Fighting in the streets | Bleader

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fighting in the streets

Posted By on 02.23.12 at 08:00 AM

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Rank-and-file police officers feel nervous about the upcoming G8 and NATO summit protests. But the protesters—they’re the ones who are unarmed—have reason to be leery, too, at least if the Chicago Police Department ends up actually going into the protests as ill-prepared as some officers fear. Fran Spielman wrote recently in the Sun-Times on plans for both the cops and their horses to be outfitted with riot gear, and one imagines that more will follow. Usually cops will bring a gun—also a Taser, bean bag rounds, stun grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, and the occasional armored personnel carrier—to a street fight.

Last year, in a blog post, the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal wrote that he felt bad for John Pike, the UC-Davis police officer who sprayed a seated group of protesters. Pike was simply the product of a tradition of policing that preceded him, Madrigal wrote.

He referred to Patrick Gillham’s recent paper “Securitizing America,” in which the sociologist describes three eras of police response to mass protests. In the 1960s, it was “escalated force”: “Police sought to maintain law and order often trampling on protesters’ First Amendment rights, and frequently resorted to mass and unprovoked arrests and overwhelming and indiscriminate use of force.” By the 70s, the tactic had provoked enough public animus that a milder form came to prevail: “negotiated management,” which “encouraged active cooperation between police and protesters through the use of a standardized permitting system.” For several decades, this strategy emphasized negotiation and compromise. It relied on a hierarchical protest movement, with identifiable leaders with whom cops could negotiate.

Globalization-era protests, though, weren't always organized by hierarchy, and the negotiated-management strategy broke down during the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999. Accounts of what happened vary. According to then Seattle chief of police Norm Stamper, who resigned after the protests, trouble started when protesters blocked an intersection, and cops decided to use force to clear it. “My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose,” Stamper wrote in the Nation last year. According to a University of Washington history, “Further problems developed when youthful, out-of-control, self-proclaimed 'anarchists' joined the more serious WTO-focused protestors.”

According to Gillham, the chaos in Seattle marked a "watershed" change in U.S. police agencies’ approaches to mass protest.

“The police response to Seattle was shaped by a shift in the broader criminal justice system informed by a new penology philosophy,” he writes (italics in the original). “It conceives crime as systemic rather than individualized and stresses the need to identify potential victims and preemptively protect them.” This dovetailed with the police response to September 11: “security and neutralization of the threat became the central focus of law enforcement.”

Gillham calls this “strategic incapacitation.” You can draw a straight line from Seattle to the Occupy protests, which have been met on a number of occasions—particularly in Oakland—with disproportionate police violence.

There were stops along the way—I was around for one of them. When I was a junior in college in Minnesota, a group of us, novices all, trekked down to Miami for the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas protests. These turned out to be, by anybody’s accounting, a disaster: what we encountered there was a police force (actually, many counties’ police forces on loan to Miami, in addition to the local PD) that was extravagantly militarized. Helicopters circled overhead day and night. There were undercover cops everywhere. There were armored personnel carriers. The riot police were practically cyborgs, and phalanxes of cops on bikes could be anywhere at a moment’s notice.

The force was overseen by John Timoney, whose bona fides had included the violent suppression of protests at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, where he was chief of police. According to the Guardian,

The ACLU's Philadelphia chapter denounced Timoney's department for collaborating with the state police to infiltrate and spy on protest groups, in violation of a mayoral decree. Before the protests began Timoney's officers conducted raids of warehouses and spaces where activists where constructing puppets and banners for the demonstrations. . . . In Philadelphia Timoney's officers favored a hands-on approach to managing demonstrators. [Activist John] Sellers explained, "It was much more of an up close and personal, beat-you-down kind of violence in the streets. Cops were smashing people with bicycles and nightsticks."

After the FTAA, this came to be called the Miami Model, a regime under which street protest is put down by a matrix of brute force, mass arrests, and old-school police infiltration. A local circuit court judge said that during the 2003 protests he saw “'no less than 20 felonies committed by police officers,” and that the MPD’s actions were “a disgrace for the community.” The Miami New Times:

From FTAA's start, Timoney locked down the city's center. Then he dispatched 2500 officers in riot gear against about 12,000 protesters. The cops used rubber bullets, shields, batons, concussion grenades, and stun guns. The "rough start," Timoney would later explain, was needed because some demonstrators didn't have permits. Sixty people were taken into custody; many were beaten by cops. . . .

Fallout from the FTAA riots continued in 2004. Accountants totaled costs for security around $23.9 million. The American Civil Liberties Union received 150 complaints alleging police abuse and filed six lawsuits on behalf of protesters in federal court . . . The city settled for $180,000 with an independent filmmaker named Carl Kessler after he was injured by a police beanbag fired into his face. And the Miami Civilian Investigative Panel issued a report criticizing cops for profiling and unlawfully searching protesters.

The least of the police violence my friends and I encountered in Miami also happened to be the weirdest. The day before the protests started, a group of us were walking through the downtown district. It was an eerie scene: on advice from the police department, most shops were closed and boarded up, and the few people hanging around seemed to be plainclothes cops. One of these spotted a friend of mine pick up a coconut from the ground—we were from the upper midwest, it was a novelty—but seemed not to spot him drop it a few steps later.

We stepped out into an intersection, and found ourselves surrounded by cops on bikes, who ordered us to put our hands against the nearest building. There were at first about two dozen of them, and then dozens more. What cops weren’t focused on us spent their time pointing Tasers at random bystanders, as if a riot might erupt at any moment. There had been a report that somebody in our group had picked up a weapon, they said—a coconut. They searched everybody’s bag. A couple of them got into a fight about it. “I’ve seen pens used as guns, man,” one cop told his partner.

It was around this point that a bunch of union members started to stream out of their nearby hotel. They took an interest in the scene on the corner, and, as I recall, started chanting in the direction of the police (“Let them go,” etc), who continued to point Tasers at everybody in sight. Eventually it was established that there was no coconut in our possession. Though I do remember some effects of personal hygiene—maybe contact solution?—being confiscated.

Two ironies: One, this era of police response has introduced, among other things, what are called “free-speech zones” around summit sites. This is basically the sort of language people mean when they use the word “Orwellian,” and though that's frankly the least of the problems at these protests, it's a striking indication of police attitudes. Two, John Timoney is now consulting the Bahraini police force, which has a history of untoward activity, on how not to abuse citizens.

And one omission, from Alexis Madrigal, who notes the ways that broader access to media making and media dissemination have “allowed everyone to see what only a tiny number did back in 2003 in Miami”:

While it's easiest to note the incidents of police violence, the protesters' cameras also record what's *not* in the images. Authorities have long claimed that they were merely battling the "black bloc" of violent anarchists. But when you look at all these videos, the bogeyman isn't there.

The bogeyman, nonetheless, remains. In the—pardon the phrase—mainstream media, no account of a protest is complete without two things. First, the relentless placement of the word “anarchist” within quotation marks, as if the reporter is referring to a self-identified human Molotov cocktail and not, after all, to the human proponent of a specific political philosophy. Second, the hoary old trope about protesters—the aforementioned "black bloc"—throwing bodily fluids at the police, repeated to comic effect but rarely, if ever, in evidence at actual protests. Toward the end of her recent story, Spielman obliges on both points. She’s talking with Fraternal Order of Police president John Shields about his need for a certain kind of protection: “Shields demanded the new shields to prevent his officers from being blinded by bags of urine and feces thrown at them by ‘anarchists’ and other hard-core protesters.” The police may not have their shields yet, but ideologically, at least, they seem prepared enough.

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