This past weekend, millions of Americans witnessed a brazen act of police brutality in the form of a viral video that showed nonviolent students at UC Davis being pepper sprayed by campus police. What made the video especially shocking was the cavalier demeanor of the now-infamous Lt. John Pike, who assaulted the students without any apparent provocation. While Lt. Pike and another officer have since been put on administrative leave, troubling questions remain about the role police forces and authority figures have played in brutally suppressing popular dissent.
Clearly the actions of the police in the UC Davis incident were unconscionable, yet it would be a mistake to think it was an isolated incident. Indeed, the attack on peaceful demonstrators at UC Davis is just the latest in a series of confrontations involving police and protesters affiliated with Occupy movements across the country, confrontations that have already had a deleterious effect on the people’s ability to freely exercise their First Amendment rights.
In a dark bit of irony, one of the main grievances of the UC Davis protestors was the unprovoked assault on students during an Occupy Cal rally. During this past week alone, cameras captured a young woman being pepper sprayed directly in her face during an Occupy Portland event, while in Seattle the victims of police pepper spray attacks included, most notably, an 84-year-old woman. It would be bad enough if these were simply isolated attacks perpetrated by rogue cops. Unfortunately, however, there is overwhelming evidence that these attacks have not only been aimed specifically at Occupiers but have been part of a systemic pattern of violence against protestors in the U.S. In many ways, the Occupy movement parallels the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s when African-Americans, women, and gays had to overcome years of covert discrimination and overt harassment before their grievances were finally redressed.
What distinguishes OWS from previous movements, aside from differing goals and tactics, is the historical moment in which it is occurring. Thanks in large part to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, photos and videos capturing instances of police brutality are disseminated more swiftly and widely than ever before. Such technology should, in theory, help to mobilize people in this country as it did in recent popular uprisings throughout the Arab world. Yet while the Arab Spring protesters faced even greater obstacles in the form of opposition from repressive dictatorial regimes, the Occupy movement has thus far been unsuccessful in achieving its relatively modest socioeconomic aims. This can partly be attributed to the relative newness of OWS, but there may be another, darker reason behind the inaction. Despite America’s status as a democracy that considers free speech to be sacrosanct, the police violence exhibited at Occupy protests has had the insidious effect of discouraging free speech. Understandably, most people are reluctant to directly confront the police due to fears of getting arrested or worse. Couple that with media depictions of Occupiers as shiftless lawbreakers, and you start to see why public perception of OWS would be negative.
Of course, the police are not solely to blame for the unfortunate outbreaks of violence at Occupy protests; it goes without saying that the majority of cops are decent and many of them undoubtedly feel that they are simply following orders. Indeed, a lion’s share of the blame should be placed at the feet of overreaching administrators and controlling politicians who appear to be more interested in protecting the interests of the 1% than in serving their constituencies. As members of the 99%, protesters and police alike have more in common than they think and it benefits neither party to participate in their mutually assured destruction.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons