Two weeks ago, I found myself shaking with outrage at the treatment a handful of peacefully assembling students received at the hands of a bunch of police. By this time, you've all seen this clip or one almost exactly like it. At the time, I was so annoyed that I didn't even bother to investigate further. “Surely,” I thought, “if there were more to this story…if the students had done something to warrant this…that information would be released by now.”
Basically, I was naïve and did exactly what the media was trying to persuade me to do; mindlessly bleat.
As it turns out, some factors that I hadn't considered were that there wasn't any real press on campus for this, and the police were too busy trying to do their job to make a video recording of the events. All existing video (that we've seen thus far) was shot by passers-by and participants. It is unsurprising that only one side of the story was heard—what is unsurprising is that I never noticed that all I was seeing from an entire day of drama was the same minute and change. How could I not notice that hours upon hours of standoff, bickering, arrests, and interaction was distilled into clips of the same sixty seconds?
Because I was outraged. Way too outraged for logic or rational thinking.
The other day, then, when a friend posted a video purported to show the “other side” of the story, I watched it with a comment window open ready to just lambaste him for being an idiot. What could these children have done to warrant such an attack? How can any video soften such violence? As it turns out fairly convincingly. (There is a version with some occasionally needed commentary, but I find it to be more than a bit inflammatory, so I'd suggest watching it second, if you watch it at all.)
The actual timeline deviates considerably from the most commonly cited versions of events…in some cases so thoroughly that I am having a hard time not considering the “victim” stories to be contrived for effect. Should this video be believed1, the police asked the students to leave where they were illegally assembled, warned them of the pending arrest for unlawful assembly, then arrested them.
Let's discuss that for a moment, because here is the first red herring moment that we often find ourselves chasing: should the students be allowed to protest where they were? I believe they should; the right to peaceful assembly is an important one given by our constitution…and I think we've ceded that right far too easily and in far too many cases. Here's the important bit though: it doesn't fucking matter one bit whether or not they should have been allowed to protest there. If I disagree with the speeds posted on my residential street, I don't get to choose my own speed and damn the consequences. If I feel that the 1% have taken more than their fair share, I don't get to steal it back from them. I spend an alarming amount of parenting time quelling this childish sense of entitlement in my kids—a place in which it is perfectly normal to find it. I find it appalling that I might have to explain such a thing to a grownup.
The initial arrests were warranted because the protesters were breaking the law. At the end of the day, that is an important fact that we keep hand-waving away. If you break the law, you get punished. Frankly, if you understand civil disobedience, being arrested is fairly integral to the activity. Both sides fulfilled their social contract: the protesters made their displeasure known and the police detained them with a certain degree of dignity. Things were as they should be. Were…
This was all, for the most part, disclosed by the participants that have spoken out after the pepper-spraying event. The next bit, however, was notorious in its absence from student accounts of things.
By the new video's account of things, the police then set about the business of making sure the crowd dispersed so that they could then take those that had been detained into custody. It was during this process that the protesters made the decision to leave the protest area and move, en masse, to where the police were. They then made a tragic misstep, they implied aggression against the police.
The protesters encircled the police, locked arms, and started demanding that their fellow protesters be released. Using a human microphone, the students explained that they would allow the police to leave provided that their friends were set free. Let me restate that: a group of somewhere between 30 and 40 police officers were surrounded by what appears to be hundreds of citizens and told that they would not be allowed to leave unless they freed those that had been arrested.
Now, many people are making light of the act of aggression that is inherent in surrounding a group of people and making demands in return for their freedom—I can't really discuss this with them. If you are divorced sufficiently from reality as to not see how this is an act of actual aggression, you are not someone with whom I care to try to reason. For those of you that can at least recognize the fact that this is, really, a fairly aggressive act disguised as passivity, then we have a certain degree of intellectual common ground from which we can discuss this.
There are a lot of talking points surrounding this I've seen posited around the 'Net. Some of the arguments that I have seen:
This is not an act of aggression: If you take a large group of people and surround a smaller group of people, no matter how faux-peacefully, you are being hostile—you are being aggressive. There is no way for them to pass by you without being aggressive toward you, there is no way for them to get by without making themselves vulnerable to you, there is no way that it is not aggression.
The police should not have used force: So this group that has been trapped by a larger (but more poorly armed and trained) group can no longer go about their business. How do they leave? Join arms and walk out like some sort of ridiculous game of Red Rover? Finish that thought…where does it go from there? So the police join, arm-in-arm, with their charges and STEP OVER the protesters? How does that work? Alternately, perhaps they should just hang out in the circle? Chill…order a pizza…just all get along…for how long? How long should they wait for the very real possibility of the crowd turning violent? What is your end-game here? If you don't have an end-game, what you have is a losing strategy (but if your entire strategy is “the police shouldn't use force”, then strategy wasn't really your thing).
The police should have used one-on-one force: One-on-one force is one hell of a gamble. If it works, the police only get blamed for manhandling a half-dozen or so students. If it doesn't work, there is full-scale violence that runs the risk of serious injuries and/or death. Oh, and the chances of an assembled mob of protesters sitting back and peacefully allowing parts of their membership to be manhandled are pretty slim: this was a group that held the police hostage for peacefully arresting some of their friends. Surely this couldn't go badly.
The police shouldn't have used pepper spray without warning: They did warn…repeatedly. If you watch the video, you will see that not only did the protesters know, they verbally shouted warnings to one another. “Protect your eyes and mouth,” they yelled to one another. Then one of the agitators changed their chant to “Don't shoot children!” These protesters weren't sprayed without warning…no, they opted in favor of pepper spray rather than allowing the police to leave.
The police's use of pepper spray was excessive: You are correct. The way that the pepper spray was used was excessive. If you believe the reports from the protesters, it was considerably excessive. Even if you choose only to believe what you can discern from video, the initial deployment was too close and the spray was done two-times too many. This needs to be investigated, and training needs to be done to ensure that the spray is properly used in the future. Excessive use of pepper spray, however, does not equal “should not be using force.” This is what we call a red herring. It's an important side discussion that should be had…but not instead of the actual discussion.
To dispose of the rest of the red herrings, it is important to put this all into context. The revelations about this particular occupy event does not change the true and demonstrated police mishandling of other occupy events. It doesn't excuse police in Oakland, it doesn't excuse the 1%, it doesn't side with the bankers, it doesn't do any of that. What it does do is point out that we are getting out of hand with the media coverage and rhetoric. I try very, very hard to stay informed and gain information neutrally, and I allowed myself to be fed a line of bullshit on this one. It isn't hard to do. A well crafted piece of disinformation does exactly that. My own hubris allowed me to believe that I was too smart to fall for such a thing; the same hubris in people whose intellect and reason I generally respect prevents them from admitting that they were taken by lies.2
What does it mean? It means that we need to start being more careful. It means that the police that are there to protect us and enforce our laws need surveillance…without which Lt. Pike's misuse of pepper spray and the occupy movement's misuse of the media both would have gone unchecked. It means that we need to evaluate the restrictions we've place on peaceful assembly. It means a lot of things.
It doesn't mean that police acted incorrectly, though. The jury is very, very out on that one.
1 Of course, let's not make the same error as we have in the past and just assume that the video is true. Right now, things lean that way. Tomorrow…who knows.
2 This is not to say that if you disagree with any of my assessments you are foolish or being taken in by lies, but if you are simply denying the facts because you dislike them (or because they don't fit in with your worldview)…well…odds are you haven't bothered to read this far.