Kiss the Officer in Question

By

A Rumpus Exaltation of the Rule of Law:

The video shows us everything; the outside of everything anyway: the UC Davis students on the sidewalk, their heads bowed, the law officer brandishing his canister of pepper spray to the assembled crowd, the thick mist spattering the face and hair of those kids.

And who else remembers now the fanciful claims made by those advocating another war with Iraq: that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical weapons. Imagine the horror: chemical weapons dropped onto innocent Americans?

***

It’s more complicated than that. It’s always more complicated. The law officer isn’t just some psychopath. He believes he’s protecting the peace, doing what he has to do.

The kids know their civil disobedience. They’re prepared to be removed for blocking a public sidewalk. So our officer has to figure out what to do. Do me and my men drag these kids off this sidewalk, or do I blast them with a chemical agent that will soften them up first?

Maybe he feels agitated by the omniscient gaze of all those camera phones, angry at the way his actions will be thrust into the public domain without his consent. Maybe the cameras make him determined to appear authoritative, to send a message to others who might disrupt the peace of his given precinct by sitting on sidewalks. If I don’t send a message, he figures, it gets worse. Isn’t my job to keep things from getting worse?

There’s some part of him that enjoys wielding his power, of course. We all possess such secret nodes. Maybe he sees the kids as spoiled brats who won’t listen, who need to be taught how the world really operates. He’s going to teach them. You don’t get into law enforcement just to write tickets.

He has to make a decision. It always comes down to this. One person—one imperfect person—has to make a decision about what to do. It is in this way that the Rule of Law devolves into the Rule of Man.

***

It’s happening all over: New York City, Portland, Oakland, your town. Police officers are taking matters into their own hands, deciding to harm unarmed citizens, often unnecessarily. In most cases, these folks are breaking no law. They have a constitutional right to peaceably assemble. Such abuses are nothing new. What’s new is that there are all these cameras around. Perhaps this is what happens when a surveillance state finds itself surveiled.

***

In a recent Republican presidential debate, the moderator noted that Rick Perry had overseen 234 executions as governor of Texas. The crowd seated in the Ronald Reagan Library offered the loudest applause of the evening.

They weren’t being ghouls. On the contrary, they were expressing support for the authoritarian model, in which punishment of the wicked is the most effective means of establishing order and therefore the highest civic good.

There is a reason that police procedurals such as Law & Order and 24 hold such power over the American imagination. They are modern fables meant to reassure us that the wicked will be brought to justice, that our authority figures will protect us from chaos, even if they must abandon agreed-upon standards of morality to do so.

***

And what about the ethical climate in which these authority figures exist? Does it matter that our domestic police force has been dramatically militarized over the past two decades? That officers recruited to protect and serve a particular community have been enlisted in a national War on Drugs, then a War on Terror, and have been armed with increasingly sophisticated tools of war? How, exactly, can this not matter?

***

I don’t imagine that anyone who applauded for Governor Perry’s execution stats would have made the connection, but Ronald Reagan himself owes his political legacy to civil unrest. Back in the 1966, he won the governorship of California in part by promising to “clean up the mess at Berkeley.” He meant the anti-war protests, which he claimed were being carried out by “cowardly fascists.”

Three years later, Reagan ordered in the California Highway Patrol. The ensuing clash left one protestor dead, and another blinded. Reagan then sent 2200 National Guard troops to occupy the city of Berkeley and crack down on protestors. “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with,” he explained. “No more appeasement!” Several days later, four students were shot to death on the Kent State campus.

Reagan explained that his remark was “only a figure of speech.”

***

As with the movement for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) arises from a vacuum of moral leadership. Our elected officials refuse to confront the corrosive greed that fuels late-model capitalism: the sickening concentration of wealth at the top, the conversion of that wealth into raw political power.

The basic message is the same as Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. It poses the same sort of radical challenge to those invested in the status quo. This is why a prominent lobbying firm recently offered the American Banking Association an $850,000 plan to promote “negative narratives” about the movement and any politicians who support it. This is how corporate interests express panic: they hire lobbyists.

***

Please don’t be surprised to see conservative activists attempt to “infiltrate” OWS, or otherwise foment chaos. The conservative movement has invested billions of dollars in think tanks and media infrastructure and public relations firms. So long as people believe that a “community organizer” is a communist in disguise, or that an agency dedicated to the poor exists to enable child prostitution, that money is well spent.

The notion that the nation’s moral discourse might be shaped by a spontaneous uprising of self-interested citizens is surely terrifying to them.

***

The authoritarian beast within the American spirit has been roused. It is heavily armed and lavishly underwritten. It wants, more than anything, to reduce our minds to panic machines. The OWS protestors have shown heroic restraint to this point. They’ve refused to fight back. Nor have they backed down. Instead, they’ve greeted the bullying theatrics of the last few weeks as evidence of the growing anxiety among those who oppose them.

Consider the end of the video taken at UC Davis, how the police officers huddle together, looking, for all their weaponry, confused and defenseless. The students watch them go. They chant a little, peacefully. “You can go,” they chant.

And the police do.


Steve Almond is the author of eight books, including Letters from People Who Hate Me. You can order his new collection of stories, "God Bless America," here. More from this author →