The Elephant in the Room: The Police and the Occupy Movement
Thursday, 05 July 2012 By Collin Harris, Truthout | Interview
A protester bows before a line of Oakland police officers after laying flowers in front of them during an Occupy movement march in Oakland, California, on May 1, 2012. (Photo: Jim Wilson / The New York Times)
As the global wave of rebellion began in 2011 and eventually spread to the beating heart of empire and the new subcultures of resistance it spawned continue to grow and diversify, there is an obvious dilemma that will have to be worked out if we are serious about changing American society in any meaningful way. Of the many obstacles facing what, from our current vantage point, looks to be the only light shining on the dark and blotted American social-scape, a militarized police force stands out for its menacing and ubiquitous presence in American social life. It casts its dark shadow wherever it goes – which is anywhere it wants.
But where it must always go is where there are even the slightest rumblings of the world that is to come, a world in which there will no longer be a place for the armed defenders of oligarchs and politicians. Attend any protest or political action in America, or simply walk down the streets of our increasingly fortressed cities, and you will surely encounter these supposedly public employees caught in the awkward position of having to justify their continued loyalty to the American ruling class to protesters and passersby they have more in common with than the elites they’re protecting.
Despite their reputation for systematic corruption, not to mention their ruthlessly violent techniques of control and repression, the police somewhat inexplicably enjoy the status of one of America’s most trusted institutions, one in which most (read: white) Americans place a great deal of confidence.
In Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions poll, a broad measure of popular confidence in society’s dominant institutions, the police outrank every set of institutions with the exception of the military and small businesses, with 56 percent of respondents reporting to have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police. After a year of viral videos of police brutality and repression directed at anybody in their way, from veterans to student debtors to the elderly, the perceived legitimacy of the police is waning.
On the one hand, cops are ordinary blue-collar men and women who obey orders from the top, keep quiet and do their jobs like the rest of society. They have families to feed and debts to pay off. To a certain extent, they suffer the effects of austerity and economic decline like the rest of us. They know the system’s rigged. They’re used and exploited by the rich and powerful. They’re disposable. Maybe they even hate their bosses, too.
To clarify, I’m talking about your average officer on the street, not the likes of Ray Kelly, who left his position as senior managing director of Global Corporate Security at Bear Stearns for his second (non-consecutive) tenure as commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD). It’s obvious enough where his loyalties lie. He’s even willing to put it in writing, as he did in his personal letter to JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon expressing “profound gratitude” for the company’s nearly $5 million donation to the NYPD. But in my experience, lower-level cops have few, if any, coherent ideological commitments.
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From what I can tell, their motives are simple: a paycheck. Economically speaking, they have every reason to oppose our current social system. Clearly they have no long-term economic incentive to protect the elites from the people in the streets, but they do what they can to get by. They are, as the saying now goes, part of the 99 percent. But are they? Do they deserve the same solidarity and goodwill that we reflexively (should) offer our family, friends, co-workers and neighbors? When shit hits the fan, whose side will they be on? They’ve got to learn to choose: will you be a friend or an enemy?
The police occupy a unique position in the social hierarchy, and many undoubtedly enjoy the smug sense of satisfaction any authority figure gets from exercising their power. They are paid by the state to protect the wealthy and powerful and to, when need be, repress those potentially disruptive social forces: minorities, the poor and unemployed, angry disaffected youth, the rebels, outcasts and outlaws. In return for this service, the cops enjoy a monopoly on the sanctioned use of violence and coercion in society and, at least tacitly, a de facto exemption from the rule of law.
Whether it’s beating dissidents in the streets or merely responding to a domestic dispute, whether they acknowledge it or not, they are paid to keep things as they are. Their very presence in any given social situation exerts a force, ultimately backed by violence, that demands passivity and obedience. Everybody, particularly those of a darker hue and people involved in the Occupy movement, knows this.
So, specifically within the Occupy movement, but more generally for anyone committed to radical politics or who finds living in a world in which armed men in uniforms roaming the streets is an unseemly sight, the issue of the police has to be confronted eventually. We turn to author and activist Kristian Williams for his insights on the historical development of the modern police force, its role in enforcing social inequality, and the evolution of police tactics in response to successive waves of popular insurgency and rebellion.
Collin Harris: What gave birth to the modern police force as we know it today? What are the origins of the institution? What has been the historical role of the police in enforcing the racial, economic, political and cultural hierarchies that pervade American society?
Kristian Williams: My argument in “Our Enemies in Blue” is that the main function of the police is the preservation of existing inequalities. Historically, those have primarily been inequalities of race and class, but gender, sexuality, nationality and ethnicity have also been very important.
This function really goes straight back to the origin of the institution. The modern American police force evolved from an earlier organization called the slave patrols. These patrols were militia groups responsible for enforcing the pass laws that restricted the slaves’ ability to travel. As importantly – or probably more importantly – the slave patrols were also responsible for putting down (and later, preventing) slave revolts. As southern cities like Charleston began to industrialize, the demands of the new economy started to change the institution of slavery, and the slave patrols became increasingly professionalized and acquired an expanding range of responsibility – not just controlling slaves, but free blacks, and poor whites, and so on – until they were the body most responsible for what might be termed public order. By the time of the American Revolution, the slave patrols had developed into a body clearly recognizable as the modern police.
What I found, looking at the history, was that however much the law, or the police organization, has changed since then, that core function – control of the black population and the labor force – has remained remarkably constant.
CH: In times of crisis, disruption, resistance, transition and social change, there is a dynamic interaction between movements and the police. Can you describe the evolution and trajectory of police tactics over the past century? Were these reactions or innovations?
KW: Both. In periods of unrest, both sides innovate, and they largely do so in reaction to the strategy of the other side. One of the cops’ main advantages is that they are much better equipped to use violence than are their adversaries. The civil rights movement, rather ingeniously, found a way to use that advantage against them. When activists used nonviolent civil disobedience, the cops responded with violence; as a result, public support, moral authority and control of the narrative shifted from the state to the activists.
Eventually the government realized this and started looking for other means of controlling crowds. The cops, in a sense, adapted themselves to the strategy of nonviolence. They kept force as a last resort and instead used negotiations, permit requirements, and that sort of thing to regulate protest and demonstrations. This let the cops restrict protests to times, places and tactics that would be minimally disruptive and – this is important – it was the movement leaders, not the police, who were responsible for keeping the action in bounds. That arrangement fell apart with the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in ’99, when the activists simply refused to play by the rules and blockaded the streets of Seattle.
Since that time, the cops have been experimenting with mixtures of negotiation and force, and the best theory of their current strategy is that they are actively dividing compliant, “good” protesters from disruptive, “bad” protesters, neutralizing the first through co-optation and regulation, and neutralizing the second through arrests and violence. John Noakes and Patrick Gillham call this new approach “strategic incapacitation.” Really, it’s an adaptation of counterinsurgency theory.
CH: Can you talk about the carrot-and-stick approach of US counterinsurgency doctrine and strategy, usually thought of as a matter of foreign policy, and how it is applied domestically? How does counterinsurgency allow the state to respond to movement demands in a way beneficial to its own power and control?
KW: Well, one of the main insights of counterinsurgency is that you can’t beat an insurgency just by killing insurgents. The military struggle – as important as it is – is actually secondary to the political struggle. That’s because what the two sides are fighting over is the support of the population.
Now you’re right that people usually think about counterinsurgency as strictly an overseas endeavor, but that’s a bit ahistorical. In fact, the US military practically gave up on the notion after Vietnam, preferring to establish dominance through air power instead. That changed with the occupation of Iraq. And, in the 21st century, where did the military go for ideas on counterinsurgency? One place they went was to the police.
The cops have been doing counterinsurgency since the 1970s. It’s called “community policing.” Coming out of the 60s, the cops knew that they were lacking public support, and that that had cost them during the previous decade. So, they started looking for ways to improve their standing.
The negotiated management version of crowd control was one element of that shift, as was the Neighborhood Watch, the return to foot patrols and citizen advisory boards, and so on. All of those things have the effect – in fact, the intent – of building a bond between the community and the police, which the police can then use to gain access, information, increased resources and greater power. It also meshed easily with efforts to co-opt community leaders and channel criticisms into forums that the state can manage and even accommodate, but which don’t fundamentally challenge existing power relations.
And community policing arose, not accidentally, alongside the other major shift in policing – militarization. They both developed in response to the unrest of the sixties, and by and large, they operate together.
CH: Since the Occupy movement began, many people have pointed out that the police are part of the 99 percent, and economically speaking, there’s obviously some truth to it. Cops are not oligarchs, but they do get paid to protect oligarchs, so given their unusual position in the social order, should we think of the police as part of the 99 percent? Does their institutional role as the armed enforcers of the status quo negate whatever common class interests the police may share with ordinary people? Or is “the 99 percent” just a symbolic slogan with fairly limited explanatory value?
KW: Yes, well, cops have a crappy job and they don’t get rich doing it. But so what? The same could be said of the manager at Dairy Queen – which is sad for him, but if you happen to work at Dairy Queen, then he’s your boss, and you should probably be clear that when push comes to shove, he’s going to be one of the people shoving you.
