by Don Washington on 2012/05/23
In part I am writing the article because of what a Facebook friend of the Tutorial left on the Tutorial’s wall. She asked: "Are we are all in this together? What if our working class cop brethren don’t think so or never thought so? What if all they have for us condescension and derision for all protesters no matter what they say about just doing their job? What if we are the enemy?” Without knowing it she defined the issue cleanly. What we saw on our streets this weekend was what happens when militarized police force sees a whole segment of the population as the enemy. And that is another milestone on the road to democracy’s funeral.
Actual policing is an exercise in diplomacy and interpersonal skills with the occasional use of force not the other way around. There are officers who are reading this right now and calling me a social worker, civilian or idiot and others who are in complete agreement with the statement. Which proves the point of the article; it’s not about the attitudes of individual officers it’s about the police tactics as part of a larger scheme of control that we saw on our streets the last few days. It’s about the fact that what we saw was not in keeping with what an open and democratic society looks like.
We’d all have been a lot safer if the police on the front lines were experts in conflict resolution who could diffuse a situation with something other than a nightstick and who had not been amped up to expect the coming of the next World War in Chicago. For the next day or so you are going to hear a lot of nonsense about how the police kept the city safe from the forces of anarchy, nihilism and terrorists and how their tactics reduced violence and gave people the space to express dissent safely. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we saw on our streets was a militarized police force that virtually erased the right to assemble without the certainty of some level of unpredictable violence and possible arrest.
The message that phalanxes of officers conveyed was not designed to make anyone feel remotely safe. It said in no uncertain words: If you are here you are in danger. If come here you will be in danger. Stay away from this area, these people and this event. It is not safe. You are not safe and there will be moments where that will be demonstrated to you in ways that will make it impossible for you to know how to be safe. There were guns drawn on independent media people. There were seemingly random and very violent arrests that appeared for all intents and purposes to be a tactic.
Imagine if these tactics were used at the Taste of Chicago. Riot gear, horses, no-go areas police lined up to make certain that everyone present was safe from terrorists who might strike at any moment. If we are to believe the government terrorists are always at work and we should always be vigilant. Will you never see that because the powers that be are not interested in protecting these people? Since these tactics are so successful why not use them for any mass event… just to be safe? The answer is because the point of the drill is not create aura of security that brings people to the event but an aura of fear that keeps them away from the event.
Rahm Emanuel and other political leaders like him are terrified not of disorder and riots. In fact they relish that sort of thing but of people gathering, exchanging ideas and expressing dissent because they might become an organized force for change and change is not on the agenda. The task of a militarized police force is to make such gatherings an explicit invitation to violence. Our police force was not there to protect anyone from anything they were there to make ordinary citizens afraid to have anything to do with whatever was going on. Think about how much you do not know about the point of the protests and how much you know about the potential chaos, individual cases of injury and “terrorism” and the heroic stories of professional policing in the face of provocation. This was security theater and public intimidation at its worst and a textbook on repression at its best.
Police forces are uniquely designed to make terrible paramilitary organizations because militarizing them makes them see segments of the population they are supposed to serve and protect as the enemy and other, sort of the way they look at criminals now. Policemen make uniquely terrible soldiers because policing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in the context of a whole society. I helped research and write the Shadow Report to the United Nations on Torture and I can tell you that the last thing our policemen needed was to become a militarized strike force.
What makes police officers such bad soldiers is that they come from a culture that has endemic levels of persistent and pervasive patterns of misconduct that flow from racism, sexism, homophobia, brutality and worse. Discipline in the Chicago Police Department is focused more on regulations and less on the behavior of the officer’s street behavior. We know this because Chicago shells out millions of dollars every year to deal with clear cut cases of startling police misconduct. This is not a question of a few bad apples in the barrel it is a question of a rotten barrel slowly poisoning all of the apples. Our police culture is a mess and any officer in it struggles with it in their own way or joins it with enthusiasm.
Making the Chicago police into an army even for a few days; is an extremely bad idea because once segments of the population become the bad guys when the gloves come off it will not be pretty. Some of the chatter from the police blogs will give you some sense of how police saw their task. Skip right down to the Biggest Mistake and give it a read. These officers are justifiably worried about their fellow officers but they are also looking for something like a fight with “assholes” and this is not my word it is theirs. To get a sense of what was running through a great many of the rank and file; here is just some of the traffic my police friends sent me in the days leading up to NATO and during. This attitude is not universal, but it is reflective of a large slice of the police culture. When you add this attitude to a militarized police force that views protesters as the enemy you are setting the stage for real trouble; in fact you place the public at the mercy of the least stable and most compromised police officer present.
The above situation is an inducement for individual officers to act on their worst impulses with the full support of their brother and sister officers out of reflex. It creates a context for abuse that could be racist, xenophobic and in some cases deadly. A police force is a manifestation of the powers that task and oversee its officers. When everyday policing becomes an exercise in military preparedness for conflict it creates a situation where the police force is effectively at war with some segment of citizens it should be protecting. You put officers in riot suits and set them to containing people they think of as “assholes” and violence is going to follow. The only question is how much and how bad. It doesn’t matter what the individual officer thinks. This is what just happened here in Chicago on our streets.
Basically, if and when things go sideways; every officer present kicks in and defends their fellow officers. If the demonstration is a little bigger, the officers a little less violent or the protesters a little more violent and you have the makings of a full-scale riot. We dodged more than a figurative bullet that the protesters were very committed to non-violence and the police were extremely aware of the politics of the situation.
Any sane discussion of the police behavior needs to start by understanding the psychic armor every officer on the streets puts on every second of everyday they wear and bleed blue. They are the “Thin Blue Line” and as such see themselves as the only thing between society and lawless chaos. They have been entrusted with the capacity to use deadly force to defend the lives and property of citizens against anyone who would threaten either. Every time they take a “tour” that’s eight hours that they might be called upon to risk life and limb and possibly lose it to defend the public. That public often does not trust or understand them. They are often certain that the public that they are sworn to serve and protect does not show them the level of respect and gratitude that they should for what they do. They also know that all kinds of “civilians” interfere in the job, unwittingly putting them, their fellow officers and the public themselves at risk.
That is a lot of armor and every officer you encounter is wearing some version of it or they could not do their jobs but like all noble rationales it bears little resemblance to the day to day job. No matter what you think about the police force it is an authoritarian entity designed to use force to control the populace. This is true in the specific, like when someone is robbing a bank and in the general like when lots of people are gathering and the state wants them controlled.
No, there was no police riot like 1968 but that is not the point; in some ways what we saw was something far more ominous than a police riot. What we saw was a blueprint for complete control of dissent. If you gather in numbers you will be at the mercy of the most angry and least professional police officer you encounter and that officer will be backed up by every other officer present. What we saw was a climate of fear http://chicago.indymedia.org/node/888 backed up by the potential for violence by the armed members of the state.
The very people, the police who are sworn to serve and protect us and defend our civil liberties became what they have always been, an extension of a state that does not want its citizens expressing dissent in any sustained or impactful way. It is hard to get the attention of decision makers a half mile away behind a wall of men and women who will beat you to within an inch of your life if you attempt to get any closer and might still do so on a whim. We deserve a better world but we will not get one unless we work for it.