Nonviolence and the Police

I assume that by now you’ve heard about this week’s police attacks on the Occupy protests — most outrageously in Oakland, but also in Denver and Atlanta. (If not, chase the links and watch some of the video. Descriptions don’t capture it.) These attacks resemble what had happened previously in New York and Boston.

This is a good time to review how nonviolent protest works, because a violent response challenges a nonviolent movement in two ways: First, violence makes protesters angry and tempts them to respond in kind, which hardly ever turns out well. You can’t win physically against the police, and unless it is clear that the violence comes entirely from their side, you won’t win in the media either. “They started it” wasn’t a convincing argument when you were ten, and it still isn’t.

Second, watching your nonviolent allies lose the battle — as they always do when the police are determined and ruthless enough — is discouraging. You might wonder: How can we ever win when they can be violent and we can’t?

And yet, nonviolent movements do cause major change (the Civil Rights movement), have defeated empires (the British in India), and can even overthrow dictators willing to torture and kill (most recently in the Arab Spring). How does that work?

In stages:

  1. Bring a problem to public attention and make its victims visible.
  2. Demonstrate the injustice of the system’s response.
  3. Make explicit the implicit violence that maintains the unjust system.
  4. Turn the servants of the unjust system, including (eventually) the police.

If you make it to stage 4, where the police simply refuse to follow orders, the government either gives in or falls. Governments know this, which is why they frequently give in sooner.

Now let’s go through the stages more slowly.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has already succeeded at Stage 1. FDL finds the value of the protest in

its shoving the Overton Window away from the far right end of the spectrum, far enough away to make talk of meaningful solutions possible, which is the first step towards making them politically viable. Putting a surtax on the rich and/or letting the Bush tax cuts finally expire was considered politically verboten as recently as a month ago. Then Occupy Wall Street got started, and suddenly surtaxes on millionaires start becoming very much discussed indeed.

Also, people are finally starting to pay attention to the fact that many of the financial manipulations leading up to the crash were illegal, and that the bankers/criminals are either getting away with it or paying wrist-slap fines far smaller than their ill-gotten gains.

Sometimes stage 1 is all that’s necessary to create change, but usually you need to keep going.

It’s working on stage 2, occasionally popping up to 3. The main response the authorities are making to the protests is to identify broken regulations — there’s no camping in this park — and then say “We can’t tolerate breaking the law.”

The movement hasn’t succeeded yet in making the public see the hypocrisy in this. What the system actually can’t tolerate are little people breaking little laws. When Goldman Sachs commits fraud, or Bank of America illegally repossesses people’s homes, no one is arrested and no heads get broken. But put up a tent someplace you shouldn’t and all hell breaks loose.

The next job is to get people all over America asking, “What’s up with that?”

Here’s the comparable phase in the Civil Rights movement: when ordinary white people started seeing the Whites Only signs differently. At some point, they realized that there were no separate-but-equal facilities for blacks, and that blacks’ absence did not mean that they were happier with their own kind. Instead, whites began to see Whites Only not as an organizing label (like Men and Women signs on restrooms), but as a threat to have blacks carted away by force. Ordinary white people began to see the violence implicit in their apparently peaceful segregated lunch counters.

In order to win this phase, OWS has to stay as peaceful and orderly as possible, while continuing to keep up the pressure. The disproportion between their civil disobedience and the response it draws — and the contrast with the easy law-breaking of the financial elite — is what makes the case.

One NYC protestor had it exactly right (at the 5:30 mark)

Each new depiction of the abuses of the police on the First Amendment, the more people will show up here in New York City, and the more waves of occupation will spread across this country. And you should be proud of that, police, because you are participating in our media publicity campaign. Thank you for attending.

The challenge will be to keep Wall Street in the picture, and not let the financiers disappear behind the police.

Stage 4. Sometimes you establish the injustice of the system and the violence that maintains it, and it’s still not enough. The moral pretentions of the powerful have been exposed, but they’re basically saying, “Yeah, we’re bad guys. So what? We’re still bigger than you.”

That’s when an invisible moral force begins to work in your favor. You see, most people don’t grow up wanting to be evil. Maybe a few become bankers so that they can foreclose on widows and orphans, Snidely Whiplash style, but probably not many. Maybe a few become police so that they can get away with pepper-spraying defenseless young women in the face, but probably not many.

A lot of police joined the force because they wanted to be good guys, not bad guys. Many of them still want to be good guys. That’s why they can be turned.

Turning the police takes incredible courage and persistence on the part of the protesters. Basically, you have to let them beat you up until they can’t make themselves do it any more. One event that spins out of control is usually not enough. Police have to go to bed knowing that tomorrow they will get up and beat innocent people, like they did today.

At some point they’ll just stop. The order will come down and they’ll say no. It sounds incredible, but it happens.

Usually it doesn’t come to that, because the authorities will do anything to avoid it. (In Cairo, the army forced Mubarak to resign rather than see their ranks dissolve. At Tiananmen Square, the government brought in troops from the provinces, because they were afraid local soldiers wouldn’t obey.) But whether things actually go that far or not, the ultimate threat of a nonviolent movement is to turn the police. No government can survive that.

Protesters need to understand this threat from the beginning, and treat the police accordingly: Shame them but don’t insult them, and above all don’t threaten them. They are your ultimate weapon.

This video from Occupy Boston, of protesters chanting “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” is exactly right. Those are the questions we want cops asking each other in the privacy of their squad cars, and asking themselves late at night when they can’t sleep. We want them discussing that topic in their union meetings, and mulling it over when the 1%’s refusal to pay taxes leads to layoffs of good cops.

Who are the 99%, officer? You are. So what are you doing on that side of the barricade?

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  • velvinette  On October 31, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Non-violence may win eventually, hopefully, but some people have got to be ready to get shot (and die). Irene

  • G-man  On November 8, 2011 at 12:30 am

    Like the robotic drone that flies and shoots from far above with no danger to itself, what will happen when we have ‘robo-cops’ who have no feelings, and will just follow orders? How will Stage 4 ever be reached?


  • By The System’s Game « The Weekly Sift on October 31, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    […] Nonviolence and the Police. If the recent police attacks on Occupy protesters either enrage or discourage you, take some time to remember how nonviolence works, and the important roles the police play in that strategy. […]

  • By Seemingly Moral « The Weekly Sift on November 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    […] week’s most popular post. Nonviolence and the Police, with 329 […]

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