Police, they do what they do

Let me start with the confessional preface: I’m not a protester. I used to be. I had my day, bandanaing-up on the streets of Edinburgh, say; or marching with thousands in the build-up to a war in Iraq whose inevitability proved more powerful than our collective will. I stopped not because I felt it was useless, though largely they seem to be. Or because they can be dreadfully boring, though all that talking and bombast, the avoidance of rhetorical landmines, it can certainly be tedious. I simply stopped, opting for different diversions, I suppose. I supported many a cause, mind you. Money here; pillows there. More than a few conversations. But I was no longer “on the ground,” as it were.

That stopped, at least for a night — beyond that, I don’t know — yesterday in Oakland. I’m not going to play maudlin. I kind of did that yesterday. But something snapped, or at least bent in a really awkward way, when I saw the Occupy Oakland camp upended the way it was. I had no real stake in that camp. I visited several times, and each time I joked that the medical tent needed to stock up on some more maximum strength deodorant. Moreover, I did not even think their presence would effect much, quite honestly. But I was happy they were there, and certainly planned to keep supporting them in spirit. Seeing the police trample through the remains of that spirit, lingering about and guarding it, protecting the occupants from themselves, was the official word, was simply too much. I commented elsewhere that at least rioters & looters have the good decency to leave after their destruction — that it takes a mob with a badge to honor its mayhem the way I saw yesterday. And, as I said then, I was angry. Angry enough to become once again a protester.

I was there last night, from 4 pm to midnight — longer than I was at my full-time job, oddly enough — and rarely have I been as proud of a group of protesters. There were some knuckleheads, yes. But it’s hard to have a dinner-party and not have at least one, let alone a gathering of some-2000 strong. There’s no reason to rehearse all that took place. The videos & photos are ample, and actually do a very good job telling the story. Nor will I even vilify the police (they do that well enough on their own, it seems) except to say I suspect they might’ve successfully radicalized the next generation of kids whose heads they’ll bash.

If I have anything to add to the conversations that follow all that went down, it is that we miss the point if our conversations about the police become either too strident or too narrowly focused. Protests haven’t changed much over history: they are each a kind of tango, between state power and those who feel oppressed by it. The cops are going to do what they do (whether it be conceding just enough to the theatrics of the moment, letting people scream themselves out, etc., or, well, what they did in Oakland [& Atlanta] last night). It is up to the protesters to take the lead in this tango whenever at all possible, though it will not be for the entire evening, on this you can be sure. As an example, the greatest moment of the protest last night was the improvisational snake march through the streets of downtown — used first to avoid a direct confrontation at 14th & Broadway (&, I’m told, an oncoming attempt at a kettling) — and then later to regroup. If there is something to learn from this it is that that there is always more than one way to move forward. Unless you’re defending territory that needs defending, keep moving.

None of this is to say we should, because we expect it, exonerate the abuses and ill-directed uses of police power. By all means, use them as motivation to keep going. Use them as propaganda. More importantly still, use them in your ever-growing arsenal of improvisation. But never forget: this is simply what they do — they have their own skill-sets after all. We should be outraged, but never surprised.

The need now is to respond to the police without our response being about the police. This is quite tricky. The images & videos we have are our greatest assets & worst temptations on this point. Yes, they bear witness to the fact that the police have declared themselves an enemy, but we (I first wrote “the protesters,” but fuck the third-person) would be wise to insure the police remain only this enemy’s symbol (whose destruction, I might add, is as useful — if, nevertheless, as vaguely satisfying — as burning a flag).

6 thoughts on “Police, they do what they do

  1. Right. Like I said, what they do, the police, is no one thing. Even when they are “permitting” a protest, the protesters need to insure they figure out a way to respond to this permission on their terms.

  2. Know Your Rights – The Clash

    This is a public service announcement
    With guitar
    Know your rights all three of them

    Number 1
    You have the right not to be killed
    Murder is a CRIME!
    Unless it was done by a
    Policeman or aristocrat
    Know your rights

    And Number 2
    You have the right to food money
    Providing of course you
    Don’t mind a little
    Investigation, humiliation
    And if you cross your fingers

    Know your rights
    These are your rights

    Know these rights

    Number 3
    You have the right to free
    Speech as long as you’re not
    Dumb enough to actually try it.

    Know your rights
    These are your rights
    All three of ’em
    It has been suggested
    In some quarters that this is not enough!

    Get off the streets
    Get off the streets
    You don’t have a home to go to

    Finally then I will read you your rights

    You have the right to remain silent
    You are warned that anything you say
    Can and will be taken down
    And used as evidence against you

    Listen to this

  3. I’m sorry, but the Albany police didn’t defy any orders. Just because the Governor or the Mayor say they want the occupation out, it’s not an order for the cops to do it right that moment. The same thing happened in Oakland — the city issued statements day after day notifying the camp of a 10pm curfew, and that they would be subject to arrest if they didn’t leave. They didn’t leave, and the police waited until yesterday. Not because they were defying orders, not because they’re “part of the 99%,” not because they’re “on our side,” but because they were planning (for a full week!) and waiting for the right moment to attack without, so they hoped, setting off a riot. (Clearly, it didn’t work out so well for them.)

    The idea that the cops are defying their orders is a myth. As a friend told me recently, shit would be so much easier if it were true. But it isn’t.

  4. That makes a lot of sense, reclaimuc and I suspect you’re right in the case of Albany. I posted the thing about Albany out of a sense of curiosity and, I guess, increasingly ambivalent optimism rather than as any kind of riposte. I thought what Brad wrote was compelling and right. I’ve been wondering how to parse what happened in Albany given what happened in Oakland and I suppose I hoped that it might have been some kind of act of solidarity in spite of evidence to the contrary–that they seem to have acted out of practical and/or strategic considerations, etc. There’s something to be said for the fact that cops get sucked into the same vortex of socio-economic brutality as the rest of us, even when they’re the ones dealing it out. And I still want to believe that they might defy orders for precisely that reason. As a concrete manifestation or symbol of the typically more quiet, seductive violence and misery of the prevailing social and economic order I think it’s right to say fuck the police. I’d like to think some cops would say the same thing after working under compstat or being ordered to tear gas protesters.

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