A critique of the police

What the police did in Oakland the last two days was, by any reasonable standard, a terrible crime. Faced with a group of peaceful, unarmed people exercising their constitutional right to free speech and free assembly, the police used brutal, military-style tactics to disperse them. They used chemical weapons whose use in war is banned by international treaties. They fired rubber bullets that, while not as deadly as normal bullets, can still cause very serious injury.

They did all this in order to disperse a group of people that was doing absolutely nothing wrong. As I said, this was a crime — and on the face of it, a profoundly malicious act as well. No moral person should consent to participate in such activities. Yet the Oakland Police Department not only apparently faced little resistence within the ranks, but was also able to get neighboring departments to contribute supplemental forces.

The degree of moral bankruptcy this act displays is shocking. Willingness to go along with it is indicative of one of three things. First, it might indicate that the person involved is morally depraved. We should not be surprised if a profession that requires the use of violence attracts people who enjoy using violence. Second, one might conclude that the person involved is completely unthinking, blindly following orders. Finally, it might indicate that the person involved is a moral coward who realizes what they’re doing is wrong but goes with the flow anyway. And this goes not just for exceptional acts like the breakup of these riots, but for the everyday acts of racism and repression that are part and parcel of contemporary law enforcement.

From this, I can only conclude that America’s police forces are profoundly corrupt and corrupting institutions. If you go into the police force as a basically good person, the odds are much greater that one will grow more morally callous than that one will remain true to one’s conscience. It is only in this context that the hero-worship surrounding police in American culture is understandable: only by imagining all police officers to be saints and heroes can we ignore the obvious facts about the nature of the job. I can imagine situations in which joining the police force would be a necessary or appropriate choice, but contemporary America is not one of them.

8 thoughts on “A critique of the police

  1. Well said. A merciless and accurate critique.

    I will be interested to see how police officers and mayors across the country respond to this act of–lets just say it–terrorism against peaceful protestors. Might the scales drop from some of their eyes? Will we see some officers refuse to participate or even join the occupation?

    It seems that we’re going to have an influx of veterans into OWS. This will add more focus on the wars of the 1%, and the 99% who are expected to fight and die in them.

    It’s probably too optimistic to think that the police might, en mass, stop serving the banks. But what a turning point that would be!

    Tomorrow there will be no excuse. From now on every CA cop who suits up and obeys orders to suppress OWS is choosing sides and their siding against democracy.

  2. Of course there are some police who will join the protests, but very, very few. Here’s my reasoning, using a contrast with vets:
    1. Police generally have very powerful internal institutional cohesion (formal and informal) and external institutional support (again, formal and informal). They are very much suseptible to and capable of creating a narrative in which OWSers are illegitimate in some way. There will be very little that can be done, given the cohesion and support, to penetrate that narrative. I think this point is independent of the authoritarian mindset, if I can paraphrase Adam that way, that policing attracts and induces.

    2. Iraq/Afghanistan war vets are often left at loose ends by the government and cut off from the military culture that formed their extended family. Policywise, access to care can be difficult for a number of reasons, especially for psychiatric problems. And, while unit cohesion is all important in war, in peacetime ior after discharge it becomes irrelevant as “your guys” are cast to the four winds. Many vets are disillusioned by the war, by the policies surrounding the war, and the difficulties of adjusting to civilian life–especially finding jobs. And, there’s little institutional support or internal cohesion to insulate them from narratives such as OWS–a narrative that will natural make a lot of sense to some of them.

  3. I’m not sure why there is such massive confusion on this, but the Constitution does not grant the people an absolute, unqualified right to free speech or to peaceable assembly. The First Amendment says that Congress cannot make laws that ABRIDGE those rights, a protection that applies to the states and local governments through the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause. = A city such as Oakland can make (and enforce) laws that indirectly impact the free exercise of speech – time, place, and manner – so long as the restrictions regulating conduct comply with three requirements which are generally seen as a lenient standard of review, i.e., it isn’t difficult for the city to offer a sufficient legal justification that the protected right is not being abridged by the law. So that what we have, at least with regard to those occupying public city parks in violations of city ordinances and without permits, is a group of people doing something absolutely wrong in a legal sense because, again, the First Amendment right to free speech is not an unqualified right. This is why if you look at any Occupy [Insert City] Legal Support pages on their websites, we see information and advice related to dealing with individual rights under scenarios of search, seizure, and arrest (protections of the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments) rather than anything related to First Amendment violations. I’m not saying that peaceful, unarmed people shouldn’t be able to speak and assemble whenever and wherever they want; I’m only saying that there is no such constitutional right (as interpreted by the SCOTUS), nor is it likely that there ever will be.

  4. I am not a lawyer, although I do one day hope to take a Con Law class or at least read through a standard textbook on my own. However, I took the previous commenter’s advice and visited the Legal Support page of the OWS protests, and quickly found a reference to the first amendment: “You do not need a permit to exercise your rights to freedom of speech and assembly” (http://www.nlgsf.org/docs/wallet_Card_final.pdf). More generally — and, again, I haven’t been to law school, and I’m certainly aware of qualifications to free speech such as, “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater” — but it seems to me that the first amendment implies that there *is* a right to to speech and assembly. I look forward to familiarizing myself further with SCOTUS’ history of interpretation at some point. In the meantime, the civil disobedience of the protesters remind us that an “unjust law is no law at all.”

  5. GQ,
    I think the point here is that the occupiers are claiming a counter-sovereignty. Of course legally they are on questionable ground, but they’re trying to claim that they get to decide when the exception to the law occurs, not the police or the powers that be. That’s sort of what’s exciting about all this.

  6. Carl – you might take note of the starred, bold print, italicized caveat placed in typical lawyer fashion beneath the generally true statement of law you quoted, and then note that the placement of the starred caveat is specific to free speech. Again, all I’m saying, because there seems to be some confusion on this, is that the 1st A has not been interpreted by the Court to be an absolute, unqualified, unlimited right, and you seem to recognize as much in your comment (you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre). I agree with you that the effect of the protesters’ disobedience is to remind us that such a (or an interpretation of such a) law is unjust and therefore should not be the law. In the context of Adam’s post, my point was that the police were enforcing a law against people who had been deemed violators of the law – not to say the police were therefore justified, but to impliedly repeat Brad in his post that followed this one: police, they do what they do; and to say with Adam, yes, law enforcement is a profoundly corrupt and corrupting institution _because_ of those who corrupt the law by interpreting it in a way that heavily favors law enforcement.

    Anthony – I get what the philosophical point here is and I find it exciting until I remember, and, then, I mostly can’t help feeling blue like you about how it was already too late: you the ecological crisis; me “before the law stands a doorkeeper.”

  7. **And Carl, this information is given by a guy who found out this morning that he did not pass his state’s bar examination. Oh, the credibility!

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