On September 24 an #OccupyWallStreet protester videotaped a NYPD officer macing peaceful protesters in the face for no apparent reason.
The video shows several women standing calmly as the police unroll and surround them with a bright orange net. Once the women are corralled, a white-shirted police officer walks up to the group and sprays them all in the face with pepper spray. He then walks away.
Over the next couple days, over a million people watched that video on YouTube as the Occupy Wall Street movement spread to hundreds of cities around the world. Far from fearful, protesters responded with renewed vigor, joining the anti-corporate protests in the thousands.
The mace-wielding maniac was identified as NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, who, if former incidents of police brutality are any indication, will receive no consequence.
A Few Bad Apples?
On the other side of the country at the Occupy Wall Street solidarity protest in Seattle, Seattle Police Department officers spent the nights tearing down tents and even arresting protesters who attempted to shelter themselves under umbrellas. One protester called 911 on himself so that he could be taken to the hospital to be treated for hypothermia.
During the day, however, the police moved through the crowd of protesters with friendly smiles saying, “We are not interested in taking away anyone’s freedom of speech.” There was even a debate at one General Assembly meeting on whether to include the police in the General Assembly meetings.
However, the actions of Deputy Inspector Bologna were not the isolated incident of one bad apple. He maced women who were already being corralled by other members of the NYPD. Other videos of the NY protests show one protester punched in the face by a different officer and another protester getting his leg run over by a police motorcycle.
Acts of police violence around the country are systematically covered up, and rarely does any officer receive any meaningful consequence. This is because police brutality can serve a purpose for the ruling class and the corporate elite. JP Morgan Chase has gone so far as to donate $4.6 million to the NY City Police Foundation (jpmorganchase.com).
Violence is Political
Police violence has been used around the world and throughout history to keep oppressed people fearful and subservient. From the revolution that swept northern Africa last spring, to the Civil Rights Movement to the current Occupy Wall Street movement, protesters have had to face intimidation tactics. Protesters were killed in Egypt, but they were still able to overthrow the dictator.
In the United States, police intimidation is far subtler, but the principal of repression remains the same. In New York, over 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters were arrested in just one mass arrest. And the FBI is still calling activists from the antiwar movement before a grand jury.
Compare this to the pro-corporate Tea Party protests. These right-wing demonstrations never see police harassment, even when they bring firearms and live ammunition. The police do not assault these right-wing demonstrations because they are not a threat to big business.
For most people of color, police brutality is nothing new. 400,000 Latin American immigrants were rounded up and forcibly deported in the last year alone. African Americans face constant police harassment, leaving one in ten African-American males in prison at any given time.
Police brutality against oppressed minorities again serves a political purpose for the ruling class; it keeps these doubly exploited sections of the working class desperate for even the worst-paying jobs and afraid to revolt.
A Movement Without Fear
Sometimes, however, police violence cannot dispel a movement and, instead, enrages broader sections of workers, young people and the oppressed. When the NYPD pepper sprayed peaceful protesters in the face, new people joined the protests around the country.
At this time, the more violence the ruling class is willing to resort to, the more resolved workers and young people are to overthrow them. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are just two examples of this courage.
The Limits to Repression
Throughout history, every ruling elite has used the laws of the land and their police to try to maintain their power. This means that sometimes the oppressed 99% of society have to break those laws.
This decision shouldn’t be taken lightly or in an individualized manner. Mass civil disobedience can demonstrate that certain laws are corrupt. This is especially true when the movement finds support among large numbers of people, as the Occupy Wall Street movement has. In this situation, mass support can often hold the hand of the police, who fear that further repression could further enflame an already erupting movement. Resting on broad public support, the Occupy Wall Street movement has defied bans on tents and protests – and in this way managed to spread its message.
Also, when thousands of people break these undemocratic laws the police have found it far more difficult to intervene. Mass movements have repeatedly overthrown despotic leaders and regimes when soldiers broke from a regime they despised and found a common interest with workers and youth in the streets. As long as capitalism remains intact, however, the ruling 1% will look to find a way to use police violence to maintain its interests.