To Serve and Protect or Occupy and Repress?
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been a steady militarization of police forces in many of America’s cities. This has become increasingly obvious when the subject of dealing with public protests has arisen. Whether in dealings with Occupy protesters a few years ago, or with the unrest caused recently by the killing of Michael Brown (an unarmed teenager) by police in Ferguson, Missouri, many question the use of some of the brutal tactics and military style weapons used by police across the nation. There often seems to be a difference in opinion between police and protesters (particularly when they are dealing with mainly unarmed, peaceful demonstrators who feel they are simply exercising their civil rights to peaceably assemble and speak their minds freely as is written in the Constitution and Bill of Rights), as to what is the appropriate way in which each should act.
Granted, many demonstrations that took place at the height of the War in Vietnam involved activation of National Guards and an overabundance of tear gas, but the use of military equipment and tactics appears to have spread far wider than it ever was in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Local police forces have been allowed to acquire armored vehicles, machine guns and other military surplus equipment on a scale that belies the fact that violent crime in the nation as a whole has been dropping. Is there an actual need for local military forces to fight terrorism and violent drug cartels in the streets of Everytown, USA, or is this overkill that strips ordinary citizens of their Constitutionally protected civil rights in order to provide us all with some additional modicum of security and safety from those who wish us harm?
Tactics used against Occupy demonstrators, as well as in the pursuit of the Boston Marathon bombers last year and the tactics initially employed in Missouri more recently, indicate a need to rebalance the security vs civil liberty scale a bit and re-evaluate how exactly the police should be protecting and serving the members of their communities, as opposed to repressing innocent civilians and suppressing valid expressions of dissent. It may be difficult to judge what an appropriate response would be to any given situation, or what the personal safety of officers trying to maintain order in a tense confrontational situation requires, but overdoing the military hardware and physical brutality can be displayed very graphically for all the world to see in this technological age.
Our government just last year threatened outright war with Syria over the use of chemical weapons, yet our police routinely use pepper spray and tear gas to put down demonstrations. Those weapons are not intended to be lethal when used, but they are far from harmless, as anyone who has suffered from their effects can attest. The police know that – which is why they are equipped with gas masks when using them. The point here is that the use of such weapons should have a higher threshold than was exhibited in many of the Occupy protests and the incidents in Ferguson.
Incidents involving excessive force by police officers on unarmed civilians have seemed to become more frequent of late, as well, due in no small part to the proliferation of cameras of all sorts – including security and surveillance cameras in many places of business and on city streets, as well as ordinary cellphones. Anyone, on either side of the law, who thinks they can get away with questionable behavior for very long with all the eyes and ears surrounding us is in for a rude awakening sooner or later. Trying to keep it secret by confiscating a phone or arresting someone for using it, journalist or not, is a surefire way to lose public confidence. It will come out.
The Ferguson case illustrates some other problems with the way law enforcement has become unresponsive to the needs of the people it should be striving to serve. Not only is the government of that city not representative of the population as a whole, the police department is as well. Not only that, but it seems to me that the police should immersed in the life of the community they are serving. Studies that have shown racial bias in the enforcement of the law have gone unheeded for over a decade. Police in that town don’t even need to live there. No wonder many of the residents might view them as members of an occupying force than one of their own. The fact that they were not very forthcoming with information about the case and came across as trying to demonize the unarmed victim didn’t help matters, either.
Being a police officer is not easy. It’s highly dangerous work. Dealing with demonstrations also is not easy. Looting in the midst of demonstrations complicates matters enormously, but it is usually not all that difficult to separate the destructive people from the non-violent ones and treat them accordingly. Accusations of excessive force are often easier to document now than they used to be. Perceptions that police may be abusing the authority and trust placed in them are not easy to quickly correct. Ordinary citizens should not fear their police. Nor should extraordinary people fear that the police and other authority figures will punish them for expressing their grievances in a non-violent manner.
Brutality on the part of police, ignoring or thwarting the expressed wishes of the people by those who are elected to office, should all be grounds for dismissal, either outright or at the ballot box, as may be appropriate. If a situation exists where there are so many people so pissed off that they are willing to risk publicly demonstrating, the solution is not to make them cower by using armed assault vehicles, massive firepower and gas on them. When they do that sort of thing in Cairo or Beijing or just about anywhere else in the world, Americans tend to call that tyranny.
Too often of late, we see instances where our government has responded to acts of vandalism, or terror, or attempts to redress perfectly valid grievances with unnecessary, and in my mind, unconstitutionally brutal suppression and/or curtailment of what have come to be called our inalienable rights. The more we shut down major cities the way we did in the wake of the Boston Marathon, lock up hundreds of peaceful protesters and brutalize others as occurred with the various break-ups of occupy, or send in military vehicles with people who look more like soldiers than police, the closer we get to the tyranny we are taught to abhor. We should not need to be reminded by pictures of Tiananmen Square or the Arab Spring to know that is not the way people deserve to be treated in a civilized society.
Suggested Further Readings:
One Nation Under SWAT: The Militarization of America’s Police