The 99 percent trope has certainly been useful for drawing attention to gross economic inequality. But I’m afraid it’s led some people to think that the class system is simply a matter of arithmetic: there’s the 1 percent, and there’s the rest of us, end of story. This oversimplified account overlooks the fact that it’s only the most successful capitalists who are in the top 1 percent; there’s a much larger portion of the owning class who – while still absurdly rich – just doesn’t pull in that same kind of money or control wealth at the same level. And then there’s a managerial class below them, who basically order around the rest of us and protect the interests of the ruling class.
Those people aren’t in the top 1 percent, either. They aren’t even usually capitalists, but they are their representatives and their guardians – in other words, cops and bosses. It’s not just that they serve the interests of the oligarchs – we all do that most every time we go to work. It’s that they exercise power on behalf of them, and they use that power to control and exploit the rest of us.
That’s not a personal question as to where their sympathies lie. It’s a structural issue. It’s their role in the social system.
CH: What’s the significance that last year in Madison we saw off-duty cops joining the protests and supporting the sit-in at the Capitol? What can we learn from the police response to the Occupy movement that can inform the planning and execution of future actions as the movement evolves? Should the movement engage with the police, and if so, to what end?
KW: I’ve heard a lot of hopeful talk about police joining the Occupy movement, but the truth is there is very little of that sort of thing happening, and where individual cops have offered their support, it has mostly been in minor and symbolic ways.
That’s hardly surprising, since some of the organizational developments in policing over the course of the 20th century were deliberately calculated to divide the cops from the working class and to cement their loyalty to the police institution. That’s true of the development of the State Police, for example, and it’s also true of the development of police unions as distinct organizations apart from the main body of the labor movement.
Of course, dissent within the ranks should be encouraged, but people are wrong to think that we encouraged it by being really nice to the cops and making their jobs easy. If they’re comfortable doing what they’re doing, then they’re going to keep right on doing it, whatever their subjective feelings might be. If they can keep behaving like cops and support the Occupy movement, then we can expect them to “support” us while also arresting us.
No, the only way to really pull them into the opposition is to force them to choose, to put them in a position where their job conflicts fundamentally with their loyalties. One might say, we have to sharpen the contradictions. If we want them to revolt, we have to make them uncomfortable where they are. We have to make their jobs harder, not easier.
CH: Is it a matter of delegitimization? Of creating a social climate in which cops are unwilling to patrol particular neighborhoods or parts of the city, or politicians and CEOs are afraid to go out to dinner and go about their day-to-day business? What are some actions and tactics people can use to “sharpen the contradictions” beyond shouting at the police during protests?
KW: I’m generally reluctant to talk too much about tactics, because tactics are always context-specific, and what makes sense here and now might make no sense a short distance away, or a few weeks into the future. Besides which, I think the left overall tends to obsess over tactics, and even fetishize them to some extent, to such a degree that the tactics sometimes even stand in for our politics – and this is true across the tactical spectrum, from the pacifists to the insurrectionists.
In short, I think there should be less focus on tactics and more on strategy. Concerning the fairly narrow question of police defections and how to encourage them, I’d say the main thing to keep in mind is that that sort of thing is an effect of social change, and not so much a cause. At the point where cops or soldiers desert or defect or mutiny, it’s usually pretty late in the process of struggle: the opposition movement is widespread and largely seen as legitimate, its ideas are gaining dominance, and there’s an increasing sense that some sort of change is inevitable. My point is, we shouldn’t focus too much on recruiting the cops to our side; instead, we should focus more on developing a powerful social movement, and one result of that will be the creation of conditions such that cops and soldiers might be willing to come over.
As for making their jobs harder, I guess what I had in mind is that we should replace slogans about “The cops are part of the 99 percent,” with the older question from the labor movement, “Which side are you on?” The question really implies the answer, but it is also a challenge to them. It makes it clear that they can’t have it both ways, beating us in the streets while supporting us in their hearts.
I think the police should be resisted, sometimes peacefully, sometimes militantly – that leads us back to those tactical questions – but always with an eye toward discrediting them. Insurgencies succeed – and successful social movements function as insurgencies, whether they think of themselves that way or not – insurgencies succeed when they shift legitimacy away from the state and toward the opposition.
So, making the cops’ job harder has to happen on several levels. It means not just voluntarily falling into line with the cops’ demands: if they’re going to repress us, we have to make them work for it. It also means putting the officers in positions where their jobs demand things that they’re personally uncomfortable with, and which they may at some point just refuse to do. And it means undercutting public support for policing, which will cause the kinds of cooperation the cops depend on to dry up, and also may mean that individual cops start catching grief from their friends, families, neighbors, girlfriends and boyfriends, ministers – whomever they respect and care about.
