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The Elephant in the Room: The Police and the Occupy Movement

2012 July 6

A protester bows before a line of Oakland police officers after laying flowers in front of them during an Occupy movement march in Oakland, California, on May 1, 2012. (Photo: Jim Wilson / The New York Times)

By Collin HarrisTruthout | Interview – As the global wave of rebellion began in 2011 and eventually spread to the beating heart of empire and the new subcultures of resistance it spawned continue to grow and diversify, there is an obvious dilemma that will have to be worked out if we are serious about changing American society in any meaningful way. Of the many obstacles facing what, from our current vantage point, looks to be the only light shining on the dark and blotted American social-scape, a militarized police force stands out for its menacing and ubiquitous presence in American social life. It casts its dark shadow wherever it goes – which is anywhere it wants.
But where it must always go is where there are even the slightest rumblings of the world that is to come, a world in which there will no longer be a place for the armed defenders of oligarchs and politicians. Attend any protest or political action in America, or simply walk down the streets of our increasingly fortressed cities, and you will surely encounter these supposedly public employees caught in the awkward position of having to justify their continued loyalty to the American ruling class to protesters and passersby they have more in common with than the elites they’re protecting.
Despite their reputation for systematic corruption, not to mention their ruthlessly violent techniques of control and repression, the police somewhat inexplicably enjoy the status of one of America’s most trusted institutions, one in which most (read: white) Americans place a great deal of confidence. In Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions poll, a broad measure of popular confidence in society’s dominant institutions, the police outrank every set of institutions with the exception of the military and small businesses, with 56 percent of respondents reporting to have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police. After a year of viral videos of police brutality and repression directed at anybody in their way, from veterans to student debtors to the elderly, the perceived legitimacy of the police is waning.
On the one hand, cops are ordinary blue-collar men and women who obey orders from the top, keep quiet and do their jobs like the rest of society. They have families to feed and debts to pay off. To a certain extent, they suffer the effects of austerity and economic decline like the rest of us. They know the system’s rigged. They’re used and exploited by the rich and powerful. They’re disposable. Maybe they even hate their bosses, too. To clarify, I’m talking about your average officer on the street, not the likes of Ray Kelly, who left his position as senior managing director of Global Corporate Security at Bear Stearns for his second (non-consecutive) tenure as commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD). It’s obvious enough where his loyalties lie. He’s even willing to put it in writing, as he did in his personal letter to JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon expressing “profound gratitude” for the company’s nearly $5 million donation to the NYPD. But in my experience, lower-level cops have few, if any, coherent ideological commitments. From what I can tell, their motives are simple: a paycheck. Economically speaking, they have every reason to oppose our current social system. Clearly they have no long-term economic incentive to protect the elites from the people in the streets, but they do what they can to get by. They are, as the saying now goes, part of the 99 percent. But are they? Do they deserve the same solidarity and goodwill that we reflexively (should) offer our family, friends, co-workers and neighbors? When shit hits the fan, whose side will they be on? They’ve got to learn to choose: will you be a friend or an enemy? Read more…

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