Can There Be Solidarity Between Movement Activists and Police Officers?
by Randall Amster
Recent days have seen the increasing use of police violence against peaceful Occupy demonstrators around the country, including the gone-viral merciless pepper-spraying of students at UC Davis as well as that of 84-year-old Dorli Rainey in Seattle, and the critical wounding of Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen at Occupy Oakland. Police often refer to such episodes as “non-lethal intervention” and “pain compliance” intended to make people respond to their demands in particular situations, and more broadly the notion can be expanded as an effective working label for the apparent overall strategy of police in relation to the Occupy Movement everywhere. The basic idea is that if authorities apply enough force, fear will increase and people will stay home rather than mobilize.
In fact, the opposite reaction may be more likely. For every graphic instance of a camp being ruthlessly decimated, students being batoned and sprayed, or completely peaceful protesters being arrested en masse, it seems that more people are actually drawn to the movement in a combination of outrage and solidarity. On the other side of the coin, such repressive tactics may be starting to erode official legitimacy, laying the groundwork for potential police defections from the ranks and for some in the law enforcement milieu to begin expressing support for the Occupy Movement.
Consider the revelatory perspective of Officer Fred Shavies, who was assigned to infiltrate Occupy Oakland but who expressed solidarity rather than condemnation when his role was discovered:
“I’m a police officer. I’m part of the 99 percent…. In the ’60s when people would protest, would gather in order to bring about change, right? Those protests were nonviolent, they were peaceful assemblies. They were broken up with dogs, hoses, sticks…. It looks like there was a square, and police shot tear gas. That could be the photograph or the video for our generation. That’s our Birmingham. So, twenty years from now this movement could be the turning point, the tipping point, right. It’s about time your generation stood up for something. It’s about time young people are in the streets…. Ya’ll don’t need to throw gas canisters into a group of people occupying an intersection.”
Retired Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis has openly joined forces with the movement, and was actually himself arrested in a protest against the heavy-handed tactics of the New York Police Department. During the demonstration, Lewis held a sign saying “NYPD: Don’t Be Wall Street Mercenaries,” and another that exhorted NYPD officers to “Join Us.” Following his arrest, Lewis further contended that “Corporate America is using our police departments as hired thugs.”
Then there’s the evolution of Norm Stamper, Seattle’s Police Chief during the period that included the 1999 WTO protests, who has been sharply critical of the role police are playing vis-à-vis Occupy:
“More than a decade later, the police response to the Occupy movement, most disturbingly visible in Oakland — where scenes resembled a war zone and where a Marine remains in serious condition from a police projectile — brings into sharp relief the acute and chronic problems of American law enforcement. Seattle might have served as a cautionary tale, but instead, US police forces have become increasingly militarized, and it’s showing in cities everywhere: the NYPD ‘white shirt’ coating innocent people with pepper spray, the arrests of two student journalists at Occupy Atlanta, the declaration of public property as off-limits and the arrests of protesters for ‘trespassing.’ The paramilitary bureaucracy and the culture it engenders … is worse today than it was in the 1990s. Such agencies inevitably view protesters as the enemy. And young people, poor people and people of color will forever experience the institution as an abusive, militaristic force — not just during demonstrations but every day, in neighborhoods across the country.”
Stamper concludes with a poignant assessment of the underlying reality of the situation:
“It is ironic that those police officers who are busting up the Occupy protesters are themselves victims of the same social ills the demonstrators are combating: corporate greed; the slackening of essential regulatory systems; and the abject failure of all three branches of government to safeguard civil liberties and to protect, if not provide, basic human needs like health, housing, education and more. With cities and states struggling to balance the budget while continuing to deliver public safety, many cops are finding themselves out of work. And, as many Occupy protesters have pointed out, even as police officers help to safeguard the power and profits of the 1 percent, police officers are part of the 99 percent.”
These sentiments call upon us — movement activists and police officers alike — to consider how we might break the usual cycle of “police versus protesters.” For too long, the uber-elites have watched from their penthouses as factions of the 99 percent do battle with one another in the streets below — one in blue and the other carrying signs. The police-against-protesters motif is the dominant frame for nearly every social movement, with the images of clashes being distributed widely as part and parcel of the workings of movements themselves. Yet rather than engaging the centers of power directly, demonstrators are instead channeled into conflicts with police officers, who provide that “thin blue line” of deflection that draws the energy of a movement away from its actual targets.
