Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lessons of Impunity and Internalization of Perspectives

Last week, a report regarding police conduct at the November 9, 2011, rallies at the University of California at Berkeley was issued. It was the first of what will no doubt be a blizzard of studies about police conduct during their efforts to prevent or remove protest encampments on University grounds last fall.

The video above shows some of the actions of both police and protesters on the Sproul Plaza lawn that day; though I can't be sure of timing, the video description says that this particular confrontation occurred after the tents that had been briefly erected on the lawn were seized and removed by police, thus after the initial charge by police against protesters. It was apparently during the confrontation shown above that most of the injuries were sustained by protesters that day.

The report was prepared by
Jeff Young, Assistant Chief of Police UCLA Police Department

and so is an institutional-serving document that reflects both the culture of impunity with which the UCPD is imbued and the astonishment within the institution of the UCPD that civilians would question the behavior of the police or -- even worse -- not know the policies that they were properly implementing and enforcing.

If people were assaulted, arrested, or injured during the police actions November 9: too bad for them.

As I read the report, I was thinking back -- as I admit I often do! -- to the Free Speech Movement in late 1964 and early 1965 and how it was dealt with, and how there was nothing approaching this level of violence by the police, even though thousands of students actually occupied Sproul Hall (the UC Berkeley administration building) repeatedly during the FSM protests, and hundreds and hundreds of protesters were arrested. So far as I can recall, no one was beaten or sustained more than minor injuries (mostly from being dragged) during those police actions.

To refresh my memory, I watched "Berkeley in the Sixties," Mark Kitchell's 1990 documentary of those and other events in and near the Bay Area of California during the decade. (The link goes to part one of an eight part Spanish subtitled version on YouTube.) Indeed, so far as that documentary shows, there was no overt police violence during the FSM period though there were plenty of arbitrary impositions of police authority (most especially, the seizure of Mario Savio by police at the Greek Theatre while he tried to address the administration on behalf of the students). In fact, according to Jo Freeman's accounts, the Berkeley administration was directed by the Governor's Office to defuse the protest without violence.

My how times change.

As I watched the documentary -- the first time I've seen it in its entirety in many years -- I was somewhat startled to see so many things I remember or was part of during the era, even more startling to me was how much I have internalized the ideas and ideals of the era, and further, how much those ideas and ideals seem to be informing my perspectives about the current uprisings and rebellions under the Occupy rubric.

My. My. My.

I hadn't forgotten, I had internalized. And I got to thinking that something similar has happened to the police and their institutional culture in the intervening 40 or 50 years. I take for granted my point of view about rebellion, ideas and ideals, and of course I believe I'm "right" -- just as they do.

In 1964 and 65, the police didn't behave violently toward student protesters on campus. In fact, they were ordered not to. By 1966 and 67, police violence against protests would become commonplace in California, and in 1968 in Chicago, it became what was deemed a police riot. The term can only be properly understood in the context of the uprising and riots that were going on all over the United States and the world that year. 1968 was a transformative year on many levels. Nothing would be the same afterwards.

But back to the report and the impunity for police actions expressed therein.

From the outset, the thrust of the report is clear:
The specific purpose of this operational review is to determine if the
UC Berkeley Police Department followed its policies and procedures and generally accepted police and safety practices in dealing with the protests that occurred on the UC Berkeley campus on November 9, 2011. Other purposes that naturally flow this charge include determining:

  • 1. lf the actions of the UC Berkeley Police Department provided an appropriate level of preparation and pre-event planning for the protest.

  • 2. lf UC Berkeley Police Department command staff, including the Chief of Police,provided adequate leadership and command/control of the protest event.

  • 3. If UC Berkeley campus administration provided adequate direction, guidance and the appropriate support of the indicated direction and guidance that they provided.

  • 4. What actions of the protestors and crowd conditions contributed to the eventual outcomes of the event?

  • 5. What recommendations for future consideration can be made?

  • According to institutional culture, events transpire in a vacuum, independent of all other events. Assessments are only made regarding the specifics of the moment according to established rules and policies as they are interpreted and enforced against perceived or real threats. Context, to the extent it is considered at all, is an abstraction. That UC Berkeley's history of protest is too widely known to be ignored, but that history does not directly inform today's realities and considerations. Instead, the events of 9/11 and the more recent Oakland actions -- including the police violence on October 25 and the vandalism by Oakland activists on November 2 -- will loom large.

