Ukraine’s new rulers, in one of their first acts, have disbanded that country’s riot police.
Now without getting into the complex politics of the ongoing struggles in that country, or into the question of the covert role of the US in backing the protests that brought down the old government in Kiev, this elimination of a brutal paramilitary police organization got me to thinking: If Ukraine, which has just gone through a spasm of deadly violence, and which is still in a very dangerous and politically unsettled situation, can get along without riot police, why can’t the United States?
Lately, with political struggles occurring in the streets of Venezuela, Thailand, Ukraine and a number of other places, the US government has been declaring over and over that the governments being challenged should not resort to violence against their own people.
Here’s US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Venezuela:
“We support human rights and fundamental freedoms – including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly – in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world.”
And here is President Obama, speaking about the police violence in Ukraine:
“We hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way, that the Ukrainian people are able to assemble and speak freely about their interests without fear of repression.”
Even in Thailand where, unlike in Venezuela or Ukraine, the US is backing the government against protesters seeking new elections, with State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf still insisted that the US supports:
“…a democratic process to resolve the ongoing political tensions in Thailand…We also continue to urge all sides to refrain from violence, exercise restraint and respect the rule of law…and we do, I would note, applaud the restraint shown thus far by government authorities in this regard.”
Now let’s compare those fine, high-minded scoldings and warnings — and remember, we’re talking about three countries where the protesters have been seeking the overthrow of their existing governments, not just for reforms in the system, and protesters, particularly in Ukraine and Venezuela, who have themselves resorted to violence and especially to property damage — to how our own government these days responds to peaceful public protest.
We need only look back just a little over two years to the brief and numerically rather small Occupy Movement that, beginning in September of 2011, swept the country from Wall Street in lower Manhattan to Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle and from Chicago to Miami. Within weeks of the inception of that protest against the power of the financial industry, against the destruction of ordinary working class and middle class people, and against the rank corruption of the US government, police in almost every jurisdiction where there was some occupation protest began using deliberate, amped-up violence, often quite brutal, to drive protesters from the public spaces they were occupying. We witnessed the random spraying of mace into faces, the firing of tear gas and potentially lethal concussion grenades, the firing of rubber bullets and bean-bag projectiles, often at close range, the widespread use of truncheons, and there were mass arrests.
It turned out, based upon communications obtained through various Freedom of Information requests, that this violent police crackdown in city after city was no coincidence. Rather, it was orchestrated by federal authorities at the FBI, the US “Justice” Department and the Department of Homeland Security, which were passing instructions, guidance, and tactical lessons from one city to others — for example the idea applied first in Oakland Calif. to raid occupiers at night, using maximum force, while excluding the media — an approach which was later adopted in most other cities.
We learned that in Houston, the FBI actually knew of, and did nothing about, an apparent plot, possibly by some unidentified government agency or by corporate security units, fortunately never activated, to use “suppressed sniper rifles” to kill “the leaders of the Occupy Movement” in Houston. The Bureau never prosecuted anyone for that plot, which one FBI memo suggests is still active but perhaps on hold.
In some cities, undercover police “joined” occupiers and assisted them, in some cases providing needed crucial equipment and leading ideas about tactics, to engage in obstructive tactics such one where a group of Houston occupiers chained themselves to the entrance to the Houston port in an effort to close it. During the trial of those protesters, it came out through the legal discovery process that undercover police had provided the specialized, hard-to-cut, PVC-covered chains used in the action, and charges had to be dropped.
Significantly, the federal government documents show that the Occupy Movement protests were all classified by the FBI and Homeland Security as “terrorist” actions, not as First Amendment-protected public assemblies. (One of the “recommended” actions communicated to all cities where there were occupation actions, was to simply deny any requests by protesters for permits to occupy public spaces — a strategy designed to give police the authority to then drive protesters from public squares and to brutalize and arrest those who wouldn’t leave.)
More generally, police across the US are being supplied with riot gear, including dangerous high-decibel sound generators, microwave beam “canons” that cause the body to feel intense pain from internal heating, military assault rifles, and surplus armed and armored personnel carriers, making them functionally into a domestic military force, rather than simply police. These paramilitary cops have been on display and in action for years now at public demonstrations like quadrennial political party conventions, and at anti-war and other protests. Federal agencies from Homeland Security to the Social Security Administration have been getting supplied with hundreds of millions of rounds of deadly hollow-point bullets, with the government refusing to explain why even departments with no police function would need such ammunition.
Where demonstrations are planned, police, encouraged by the federal government, or actually working for the federal government, have with some predictability used undercover personnel to lure naive young people into actions that they are later arrested for on trumped-up terrorism charges, as just happened recently in Chicago.
What all this boils down to is the the US government, while talking in a high-minded manner about the importance of the right to protest and criticizing governments that use police in a repressive manner, is actually doing the same thing here at home. Making the US government all the more hypocritical is the fact that most protests here in the US are tame compared to those that the US government is defending abroad. Where protesters in Ukraine, Venezuela and Thailand, for example, have been seeking the overthrow of their governments, Occupy protesters in the US, protesters at US drone bases, and protesters opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline, as well as most other protest actions, are not seeking the overthrow of the government in Washington at all. They generally have specific government actions that they are demanding be halted, but that is hardly an existential threat. Nonetheless, the US, beginning with the Bush/Cheney Administration, and moving on to the Obama Administration, is proving to be in full repression mode against any form of protest against the government or its policies or even against the banking, munitions, oil or agribusiness industry.
The massive spying of the National Security Agency has to be seen in this light. The sweeping collection of all kinds of electronic communications, and the total monitoring of the actions, relationships and travel of all Americans, is the ultimate repressive act, unmatched in the long history of repressive regimes. This police-state espionage against the American public has nothing to do with the stated objective of “combatting terrorism” and “keeping Americans safe,” and everything to do with intimidating and subverting all forms of protest. It is the East German Stasi or the Soviet KGB but with 21st-Century technology.
Instead of taking this government’s empty words in support of democratic rights for protesters abroad seriously, we Americans need to start studying and emulating the actions of those protesters abroad who have shown the courage to face down their paramilitary police, and to demand the ouster of regimes that they consider repressive. If we wait too long here to demand a halt to the growing US police state, when we finally do act, given all the paramilitary training and the surplus military gear being provided to our $100-billion-a-year local police, and given the growing power of our federal police agencies, we will find that this government’s response will make Ukraine’s now disbanded riot police look like amateurs.
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).