This is by now a familiar dynamic, so much so that it is almost too readily accepted in movement culture. Protesters expect to be embroiled in a contest with police, and for their part law enforcement officers are incessantly trained in the tactics of protest policing. The official resources expended on such practices are enormous, and all the while the movement’s deeper claims are obscured in a cloud of tear gas and blunted by the sting of pepper spray.
I would suggest that instead of repeating this dead-end drama, the Occupy Movement should actively work to win over the police and encourage more defections. I do not intend this in an idealistic manner, but more so pragmatically. Without the police holding the line, the 1 percent will have to meet us as equals, and in that moment the true locus of power will make itself evident. The police, as a class, are generally in the 99 percent — and while they often do their bidding for the 1 percent, many of them have cultural and economic roots that are more closely aligned with those against whom they are being asked to use force. And this presents opportunities for humanization and exchange, as every demonstrator who enters the system can become an emissary for solidarity.
On this note, you may have heard the story of my friend Pancho Ramos Stierle, who was arrested while meditating as police swept the Occupy Oakland camp and is facing potential deportation as a result. Pancho is a devout Gandhian, a nonviolent anarchist (in the best sense of both of those words), and someone who practices the idea that “the most effective weapon against a system based on greed and violence is kindness.” While being held in custody and ironically flagged as among the “most dangerous” prisoners, Pancho reached out to officers with simple humanizing phrases such as “How are you doing, brother?” and “Brother, you don’t need to be doing this.” On more than one occasion he received positive responses, including one that specifically reveals the potential for change: “I know that this uniform doesn’t have a heart, but I do.” Even more succinctly, as reported by J.A. Myerson in Truthout, one New York central booking officer confessed: “I’m on your side.”
This all may be anecdotal, but it isn’t pie-in-the-sky thinking; it actually plays out in real time. History abounds with examples of the exploited agents of hegemonic power being won over to the other side. In World War I, many soldiers refused to fire upon the enemy despite forcible orders to do so, even at times reaching an informal detente across the trenches. In the Philippines in the 1980s, a nonviolent “people power” revolution led to open defections by the military. Following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many veterans have spoken out passionately against the wars themselves and the larger workings of the military-industrial complex overall. In Greece, police officers recently staged demonstrations against austerity measures as protesters prepared to launch a general strike.
The potential for other officers to make similar choices is palpable. Mass mobilizations provide innumerable points of contact that can be used to promote a dialogue, even in those small human moments of personal exchange. The examples of Officer Shavies, Captain Lewis, and Chief Stamper are but the tip of the iceberg for opening space in the movement as a home for like-minded officers. Surely any movement can find a place for people who possess the virtues of courage and discipline, many of whom are also skilled in (if not encouraged to practice) nonviolent intervention and conflict de-escalation. Indeed, reports are beginning to surface about officers defying orders, refusing to arrest demonstrators, denouncing incidents of brutality, and walking out in support of the aims of Occupy. There’s even a group of (and for) police officers called Occupy Police, which unabashedly states: “We are in open Solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and all Occupy movements across the nation.”
Again, I don’t want to sugarcoat this, nor disregard the very real pain and suffering caused by agents of the state. Yet if we get stuck there, our movements will continue to largely devolve upon battles between segments of the 99 percent rather than directly addressing the roots of unjust elite power. Instead, let’s seize the opportunity to change the narrative altogether, and stop taking the divisive bait that the power-holders are plying us with. “Whose cops? Our cops!” might become a new mantra for expressing a form of solidarity that defies expectations, one that could actually erode the lockstep control of the 1 percent in a tangible way. And we might be surprised to learn that beneath the paramilitary visage sometimes lies a reluctant warrior with deep-seated empathies for the cause.
In this sense, the orchestrated battlegrounds of the 1 percent can become common ground for all of the 99 percent. In the not-too-distant future, we may even come to find that proverbial “thin blue line” moving among the demonstrators rather than against them.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association and as Contributing Editor for New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008), and the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).