As police actions at many of the Occupy Protests demonstrate, there’s a point at which policing crosses the line and becomes a part of the problem and the real danger to public safety. It’s a line which police departments in New York, Oakland, London and Berkeley have been willing to cross very early on, and it means that the forces of law and order, ostensibly in place to keep public safety, will lose legitimacy—something that is as dangerous for ill-informed people sitting at home and whining about selfish student protests as it is for those being savagely attacked by the public servants charged with protecting them.
Yesterday saw a small demonstration in London against the government’s privatisation of higher education. The police behaved with disturbing aggressiveness from the outset. As peaceful protesters gathered on Malet Street—it’s cliché, I realise, to always refer to ‘peaceful protesters’, but they generally are, and a corrective is needed to the impression given by the 4,000 police who were out in force in London—police helicopters hovered so low over the demonstration that it was impossible to carry on a conversation with someone standing next to you let alone hear any of the speakers. So the police make a public nuisance of themselves and impair the ability of people to exercise rights of free speech.
Police, with shields and riot helmets, mostly on foot but some mounted (the horses had riot shields as well), lined the route, occasionally shoved people off the sidewalks, and in general made people feel as though their rights were being indulged by an armed force which was ready, at a moment’s provocation, to use violence. I’m not sure whether police forces are so blinkered that they don’t understand that by making people feel threatened and under pressure, and by transforming people with good intentions into suspects before they’ve even done anything, they become responsible for any unruliness or violence that follows. By signalling that anyone who exercises their democratic rights is somehow at deviance with good behaviour, they are fostering resentment and engineering conflict.
Another part of me thinks that no one could be so stupid as to not realise these elementary things, and that the police want to provoke people. This is certainly what I thought when yesterday’s march in London temporarily stalled in a square in the City. I saw two women go up to one of the police lines that were closing off exits to the square and ask to be let out. The officer, unbelievably, said he couldn’t let them out and that they’d have to try another exit. Almost in tears, the women—who were clearly unnerved by being stuck in this space, and worried that the march they’d joined was going to turn ugly if the police moved in with their batons and horses—protested that they’d been told the same thing at the other corners of the square. A smirk appeared at the corners of the officer’s mouth, and he told them that he was just following orders. The women asked when they’d be allowed to leave and this young man, high on the very power he was trying to disclaim, said that he couldn’t possibly tell them that—it was for his superiors to decide. For his superiors to decide when citizens, members of a democratic society, were able to walk out of a public square!
But the provocation, show of overwhelming force, and harrying by the police in London is nothing compared to the brute force being applied by the police at a public university against that university’s students, which as of this morning, you could follow live here. And this time there hasn’t been so much as a peep from Chancellor Robert Birgeneau who, in the run up to the action that began yesterday, urged people to play by the rules that are designed to prevent them having any chance of success. Birgeneau, of course, is particularly hypocritical given his willingness to hype his own activist past while allowing his campus’ police force to beat and shoot his students for taking on injustice in the present.
I don’t know whether occupying parts of campus is the most sensible approach, or whether it will help to inform a still disturbingly-ignorant public about the damage being done to public higher education by the political choices our state’s leadership is making. But that is no longer the central issue. Because it will send a message to the campus and university leadership that their pathetic advocacy efforts are not good enough, and that until they raise their game they are fair targets for protest. More importantly though, whatever I might think about Occupying Berkeley as a strategy, I could not but support it when students are being assaulted and arrested for speaking and acting out.
I fail to see how people who are peacefully occupying a building or a square are a greater threat to public safety than is unleashing naked violence against citizens in what is supposed to be a democratic society in which people reserve not only certain rights to themselves, but rights to demand the safeguarding and, if necessary, the expansion of those rights.
In short, police action is morphing into a serious threat to public safety and to democratic rights. The police, in Britain, California and elsewhere, have moved from being public safety officers to a militia-like force taking sides in a political dispute. If they are not careful, their legitimacy will vanish as quickly as that of the titans of the financial world to whose tunes our economies were accustomed to dancing. Heads should roll at UCPD and amongst UC Berkeley’s administrators for allowing this attack on students who are, after all, doing nothing more than behaving like the concerned and active citizens that the University of California and everything it is supposed to stand for has helped to encourage them to become.