The fact that these attacks were played out in the media occurred because the camps were protest camps instead of non-political camps of the homeless. Furthermore, the presence of college students, labor activists and other “middle-class” residents not only brought cameras to the camp roustings, but people with some connections capable of speaking the language of the authorities and the media. This presence made what is a common occurrence to the people living on the streets into a national news story. In other words, the police violence visited on the homeless every day was exposed, if only briefly, to the world.
Historically, police violence is a fact of life in every society. In a society based on a capitalist economy, the police serve those that have the most money and property. When the authorities and their policies are under attack, the police will always be called in to protect the former. No official should be shocked when the police act brutally. There is a reason the most thuggish of the uniforms are often the ones called to disperse angry crowds. If there are officials shocked or upset at the brutality unleashed by the police under their command, they can resign like two members of the Oakland mayor’s staff did in the wake of the police raids on Occupy Oakland or they can defend their thugs like Mayor Bloomberg. As for the chancellor of UC Davis? Only time will tell if those tears she recently shed at a speakout on campus are genuine. Meanwhile, hardly any one but their friends and family weep for those the police brutalize off campus.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.