The other side of that, though, is that we have to support them when they do break to the left. That means backing whistleblowers, or cops who refuse riot duty and so on. Officers who make that choice are going to need help. Their superiors and their colleagues are going to make their lives hell, and most people just don’t have the strength to face that alone. But offering that sort of support requires a certain kind of moral perspective from the movement, where we oppose the police, and we may even fight them, but our antagonism is directed toward the institution and not toward the cops as individuals. If we demonize them as people, we may inadvertently close off the possibilities for them to leave the institution and change sides.
The point to stress, though, is that they can’t support the movement while also carrying on with their jobs as usual.
CH: Regarding the police, should the animating principle of a movement like Occupy be police accountability or abolition? Is fighting for accountability a necessary step toward abolition, or does it actually foreclose on such a possibility? Or can struggles for accountability and abolition complement and strengthen each other?
KW: The animating principle of the Occupy movement, as I understand it, is an attack on economic inequality. That’s a fine aim. Let’s stick with that.
But if the movement really plans to do anything to challenge that inequality, it is necessarily going to have to confront the issue of the police. That’s true in the immediate practical sense, on the street, and it’s also true in principle – since, as I’ve argued, the cops’ main job is to preserve that inequality. If the Occupy movement wants a more equal society, then the cops are an obstacle we’re going to have to overcome.
The very aims of the movement put it in opposition to the cops, but many people within Occupy either don’t realize or won’t admit it. If the movement continues and manages to avoid cooptation – two big if’s – I imagine this conflict will become quite a lot clearer, especially as the cops escalate their attacks.
The question is what to do about it. Ultimately, I think that a fair, just and equal society is not one that will have anything like our present police institution. And I don’t have any hope of police withering away after we’ve created a new society. I believe, instead, that we need to abolish the police in the course of creating that society. That implies, naturally, that we need to come up with some other means of ensuring public safety and resolving disputes – preferably one that does not rely on ubiquitous surveillance and routine violence, one that is substantively as well as procedurally fair, and one that is directly controlled by the community. In other words, not a new police force, but something that would be practically the opposite of a police force.
Obviously there’s a lot of distance to cover between here and there. No one, in the world as it is, has the power to just disband the police force. And the alternative institutions that would need to take over responsibility for public safety mostly either don’t exist, or they exist only in a kind of nascent form. Besides which, the vast majority of people – including the vast majority on the left – assume that we need the cops and aren’t actually on board with an abolitionist program. Those are three related but distinct political problems that need to be addressed. And then, in the meantime, there’s the fact of ongoing police racism and violence, and we can’t really expect people to just put up with it and wait for the revolution.
I think, as a matter of practical politics, that abolitionists have to engage in some variety of reform or accountability work, But we have to do so selectively, only joining in efforts that weaken the police institution and don’t strengthen it or add to its legitimacy. If we’re smart about it, that work may help limit some of the worst abuses and will shift power away from the police and toward the community. It will also put us in coalition with more moderate groups and give us the chance to advance an abolitionist analysis in dialogue with them. It’s hard work, but with patience and intelligence, I think we can build the kind of movement and develop the social conditions so that we can get rid of the police. Our first task, though, may well be just to recognize the possibility.
CH: You’ve written that organized police forces historically arose in response to a breakdown in more informal and traditional methods of community control. Does this point the way toward a future without police? What would such methods look like today, for maintaining public safety and resolving disputes without coercion and organized violence, when most people simply can’t imagine a world without police?
KW: History is helpful in the sense that it demonstrates that it is possible to organize society without the police institution. We really should avoid idealizing the past, though. There isn’t a Golden Age to return to.
It’s more useful, I think, to look at the myriad experiments with other forms of justice that do already exist in some form right now. Rose City Copwatch, an organization in Portland with which I volunteer, put out a pamphlet a couple years ago called Alternatives to Police, which you can see at our web site, rosecitycopwatch.org. It consists almost entirely of short descriptions of real-world alternatives. These include projects intended to hold perpetrators accountable, to directly intervene in violence, to burglar-proof low-income homes, to reduce violence by negotiating truces between gangs, to alert sex workers to abusive clients and so on.
Of course, most of these are small-scale and experimental in nature, and none of them are perfect, but I think they point to some hopeful possibilities.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
Collin Harris is a freelance writer and activist based in Portland, Oregon. He is launching MOSS Media in 2012, a grassroots media project using movements, music and media to expand the boundaries of cultural possibility in the 21st century.
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