American Existential Crisis: Protester vs Police

by talkbackty on Feb 9, 2012

The following is Part 1 of a multi-part series called the American Existential Crisis.

For the past several months the Occupy movement has had numerous roller coaster moments across the United States. What began in New York City spread across the nation and then across the globe, eventually taking place in 951 cities in 82 countries. I wrote about my experience in Oakland, CA for Gridlock Magazine last month (shameless plug). The most surprising fact that arose from the Occupy protests was the speed in which it became a national demonstration of police versus protester, authoritarian versus egalitarian, and following the law versus free speech.

Protester: speech, assembly, petition

The first amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and the ability to petition the government. The ideas were oft spoken during the enlightenment, however, America's founders took major inspiration from the English Bill of Rights which guaranteed similar freedoms in 1689. Why would colonist need to have a revolution in order to basically copy down the same rights? Partly because colonists didn't enjoy those freedoms the same way British citizen living in England did. The English Bill of Rights, specifically the right of petitioning the government, refers to the actual government of Britain, which is not the monarchy but the House of Parliament. Colonists wanted British laws to reflect their needs but had no one to petition because they had no representatives in Parliament. When they instead petitioned the King, that became treason. Remember, the first calls of the colonist were not for revolution but representation.
I went on that tangent because A. I need to keep my history muscle flexing if I want to get a job and B. to say that you have the right to petition the government.

After the American and French revolutions these freedoms of speech, religion, assembly and press would work into numerous other documents and constitutions throughout history. Including, the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which, as their name might suggest, refer to not just countries but people. Not citizens of a nation, but people. Are you a human? If the answer is yes you have got these rights. If the answer is no then you are a very bright chimpanzee, dolphin or whale and I applaud your intelligence and ability to read, but, alas, you do not have rights. Sorry.

There is also overwhelming support for the freedom of the press, religion, speech and assembly. Not many Americans call for a removal of these freedoms. Mainly because we are stubborn by nature and don't like to change, and, more importantly, without the freedom to trash people 90% of internet comments would be considered illegal.

Obviously, the Occupy movement is just a continuation of the long-standing American tradition of sticking it to the man. Right?

Police: a nation of laws

The fact that some people bothered to write down a constitution with amendments, and loopholes, and compromises and those freedoms we all know and love demonstrates that we are a nation of laws. Anarchy has never been in our nature. It ruled for awhile in the wild west before the law man rolled into town and started beating women, outlawing six-shooters and building railroads. (Sorry, my old west history is made up entirely of half-remembered Westerns).

America has always been a nation of laws, contracts and agreements. Even in colonial times contracts were clearly written to describe what was expected of each colony. These charters provided a blueprint for colonists to work from. After the revolution a constitution was the next logical step, because that was what everyone had been doing before. The founders were not the inventors of writing down what an organization could or could not do, they merely applied a business model onto a country.
Presently, Americans still value following the law and have respect for authority figures. We fundamentally believe in the social contract promised to us by our forefathers. Most likely our respect for authority is derived from those freedoms we so thoroughly enjoy.

Violence versus Nonviolence

With the clashes between protestors and police, at least part of the American identity is being torn in two. On one hand, we value our freedoms, especially those of speech and assembly. On the other hand, we respect authority and enjoy the predictability/stability that comes with it. What's an American to do?

Neither side has made a compelling case for why they are "right". Mainly this is do to the fact that each party has used tactics of violence. The below chart references political protests and their success rates.
For all of you out there planning on starting a protest, if you want your goals to fail- plan for violence. Sadly, both police and protesters have acted violently during the past few months.

At UC Davis, a group of campus police officers were surrounded by student protestors and could not leave. There were no reports of violent action against any officers. The official report says that officers wanted to leave the circle, asked students to move, ordered them to move and, when students did not comply, an officer sprayed them with pepper spray.
That's not actions of an officer of the law, that's the reasoning of a thug. "They were in my way, I was stronger than them, I made them move." It is exactly those types of actions, and there have been more than one, that make it difficult to side with authority.

Yet, protests have not been peaceful, hippie drum circles where everyone gives hugs and sings kumbaya. Fighting has broken out inside several occupy camps, there have been stabbings and shootings, and, especially in Oakland, there have been attacks against property and police officers.
It would seem that neither side can claim the moral high ground, and neither is truly attempting to. Both sides believe that, by right, the other should back down. Protesters because they are normal people expressing themselves as protected by the constitution, police because they are charged with protecting and have been given the mantle of authority to do so.

We know from history that brute force often wins, but that average people romanticize moral icons. Gandhi and Martin Luther King hold equal footing with Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. It remains to be seen which side will win this fight, or if both camps will dissolve back into their former place in society.

What can be said for certain is that the fight between protestor and police is merely one piece of the American existential crisis.