19 November 2011

Democracy in America

I am old enough to have seen this before, a generation aroused to press for a more open and democratic society, met with thug police tactics, and eventually, National Guard bullets... and the nation went back into a long slumber.

So Saturday, as I struggled with what happened in New York on Thursday, and especially in Davis, California on Friday as US police cracked down viciously on the nascent pro-democracy #Occupy movement, I found myself with a series of thoughts...

First, having been a New York City Police Officer, I am embarrassed. I have always been proud of my police career. Yes, there are some significant scars on body and soul, but I, and those I worked with, did our best to be members of our communities, to build connections, to be the citizens we were. "The police are the public and the public are the police," Sir Robert Peel, founder of modern policing once said. And that's who we wanted to be, not an occupying army enforcing the dictates of tin horn dictators like Mike Bloomberg. So, having cops in New York be led into the Imperial Army form, depresses me. Worse, seeing a coward like UC Davis police lieutenant John Pike destroy the reputation of police officers, well... it's horrific. Was he badly trained and horrendously commanded? Obviously, but he has also let himself become less than human, and the cops I knew did not let that happen.

Second, these Cal Aggies at Davis, a wonderful land-grant-type university, have shown the world something about university students which needed to be said after the events of the past two weeks at Penn State. They were out there, fighting for democracy and an equitable nation, they were protesting in the finest traditions of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, and, perhaps most brilliantly, on a football Saturday, they were working overtime at democracy, desperately trying to teach their university administration something important. Their "Silent Treatment" of their abusive Chancellor as she walked from her public excuse-making session was brilliant. The kids, as they say, are alright.

In my police parlance, we'd call this a "perpwalk"
Criminal UC Davis Chancellor Katehi
is met with the stone-cold silence
of students who know things about right and wrong she never will.

Third, I thought about life in a nation which has never had an actual revolution. The United States copied the government structure of its "mother country," pretty exactly. The US had an elite revolution which changed not even one colonial government - unique perhaps among revolutions. The United States had an elite led Civil War, disastrous indeed, but a civil war in which the two sides had the exact same government structures with the exact same governmental intentions. In the 1930s and 1940s, when most industrial nations were convulsed by chaos then destroyed by wars, the United States, led by the scion of one of its oldest families, converted seamlessly from peace to war to permanent cold war with nothing more threatening to the political structure than Huey Long (somehow assassinated) and Henry Wallace (who got fired before he might've gotten near the presidency). So the United States has arrived at the 21st Century having never really had to adapt, or grow up, or change, having never - as a society - faced and conquered an existential challenge. Unlike most democracies, it still elects its leaders as the 18th Century Brits did. It still has a legislature in which enormous power is invested in a legislative body which in no way responds to "one man-one vote." Even its presidential election system gives some voters up to three times the voting power of others. It still clings to a two party system modeled on British aristocracy. In fact, except for the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, the United States has the oldest intact government structure on the planet. Great for stability, but few of us are spending a lot of time relying on 18th Century structures for getting around. So, change does not come easy under the Stars and Stripes.*

And fourth, I wished these kids could find a few "grown ups" to look up to. "They have had their time to lead. Time’s up. I’m tired of waiting for them to live up to obligations," wrote a University of Chicago grad student in the Washington Post. "Think of the world our parents’ generation inherited. They inherited a country of boundless economic prosperity and the highest admiration overseas, produced by the hands of their mothers and fathers. They were safe. For most, they were endowed opportunities to succeed, to prosper, and build on their parents’ work" His history might be wrong (its UChicago after all, the university which gave us the global economic meltdown), I, for example, left high school and walked out into a disastrous economy and a nation shredded by an endless war, but his points are right on. There are no leaders at the top anymore.

Then, I thought about being a kid in 1968, sitting in front of a black and white television with my family, watching the horror of that year's Democratic National Convention unfold on the streets of Chicago. And I still recall the nightmare of hearing about Kent State, when an American governor sent young Ohio men onto that state university campus to shoot other young Ohio men.