    From the outset, it is clear that the only issues under consideration will be whether the police responded properly according to their mission and policy as they understand it and as it was communicated to them by the campus administration. The implication is that to the extent they face accusations of wrongdoing, they are ultimately victims of policy choices they are not responsible for.

    In other words, by the standards of this study, there is no way for the police to be in the wrong regarding their conduct so long as policies were followed.

    And, of course, they were. Consequently, everyone can just sit down and shut up. The police were only following orders and doing their jobs. No one has any right to criticize them for their performance.

    What was their all-important mission? What "job" was so important that they had to beat the crap out of and injure students to accomplish?

    Interestingly, the report sidesteps that question and instead puts forth the following "Message" from the Chancellor:

    In advance of the event, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau issued a "Message to Campus Community". In this message Chancellor Birgeneau warned students that camping would not be tolerated. Birgeneau's statement reminded "community members of some of the basic expectations for our campus." He specifically mentioned, "encampments or occupations of buildings are not allowed on our campus. This means that members of our community are free to meet, discuss, debate, and protest, but will not be allowed to set up tents or encampment structures." The chancellor stressed support for "our campus community in leading the collegiate movement in a way that is productive, dignified and consequential." Birgeneau also noted that "in these challenging times, we simply cannot afford to spend our precious resources and, in particular, student tuition on costly and avoidable expenses associated with violence or vandalism."

    This statement is strikingly obtuse, in that it seems to be focusing everywhere except the interests of the students engaged in protest on campus, and it is remarkably similar to statements issued from the administration with regard to the People's Park in 1969. In other words, Birgeneau seems to be saying, "You can have your silly little protest if you must, but only on our terms, not on yours."

    Note the matter of "costly and avoidable expenses associated with violence or vandalism" that are paid from student tuition. Nice touch.

    While not explicitly stated, the all-important mission, indeed the obsession of the police on November 9, was preventing an encampment on the campus. When they were thwarted and tents were erected on the lawn in front of Sproul Hall, they became enraged and commenced their brutal actions against the protesters. For their part, protesters resisted for a time and then retreated.

    The encampment was destroyed, a number of protesters were injured and arrested, and "order" was restored to the campus.

    The police conduct was quickly intercast around the world and was met with widespread outrage and disgust. Captain Margo Bennett, UCB police spokesperson, and Chancellor Birgeneau both tried to justify the violence of the police toward the protesters by asserting that the protesters' behavior was "not nonviolence," which doesn't make any rational sense at all. At no time did any protester address the police violence with violence of their own. It simply did not happen.

    In the report, however, the issue is not directly addressed. The statements about "not nonviolence" are not given. Instead, the report quotes definitional terms as understood by the police regarding matters of "resistance", to wit:

    A word about terms such as "Passive Resistance" and "Non-Violent" "Passive Resistance" and Non-Violent" are controversial terms that mean different things to many different groups. The UC Berkeley Police Department "Crowd Management Policy" provides definitions for three
    categories of demonstrator response to police orders:

    1. Compliant - behavior consistent with submitting to lawful police orders without resistance.

    2. Non-Compliant - non-violent opposition to the lawful directions of law enforcement during an arrest situation (sometimes referred to as "passive resistance").

    3. Active Resistance - intentionally & unlawfully opposing the lawful order of a peace officer in a physical manner (i.e. tensed muscles, interlock arms/legs, pushing, kicking, etc.).

    Viewed under these definitions, the actions of the crowd on November 9, 2011 were "active resistance."

    Note, "passive resistance" is not defined further than "non-violent opposition" whereas "active resistance" is defined as essentially what the protesters did as a consequence of the violence of the police.

    Also, not clearly mentioned in the report is that the police policy toward "active resistance" is to use force. Once the protesters engaged in any behavior the police regarded as "active resistance" then use of force was guaranteed. "Active resistance" in police parlance includes any action they so deem. Thus, for example, it is often noted that witnesses to aggressive arrests often hear police shouting "Stop resisting!" to fully controlled and compliant suspects. This is so that later when they are sued, the police can claim that the suspect was engaged in "active resistance" thus justifying the use of force against them.

