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Disturbing news from Occupy circles about NYPD practices these days — I mean, in addition to all those other NYPD practices we were already disturbed about.
David Graeber, a prominent anarchist involved with Occupy since its beginning, recounts seeing a woman friend in New York a few weeks ago, her hand in a cast. A cop had grabbed her breast, she said.
When she raised a fuss and screamed about the groping, the cops dragged her out of sight and started working her over. “Stop resisting!” they continued to shout, as they repeatedly slammed her body into the concrete. At some point she told them she was reaching over to get her glasses, which had come off in the scuffle. In the reptilian police mind, this justified pinning her hands behind her back and bending one wrist until it snapped.
Those familiar with police riots versus anti-globalization demonstrations and the more recent Occupy demonstrations, or who follows Radley Balko and CopBlock, is aware that sexual assault’s the only thing unusual about this case. As Graeber says, “arbitrary violence is nothing new. The apparently systematic use of sexual assault against women protestors is new.”
Of course sexual assault itself is hardly new as a weapon of social control, in historical terms. It appears in the arsenals of most authoritarian regimes — large-scale, premeditated use of rape for ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces in Bosnia, Egyptian troops using “virginity inspections” to humiliate female demonstrators taken into custody, and so on.
But it’s new in the recent American context. Graeber notes he heard no complaints of sexual assault by the NYPD before March 17; but there were several on that day (one woman reported being grabbed by five different officers), and they’ve continued since then. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a newly adopted “unofficial policy” of the police rank-and-file — just like covering badge numbers.
What we’re witnessing is the reality behind that Officer Friendly mask. This is what happens when the state perceives the general population as a threat, and drops the pretense that The Policeman is Your Friend.
People in predominantly black and Hispanic inner city neighborhoods — where police hardly bother to hide the fact that they see the local population as an occupied enemy that must be cowed by superior force — have seen this ugly face for decades. But in recent months, the radical upsurge in police violence at Occupy demonstrations, combined with ubiquitous cell phone video, have introduced the naked face of power to many in the white middle class public for the first time.
Lt. Pike of the UC Davis police force, methodically directing pepper spray into the upturned faces of peaceful (and predominantly white) college students, was a revelation to many in the burbs. But while it was the first sight for many, it won’t be the last. Because this is what the state looks like when it can no longer afford to maintain the facade of democracy. All that nasty stuff that used to happen to “those other people” beyond that Thin Blue Line — “It’s Giuliani time!” — is coming soon to “people like us.”
The American state has operated in a manner, if not lawful at least “regular,” toward most white middle-class folks most of the time, because it could afford to. It showed its nasty side to racial minorities and radicals, because they were less successfully socialized into consensus reality — and nobody “who counted” would listen to them anyway. But most of the public absorbed its conditioning in a more-or-less satisfactory manner. They believed this was a “free enterprise society” in which people with great wealth mostly earned it, giant corporations got that way through superior performance, the state represented all of us rather than some “ruling class,” and if you didn’t like the law you should work for change within the system — all that Pleasantville stuff. Constitutionalism and legality’s comparatively no-muss no-fuss — but only so long as the cultural reproduction apparatus successfully manufactures consent.
Now the conditioning’s starting to wear off. A dangerously increasing number of people understand that the system’s rigged in the interest of the 1%, and folks like us are playing in a crooked game. The state and the corporate ruling class that controls it have been stunned as measures that ten years ago would have gone through without a hitch, like SOPA and ACTA, suffered unexpected losses to networked movements. The system can’t work when too many people notice the man behind the curtain.
The state’s functionaries are beginning to realize how high the stakes really are. In response, its shock troops are dropping the Officer Friendly masks. So get ready: The state, before it’s over, will be as nasty as it has to be.
Kevin Carson is a research associate at the Center for a Stateless Society. his written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online.