(via and also)
Before getting to the main part of my post, I’d like to note the following description of the aftermath of the pepper spraying at UC Davis (the author also provides a take on Lt. Pike’s body language I’m not sure I agree with):
the students announce to the officers that they are offering them “a moment of peace,” that is, the option of leaving without further escalating a truly horrible situation. They cry (in one of the most moving instances of the human mic I’ve ever seen) “You can go! You can go!”
It’s transcendently brilliant, this tactic–the students offer an alternative in a high-pressure situation, a situation that no one wants, but which seems inevitable in the heat of the moment. It’s an act of mercy which, like all acts of mercy, is entirely undeserved. Watch the other officers’ surprise at this turn in the students’ rhetoric, after they had (rightfully) been chanting “Shame on you!” Watch the officers seriously consider (and eventually accept) the students’ offer.
The following tweets are by Zeynep Tufekci, and were in response to a link to a video of the UC Davis protesters being pepper sprayed.
- Most everywhere else in the world, the crowd wouldn’t just watch the police pepper spray a row of kids sitting down.
- American protestors are the most compliant & obedient of the police I’ve seen anywhere. Surprised me when I first came to US.
- Bystanders just watching … chanting shame. Most places in the world, skirmishes would break out. People wld join, intervene.
- In the first big protest I witnessed in grad school –fresh-off-the-boat– people said we’re going to do civil disobedience.
- Protestors sat somewhere, police said we’ve arrested you, everyone got up & lined up, paperwork processed, minor fine, voila.
- Semed so funny. In most places, if protestors aren’t obeying the police (civil disobedience, unlawful order, etc.) they disobey.
- I mean, no wonder police feel empowered to brazenly spray a line of kids sitting down. Nobody joins, jumps in, intervenes.
- Somehow civil disobedience has been reduced to full & polite cooperation w/ all orders. Ppl need to watch civil rights videos.
They are worth reading alongside this post on the ambiguity of non-violence.
There are two points I want to make about these. One is also effectively summarized by the statement of the
spokespod from planet Orwell UC Berkeley chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau that “It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience.” That is, the operative notion among many authorities that civil dis-obedience is only acceptable (even, for the chancellor, worthy of “honor”) if, well, protesters obey everything the authorities say — a fairly good measure of the degree neo-liberalism abandons democratic principles for (at best) paternalistic ones. Non-elect human beings are a management problem, passive, infantile things, best managed at arms length, entirely through statistics if at all possible. Protest should not do even conceptual violence since the values civil manager/rulers are supposed to uphold in the name of the will of the people pre-exist the will of any actual people. (If anyone comes across the howling revenant of Thoreau, perhaps he could be given directions to the chancellor’s office.)
This post has some useful history showing the likely difference between the particular protest situation described by Tufekci and what OWS protesters encounter. (And this post is a useful corrective to some non-historical aspects of the previous link.)
I have been puzzling over the connection between the chancellor’s demand for passivity on the part of protesters, and the congressional Democratic leadership’s usual passivity in the face of Republican demands, e.g. the farcical “filibuster-by-gentlemen’s-agreement” they’ve allowed to overshadow Senate business. The suggestion of a connection seems quite strong, but so far I haven’t found a way to make it explicit that doesn’t fall apart.
The second concern derives from the initial tweet: “Most everywhere else in the world, the crowd wouldn’t just watch the police pepper spray a row of kids sitting down.” I suspect there is a real point here regarding the difference between US crowds (at least in some metropolitan contexts) and crowds in many other countries — though I think in this unqualified form it is hard to pin down. The most obvious objections are that the “bystander effect” is not an aberration of Americans, and that, historically and currently, situations where a populace fears the effects of interfering with authorities are not uncommon.
But I think there is a more interesting question here: what is the role of the crowd in non-violent protest? Or rather “roles”, as the crowd is unlikely to be homogeneous. For example, in the crowd at UC Davis a rather large percentage are wielding cameras of one sort or other. Who among them considers themself a “journalist” — a role that traditionally calls for “reporting the story” rather than “being the story”? On the other hand, who considers themself to have the somewhat more ambiguous role of “witness”? Are those who show up at a protest with the intent of documenting what happens in order to ensure that the protesters side of the story gets told, effectively part of the protest, that is, are they too expected to exemplify non-violence?
If bullying authorities are interfered with, does that not effectively constitute a secondary protest, one specifically against the treatment of the original protesters? In what cases and what forms is this secondary protest justified in abandoning strict non-violence? And (if the answer is not the same), in what cases is it advisable? The answer to that last would seem to depend a great deal on the effective audience for the protest.
There is a long history of discussion on the left of when violence might be justified and against whom. Of course, many of the landmarks in that discussion are a century or more old at this point, and when I read current discussions of these issues, I can end up feeling that not enough care has been taken to update the older ideas for current conditions, or to acknowledge what non-violence has or can accomplish. So many of the culturally widespread images of revolution remain 18th and 19th century ones.
While he uses a more explicitly Marxist vocabulary than I would, and I haven’t entirely decided what I do and don’t endorse about his conclusions, this guy provides a much richer discussion than I can of these issues.
Perhaps, the missing element in Tufekci’s tweets is the notion of what is expected from the police on the part of the people. While protesters in America may have no illusions about the current tactics that police may be expected to employ, many of them likely share the ideal that the purpose of the police is to “protect and serve” — with the insistence however that the implied direct object of those verbs includes the rights and persons of the whole populace, not just the interests and property of the rich. The initial reaction of the crowd after the police pepper spray the UC Davis protesters is to chant “shame on you”. Whether or not anyone expects the police to actually feel that shame, the chant most certainly expresses the ideal of policing the protesters see as implied by a democratic and egalitarian society.
In other words, the position on the protesters side is the police ought to be ashamed for using the power granted to them to effect an arbitrary authoritarianism that serves only one narrow class of citizens and not the populace as a whole, that serves to curtail and manage, rather than facilitate, the exercise of the rights that make “democracy” something more than a euphemism for elites to hide behind. The history of protest policing linked above shows that, for a time at least, something much closer to this ideal of policing was achieved. And that more ideal approach can still be found in places (IIRC — I hope I have this memory attached to the correct incident — the Milwaukee police chief, at the time of the initial Scott Walker protests, issued quite good statements to the effect that the goal of the police would be to protect everyone’s — both protesters and counter-protesters — right to speak, and the policing was actually carried out in a way consistent with that). This Rachel Maddow interview with a former police captain who participated in the OWS protests provides more context.
Anyway, I’m afraid this post is a bit fragmentary — hopefully not to the point of incomprehensibility — but I’ve already delayed too long in getting a topical post like this out. All the incoherence that remains is my own and does not express the incoherence of the management. So there it is. Caveat bloggor, carpe emu, etc.