Last night, I asked a woman who had been arrested at the Occupy Chicago protest what good it had done for her to get arrested. She didn’t seem to have much of an answer other than that it’s the kind of thing one does at protests. I then asked why people don’t fight back against the police to stop them from arresting people, and she replied that the movement is non-violent and that as soon as you start using violence, you lose people’s sympathy. These are all pretty common views, and I have definitely held similar views in the past. Now, however, I’m starting to question them, without really having an alternative.
What strikes me is — as Anthony has pointed out in his unpopular post — how ridiculously the police tend to overreact to peaceful protest. The reaction to the U.S. occupations has been surprisingly tame so far, and it may be that the authorities are waiting for cold weather and the unparalleled apathy of the American people to crush the movement for them (which is not to say that they are necessarily right in that calculation). In the U.K., though, we have repeatedly seen the more brutal treatment that has become the more common reaction among Western governments, most notably in the infamous “kettling.”
In such a context, I’m not sure how effective non-violent methods can really be. They presuppose a level of decency and shame that I’m not sure our militarized police forces possess, at the end of the day. If they did, they wouldn’t show up with riot gear in response to what amounts to a bunch of people kind of hanging out. They wouldn’t use property damage as an excuse to exercise collective punishment. More specifically in this case: they wouldn’t arrest people who are trying to close their bank accounts.
By the same token, though, the militarization of the police seems to make more violent action a total pipe dream — they will always have more guns. Yet I wonder. Can we interpret their excessive force as a symptom of fear? If people started fighting back, would that egg them on or make them freak out? To take an extreme example: if a police officer who was beating a protester was suddenly shot, would the police break ranks and run away?
Our cultural common sense tells us that such actions would result in a loss of popular support, and that’s probably true in the short run — but what would happen if the resistence could be sustained and the police started running a counter-insurgency against their own people? How long would the police themselves put up with that? It’s one thing when a largely white or assimilated officer class is directing a counterinsurgency against poor minority neighborhoods in the name of fighting the drug trade, but do they really have the stomach to do the same against the general population in the name of maintaining Wall Street’s privileges?
These are all highly speculative thoughts and are probably wrong in a lot of ways.