The emerging narrative in a growing number of recent media accounts suggests that the two-month-old, global Occupy movement is descending into a mix of squalid, homeless squatter camps and random, if still fringe, acts of violence.
There is no doubt that scattered skirmishes have taken place as police have moved to shut down camps in cities as far apart as New York and Oakland, Calif. Whether these clashes have been provoked, and whether they are the work of anarchists, hooligans or perhaps even “dirty tricksters,” a term used in the run-up to the 1972 election for GOP operatives hired to disrupt the Democratic primaries, is more difficult to gauge.
But there is no mistaking the nastiness with which some cops have punished protesters. First there was the New York City incident in which a high-ranking member of the city’s police force was suspended for 10 days without pay after pepper-spraying women protesters sitting on the ground behind orange netting. Then came the foggier case of Scott Olsen, a former Marine whose skull was fractured, possibly by a direct hit from a rubber bullet or other projectile allegedly fired by Oakland police.
Earlier this week, it was the pepper-spraying of a priest, a pregnant teen and an 84-year-old Seattle woman that made its way around the world. And now, on Friday, a member of the University of California, Davis, police department calmly walked up and down a line of students sitting on the ground and fired pepper-spray into their faces, not once, but twice. (That is the video atop this blog.)
These images take me back to clashes between police and and protesters during the Vietnam War and even to the fire-hosing of Civil Rights marchers earlier in the 1960s. They are a direct affront to “law and order,” not an effort to assure it.
Several news media quote, largely unchallenged, the account of a former Baltimore police lieutenant who says such actions of are standard procedure. His words strike me as just about as disingenuous as the Bush Administration saying that water boarding isn’t torture.
That officer, Charles J. Kelly, told CBS News that pepper spray (presumably even when used at point-blank range) is a “compliance tool,” and added, “When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them.”
As if blinding people does not hurt them? There’s a word to describe his defense of such action. It starts with “bull” and ends in “t,” and the news media should be ashamed for spreading this assertion widely without checking it out further.
If you still question the extent of police muscle against Occupiers across the country, perhaps the words of a former poet laureate of the United States will help. Robert Hass, 70, a professor of poetry and poetics at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote these words in The New York Times after he and his wife went to the campus to witness reports of police over-reaction and were knocked down and clubbed themselves.
My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down…
I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm … They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet … had a broken rib. Another colleague … got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.
I had not read of Hass’ tribulations before. Nor did I learn of the pepper-spray incident in Davis today from my two Sunday newspapers. Oh, it was on the bottom of Page 24 in my New York Times and on Page 11 of my Boston Globe. But I had seen of the incident on Saturday as amateur videos spread like wildfire across YouTube.
Five paragraphs from the end, of its article The Times notes: “A reference to the pepper spray use was the No. 1 trending topic on Google in the United States on on Saturday afternoon.”
In other words, it didn’t much matter whether major news organizations erred by underplaying coverage of the incident. America knew.
If American police departments haven’t been paying attention to world events in recent months, it’s time for them to take heed. In today’s socially mediated world, people can’t be beaten into submission without notice. Then again, maybe they just need to read a little American history to realize they are only making matters worse for themselves each time they raise a billy club, fire a rubber bullet or spray a peaceful protester in the face.