But "we" - "last of the baby boomers" and "early GenXers" - had a few leaders of the older generation - leaders, men and women even in the US Congress, who would speak up.

Connecticut US Senator Abraham Ribicoff denounces "these Gestapo tactics on the streets
of Chicago" with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley sitting only feet away as he nominated
Senator George McGovern for President at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Bobby Kennedy, when out in America
he actually listened to real people.
The President of Yale University, Kingman Brewster, Jr., who in 1968 had staunchly defended the anti-war actions of the university's chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, said this in 1970, "I personally want to say that I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States. In large part this atmosphere has been created by police actions and prosecutions against the Panthers in many parts of the country. It is also one more inheritance from centuries of racial discrimination and oppression…" Which, quite sadly, is a very long way from the UCD Chancellor's Saturday night statement, that she wants to, "reevaluate whether university policy on encampments offered students sufficient "flexibility to express themselves."'

"Our children" struggling for democracy and an equitable society today do lack major adult supports: Faced with this video of a guy surely in the running for the title of worst cop in America assaulting peaceful university students at the University of California at Davis...
US President Barack Obama said not a thing from his stateroom on Air Force One, and California Governor Jerry Brown, fled the state on vacation. I'm still waiting for a helpful word from anyone in any of our governments.

And thus, where are our kids - unemployed, under-employed, crippled by student debt, lacking health insurance, often unable to establish credit, and keenly aware that other societies have learned things America has not - supposed to turn?

And now I'm going to tell all of you who'd rather focus on other things, to be careful. The United States has never had a revolution, true, but that does not mean it will never have one.

Because, once again, the power structure is making every possible mistake. From the "vanished" and silent Barack Obama (as Barbara Ehrenreich noted in the Guardian) to the bizarre chief of the UCD campus police, those in charge are doing their very worst to escalate everything.

Now, I would argue that while cops are often smart - I've been one, I've known many - police departments are often remarkably stupid. Police departments are often remarkably stupid because they are led by the most compliant members of the breed - those who seek favor from the powerful to climb the chain of command - who are in turn led by the type of egocentric, small vision person who can succeed in America's politics these days. You understand, if a meteor crashed through the sky and fell flaming at Mitt Romney's feet, he'd need to turn to his advisors and donors to ask what he'd just seen.

This combination is toxic. It directs people away from conversation and toward confrontation. The "policing" tactics of the British Army in 1916 Dublin set off the Anglo-Irish War. The "policing" tactics of that same British Army in 1972 Derry launched a three decade civil war in Northern Ireland. The "policing" tactics of the French Army in 1950s Algeria almost destroyed France. Very recently, police crackdowns led to government overthrows around the Mediterranean during our ongoing "Arab Spring." Just this year the tactics of the London Metropolitan Police created nationwide chaos during the summer, after creating smaller zones of complete chaos during the G20 and student protests. Not to mention...
"In the matter of demonstrations, the (New York City) Police Department has, in fact, had a long and dramatic history of assuring the outcome it seemingly would most like to avoid. During the student uprisings at Columbia in 1968, aimed at the university’s affiliation with a research group linked to the Defense Department and at the construction of a university gym in Morningside Park, police brutality resulted in a powerful escalation of the movement.
    '“In the beginning, it did not have broad support on campus,” Alex S. Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociologist specializing in police response to protest, told me. “But when the cops started beating people up, things really changed.
    "On April 30 that year, a police raid injured more than 100 students, students called a strike, and the campus shut down for the remainder of the semester. Footage of the events documents radicalization in progress. “I was a nonviolent student,” one young man witnessing the aggression says. “I couldn’t care what happened. I was completely neutral. I am not neutral anymore. I’m going to occupy a building tomorrow.”'
    - The New York Times, September 30, 2011
"The police are not here to create disorder," old Mayor Daley said, "they're here to preserve disorder." But in these cases, it is worse, the police departments and the political and economic leadership which control them, are here, all too often these days, to ignite the worst. It is the opposite of the "always be calm, if your presence is the cause of the problem, you probably want to back away," that I was taught in the Police Academy.

