Thugs With Badges
There was a police riot in Pittsburgh on Friday, during the protests at the G20 economic summit. The cops deployed a sonic cannon that emits shattering high-frequency sound waves, OC gas (pepper spray), rubber bullets and beanbags, all against a few thousand unarmed protesters and local students. They attacked bystanders, people with cameras, anyone in the area, running after them and beating them, invading student dorms and gassing people who weren’t even protesting.
Americans stand by, mostly indifferent or tacitly approving of these police tactics. The excuse is that a few anarchists broke some windows and threw stones at cops. So heinous is the crime of harming property in our society that we give the green light for cops to break people’s heads open, most of them peaceful demonstrators or innocent bystanders. Few question why the police don’t focus on arresting just those who are doing damage, but instead go on a rampage against hundreds of people, even bursting into dorms in their enthusiasm for violence.
I had a brief exchange with a liberal blogger who wrote that the “anti-globalization nutters are whining again.” I responded that the people breaking windows were a tiny minority, and that the increasing militarization of police forces in this country is a legitimate issue. He answered that if the anti-globalists want to be taken seriously, they shouldn’t damage property. Later he said that he doesn’t like demonstrations—they don’t work and they only set back the cause of change. He never addressed the police issue.
My basic position can be expressed in visceral terms. I’m a lot more afraid of hundreds of black-clad riot police with their cannons and gas and rubber bullets, and their military mind-set, than I am of a few anarchists. The police are supposed to be held to a higher standard, but over the years the ideologues of law and order have turned the police into a sacred cow while using paramilitary tactics to suppress all dissent under the pretext of being provoked by anarchists or other “dangerous” elements.
Nowadays you need a permit to demonstrate, or else the cops have carte blanche to commit any kind of brutality they want. The right of the people peaceably to assemble is declared in the First Amendment to our Constitution, but in modern America it’s more important to keep us docile in front of our TVs, so peaceful assembly is now a privilege granted by permit. If some hack politician doesn’t want your group to assemble, he’ll find some phony reason to deny you a permit.
I expect the right wing to promote such policies. But it’s amazing how many liberals and Obama supporters will take the same position. The liberal blogger who characterized the anti-globalization as “nutters” is not unique. They are either unable to see, or refuse to see, the connection between the globalizing of corporate capital and the world economic meltdown. The push for corporate hegemony through war in the Middle East and elsewhere is directly linked to globalization and so-called “free trade.” NAFTA and other globalizing treaties aim precisely at the domination of poor people throughout the world in the interest of corporate profit. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are part of that. But to the complacent liberal, protesting this relentless aggression can only be the work of “nutters.”
The attitude towards police forces in this country is so infantile as to defy belief. Human beings wearing cop uniforms are treated as if they were sacred holy creatures that can do no wrong. Urban police departments lobby against civilian oversight. When a cop shoots an unarmed black man, the politicians rush to the microphones to exonerate the cop. Those who protest are demonized by the media. Now we see our police adopting the SWAT-team model for demonstrations. One can’t help think of fascism when one looks at these anonymous men in black outfits running at people en masse with shields and clubs, and ordinary people, our neighbors and kids, fleeing from them in fear.
Many ex-cops have testified how a culture of “us vs. them” is fostered within police departments. The behavior of the police in Pittsburgh is an example of a group of authoritarian men who have been given permission to act out their violent urges on people with impunity. There are no standards or ethics within the law enforcement community to prevent these shameful actions. Usually they are rewarded by cynical politicians who want to appear tough at the next election.
The question of how effective demonstrations are any more is a separate issue. I don’t think smashing windows is right, and those who do so should be arrested. How demonstrations composed of various groups can control or prevent such things is also a separate issue. Governments use these incidents as excuses to try to scare us into submission. They refuse to be accountable to the citizens whom the police are supposed to protect. It’s clear to me that the police are used to protect property and the property classes, while the masses of people who wish to have some power over how their world is governed are considered to be devoid of rights and only deserving of being beaten or having some chemical weapon sprayed in their faces.
There is a lot of talk about freedom and courage in this country. Most of it is bullshit. Americans allow their government to commit thuggery in the name of order because they’re docile and cowardly. If your own police treat you like cattle, you’re a long way from free.