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Feeling blue

November 20, 2011 - Harry Eagar
In The Atlantic, an interesting piece by Alexis Madrigal on the Davis police atrocity: "Why I Feel Bad for the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. John Pike"

The capsule history of police crowd control is worth reading, even though Madrigal's view (borrowed from James Baldwin) that it's worse to spray someone with pepper than to be sprayed is silly. It's worse to be sprayed, every time.

Why, though, is the comparatively mild Davis attack getting so much more attention than other, more violent, even murderous police attacks on Occupy protesters?

Because it happened in broad daylight. There's a reason cops usually attack protests at night. It's the same reason they target reporters and cameramen (as they have done especially in Manhattan): It's harder to witness things at night. (I often quote the sometime lieutenant governor of Virginia, Henry Howell, that "there's more things going around in the dark than Santa Claus.")

UPDATE: With regard to the New York police war on reporters, virtually every news organization in the world's news center has signed a bill of particulars alleging abuses and sent it to the city. Follow link at New York Capital.

Because some of the videos were excellently done. The two in particular that have gone viral are longish (8 minutes), clearly shot and uninterrupted. Much better than the usual shaky, interrupted and obscured videos or surveillance camera videos.

Because the cops come across in the video as real people, very human and vulnerable, even behind their face shields. (The cops show up more than the protesters, who have their faces covered.) They are confused, uncertain, and -- later, as they retreat -- humiliated, angry, ashamed and shaken.

I don't see how the campus police chief can keep her job after leading her men into that debacle. She ought to be fired for lying, but even if she isn't, she cannot lead the force any more. At least, I don't think so.

Because the satyagraha was exceptional. As someone who has participated in non-violent protests as a citizen and watched both violent and non-violent protests as a paid reporter and, once, as a bystander, I am mighty impressed by the satyagraha, and, especially by the yell-leader(s) who obtained complete moral domination of the cops, who had come in expecting to crack skulls.

They would have, too, if there hadn't been so many cameras. As we know from the behavior of Maui cops and many others, police don't like to have their behavior recorded, and if they think only one or two people are recording them, they'll smash cameras, beat up onlookers and, in general, obtain freedom of action.

At Davis, they were outnumbered -- not, as the chief said by protesters, but by cameras. They realized they had no chance of extinguishing all the videos. In a telling moment, a cop waves back a cameraman who appears to be holding professional equipment. He's calm, almost friendly.

In the '60s, the antiwar protesters chanted, "The whole world is watching." The whole world wasn't. Now, the whole world is filming. When the campus police chief tells reporters that her cops used pepper because they were surrounded, it isn't a matter of reporters taking down her remarks and telling -- if they were there and in a position to see what happened -- whether her version matched their version. At Davis, she lied, and everybody can see how blatantly she did it.

The fundamental fear of the powerful is that, at some point, the hirelings they keep to protect them will go over to the other side. I think I saw, in the faces of some of the Davis cops, a thought passing, "What the hell am I doing? This is not right."

It didn't go further than that. But those were some very unhappy young men, and they were learning something. The University of California-Davis chancellor, who appears to be clueless, says it won't happen again. She's right. She wouldn't dare ask them to repeat that tactic.


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