    It is acknowledged in the report that some of the protesters did not recognize that their behavior was considered "active resistance" by the police.

    However, it was clear to me during my interviews of several protestors and witnesses said that they did not see protestors interlocking their arms and pushing back against the line of police officers as anything other than "passive resistance." This is a misconception held by many. In most cases, the police have a very different definition of passive resistance. Any action other than a protestor passively sitting or standing and going limp is usually considered more than passive resistance. For example, the UCLA Police Department Policy 300, "Use of Force" provides specific detailed definitions of active and passive resistance:

    Actively Resisting - Evasive physical movements to defeat an officer's attempt at control, including bracing, tensing, pushing, linking arms or verbally signaling an intention to avoid or prevent being taken into or retained in custody.

    Passive Resistance - Actions that do not prevent the officer's attempt to control a subject. For example, a subject who remains in a sitting, standing, limp or prone position with no physical contact (e.g., locked arms) with other individuals. A subject in handcuffs meets the definition of passive resistance if: (a) the subject is in a sitting, standing or prone position as directed by the officer and is not engaged in any motion reasonably likely to injure, resist or remove the handcuffs; or (b) the subject is walking accompanied by and following the directions of an officer.

    A subject who, while sitting or standing, has locked arms with another subject is not engaged in passive resistance but is engaged in active resistance to obstruct. A subject who has previously engaged in passive resistance but who subsequently engages in behavior such as flailing, kicking, elbowing, head butting, biting, shoving, jerking, pulling away, twisting or other action that an officer interprets as a threat or actual act of active resistance is no longer considered to be engaging in passive resistance.

    It should be easy to see that by these definitions, any action by a protester, suspect or arrestee that can be interpreted by an officer as a "threat" to act -- which means anything at all including complete compliance -- can be used as justification for police violence.

    Anyone who has studied the issue of police brutality knows that's exactly what happens, too, with sometimes -- all too often -- deadly consequences. In almost every case, however, police brutality is considered "justified" because the officer perceived a "threat" of some sort. It's a matter of force protection that applies to the military as well. The perception of a potential "threat" is all it takes for the use of force against civilians, force which can be and too often is deadly.

    That's essentially the definition of impunity. While the police conception of their impunity is based on their perception of a "threat" -- which means in practice that anything at all can be cited as justification for police brutality and murder and be accepted by Authority -- the culture of impunity goes far beyond the police and infuses the culture of power and authority at every level.

    This has been made starkly clear to Americans and many people around the world during the ongoing -- and seemingly endless -- financial crisis, during which those who made the crisis and keep it going are not held to account in any way but are instead showered with ever more rewards while millions of Americans are forced out of their homes and into poverty year after year.

    In the case of the University, the stark realization of the impunity of power and authority is slightly different in that students and their families are being assessed higher and higher fees and tuition, while their opportunities to complete their educations are becoming more and more restricted (as access to classes is further and further limited) while extensive construction projects and higher and higher salaries for top administrators and sports coaches are instituted. Students and their families are forced deeper and deeper into debt to pay for degrees that take longer and longer to get, and for which -- surprise! -- there is often no market after graduation.

    What a scam.

    (I honestly did not realize until recently just how dire this situation has become for many students and their families who really feel they've been taken advantage of by a system that is out of control and run by people who believe they deserve impunity for their actions.)

    We will find this culture of impunity permeates the power and authority centers of our society. The police are typically the public face of that impunity, just as they are in the report under consideration here.

    When critics of the Occupy movement say that confronting the police is somehow a distraction from what's really important, I often wonder what they must be thinking. The police are at the base of the culture of impunity; their impunity is emblematic of the whole structure of impunity. Confronting the police is a means of confronting the structure they are part of and serve. Duh.

    To wrap this up (because today and tomorrow are travel days) I'll just add that those with power and in authority in American society have largely internalized their belief in their own impunity of action. They take it for granted that the way things are is the way they are supposed to be, and that they deserve to be granted this impunity because of who they are.

    At one time, their positions of authority and power were matters of responsibility and service. No longer.

    At the same time, as I was reminded of what used to be (while watching "Berkeley in the Sixties") I recognized how many of the beliefs and attitudes of that era I have internalized and take for granted now.

    No comments:

    Post a Comment