2011-11-20 20:37:44 by chort
In struggling to come to grasp with what the Occupy Wall Street movement really means to society, I realized there had been a serious shift in public perception of law enforcement--at least by the white middle class*. If we think back 10 years, nearly everyone was heralding law enforcement and other first-responders as heroes, for risking their lives at the World Trade Center site. If we look at the press today, we see police, sheriff, and campus security forces being roundly criticized for widely publicized incidents of violence. Public officials appear to have been caught off-guard and their response has ranged from bi-polar (Jean Quan, in Oakland) to defiant (Michael Bloomberg, New York City). What accounts for this change?
I marvel at the change in my own opinion towards law enforcement. I remember watching the news during the WTO protests (widely viewed as riots) in Seattle and I remember thinking "what kind of assholes go to someone else's city and trash it? They deserve rough treatment from the police."
Now I watch footage of police throwing flashbang grenades at Iraq war veterans they shot in the head and I want to vomit. That's to say nothing of the non-violent veteran who was beaten so hard his spleen ruptured, the photographer shot at close range, unprovoked, old woman doused in the face with pepper spray, or students being pepper-sprayed at point-blank range. This conducted by those who are supposed to server and protect is truly revolting. Who exactly are they serving, who are they protecting? The answer to either appears not to be "the general, peace-loving populace.
"Who are they serving?" is the key question here. If you watch any of the countless hours of video, or the stills, you can tell the police are just as frightened as the protesters they're clubbing viciously. They've been dispatched to do an impossible task. They've been turned against their neighbors, members of their own socio-economic class by the ruling bureaucratic elites.
Why would elected officials authorize such ghastly actions? Are they just sociopaths with literally no thought of the damage they're inflicting? I don't think so. I think this is further manifestation of the culture of fear allowed to fester and grow after the attacks on 9/11. All across the country otherwise reasonable people suddenly asked themselves "what will the public think of me if a terrorist attack happens in my jurisdiction and someone accuses me of not being prepared?" That worst-case scenario thinking was a convenient justification for every subsequent decision. Checking people's bags as they board the subway? To prevent terrorism. Setting up roving checkpoints as bus stations and on public road ways? Preparing for terrorists. Buying hundreds of thousands of dollars of para-military equipment for small local agencies? Just in case of terror. Setting up an Orwellian department of "Homeland Security?" To keep the public from falling to pieces in the face of the imminent threat of terrorism.
The problem here is that no search is now unreasonable. People are expected to suffer all manner of indignities, such as naked imaging at airports, or being detained and strip-searched. In this type of environment officials see themselves in the same heroic light as the 9/11 first-responders. They think they're crusaders for light and good, saving the day. Anyone who disagrees with their policies is obviously not on the right side, and anyone who questions their orders must be dealt with decisively. After all, the most important thing is maintaining order, no matter what the cost.
That's the real heart of the issue. The USA is such a hero-obsessed culture that we're tempted to think "once a hero, always a hero." I distinctly remember some people complaining on Twitter that protesters seemed to be singling out 9/11 veteran officers for complaints. In fact, I think it's the reverse. I think the 9/11 vets had a sense of entitlement that "have, we've been through hell so you better not give us any guff" and thus felt empowered to do things like hit and run pepper-spraying captive protesters.
Here's the bottom line: people's character is fluid and constantly being defined by their actions. Officials shouldn't be so preoccupied worrying about extremely unlikely, high-impact events (like terrorism) that they justify highly likely, "low-impact" events, like stripping people of their first and fourth amendment rights. First responders might have been courageous on 9/11 trying to rescue civillians, but suiting up in battle armor and attacking peaceful people with chemicals and clubs is not heroic. On the other hand, it takes incredible courage to endure pepper spray down the throat and batons to the ribs without lashing out in return.
The world is watching, what happens next?
*Undoubtedly minorities across the country are screaming "see, we told you so!"