Because, no matter which side we're on, as we can see in the clip below from the film Bloody Sunday,  pushing the young over an emotional cliff has its problems.

James Nesbitt as MP Ivan Cooper in the film Bloody Sunday.
Outside of the United States, police crackdowns on democracy
movements typically backfire, leading to revolution.

I firmly believe that America needs - for once - to make radical changes. And I am proud of the Occupy Movement which, to me, is citizenship at its very best. These aren't Tea Partiers whining about government in their spare time while collecting Social Security or writing off their mortgage interest, these are people making real sacrifices to try to get Americans to begin to listen to each other.

Like the marchers who tramped down the hill in Derry on that Sunday morning almost 40 years ago, they wanted democracy and opportunity, and they were pushing for it peacefully. It was the police tactics that started a war which still claims casualties today.

So, if anything "goes wrong" with this movement, don't come calling with your Mike Bloomberg whine about health and safety, the fault will lie with those in power, those who chose not to lead.

- Ira Socol
It's a tough war: Gun against spears and arrows,
Ethiopia 1936, or America 1600-1900
Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis, "the origin of the distinctive egalitarian, democratic, aggressive, and innovative features of the American character has been the American frontier experience," is wrong. The defining thing of American culture is a history of a lack of real challenges. America is the spoiled kid who was born to a fortune stolen by their parents - the kid rich enough to have every opportunity and rich enough to be bought out of any trouble - the kid who has never had to seriously think about who they are or what to do, much less re-think any of that.

Oh, I know. This is at serious odds with everyone from John Wayne to Mel Gibson. But its true. Americans conquered a continent first with guns against bows and arrows (when we talk about Mussolini in Ethiopia we admit this is a mismatch), and then with the tools of the Industrial Revolution. This isn't exactly chasing the Germans back from Stalingrad or building the Great Wall by hand.

This is NOT to suggest that the march of white folks across North America wasn't individually extremely hard, extremely difficult. People, families, communities really suffered. But it was culturally easy. It never strained the society toward any breaking point, it never absorbed any resources beyond those readily available, it never forced society to re-define itself. Yes, at one point in World War II gasoline, meat, even clothing was rationed, people were even asked to recycle, but...


Miss Shuganah said...

My father in-law was a stereotypical Irish cop in many ways. He was a devout Catholic. He was a womanizer. He was a chain smoking alcoholic. He didn't much care for his Jewish daughter in-law. Took him years and two grandchildren to decide I was OK.

He was a Lt. in '68. If any of his men would have been pepper spraying protesters, they would have gotten a dressing down. When he retired it was the rank of Captain. Had he played politics, he would have risen higher.

I can imagine him now, cigarette dangling from mouth, glass of scotch in his hand, his gravelly voice giving analysis to the tactics being used right now across the country. it's possible he would be thinking, "hippies," but he also demanded that cops have a certain integrity about them. For all of his flaws, that mattered to him. He would be picking this all apart. He'd consider this bad police work.

Interestingly to me, perhaps the CPD learned from '68 that the world is watching. I have heard about arrests at Occupy Chicago, but unless I have missed some things, I have not heard word one of excessive force being used by CPD.

Sherry in Ontario said...

I wish I could say that Canada was immune to this. We're most certainly not. Just one example:

Anonymous said...

Very excellent, Ira.

Reminds me of something Fred Clark said.

I think, however, that the problem isn't so much that we've never had a successful revolution, but that we don't remember the failed ones. Consult Howard Zinn for examples. We'd rather think of Pinkerton raids, for example, as something that happened to someone else, and not to us.

It's so easy to side with power, and there's so much to gain if you do.