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Responsibly Struggling for Independence: The People and Their Police

December 4, 2011

Following the unprovoked pepper-spraying of the peacefully, legally demonstrating students at CSU Davis, discussion in my Critical Thinking classes took a hard turn. Possibly because the action took place on a college campus, possibly because the campus is just a few hours north—that incident thrust The Occupy Movement into the center of our conversation in the week leading up to Thanksgiving (Well, half-week. Colleges and universities are so liberal in their scheduling, accommodating airline schedules and other travel plans.)

Many students proved to be just as, if not more informed than I. But many were still completely ignorant of the national protests, which is why I was comfortable lending the time to the discussion. A moment of this significance should not be ignored by the country’s future citizens of consequence; it should not be treated like a distraction from the glut of vampire films and glitzy cell phones.

Knowledgeable students seemed to be utilizing their electronic savvy to enhance their civic engagement. They introduced the class to several youtube clips of live footage of the protests, including Officer Pike pepper spraying the UC Davis students repeatedly, the resulting meme of him pepper spraying everything from the Mona Lisa to the Constitution to Snoopy, and to the particularly provocative video of an unknown officer in Oakland who uses a flash-bomb to disrupt a handful of protesters who have congregated—on the other side of the police barricade—around an injured, unconscious man. That man would later turn out to be an Iraq war veteran.

Some students disagreed with the movement, some supported it. But a majority of the class saw this particular action as unconscionable and simply wrong.

This led to broader topic discussions of civic engagement and forms of responsibility. I challenged students to engage others during their Thanksgiving, rather than recede into personal media devices, rather than let the day run without incident in an attempt not to anger someone politically or religiously. Sympathetic debate is all too absent in our popular culture, with media figures and organizations dominating discussion with vociferous bombast. Face to face conversation with extended family members who might disagree with your views—perhaps significantly disagree—can remind everyone that policies are not absent people.

The second direction of the discussion turned to the purpose and tactics of the police, where it’s easy to generalize. Students—many people in fact—love to hate the police, calling them power trippers and corrupt. To these claims, I usually ask students about the last time they interacted with an officer. Was it receiving a ticket? Being somehow reprimanded?

Most of us might have a negative impression of police officers because most of the time we encounter one, we’re on the receiving end of punishment. The method by which this punishment is delivered is up for debate, however.

It’s also beneficial to see both of these actions—at CSU Davis and Occupy Oakland—as the work of individuals. The question, though, is this: Do those individuals belong to a group that encourages, condones, supports those actions such that the individuals had no reason to second-guess themselves? Has the atmosphere of that institution—our police force—grown so hostile—in general, and to the civilian force specifically—that attacking, rather than protecting civilians is now part of the mindset of some officers, if not a reflex in others?

Because surely the officers we see today are not those I at least grew up being told to admire. When Sesame Street played “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” it told me to trust the police. But the volume of instances of police brutality and abuse of power associated with Occupy or outside is too large to ignore.

And in the CSU example, the extended video clearly shows Officer Pike surrounded by a horde of other officers, pepper spray visible to all for several minutes. His actions are a surprise to no one.

Recent articles in The Nation and Los Angeles Times suggest 9/11 as the cause of a creeping militarized response to group movements. In Fullerton, California, Kelly Thomas—a homeless man with schizophrenia familiar to residents—was beaten to death by 6 officers in 2011, but the beating of Rodney King happened in 1991: 9/11 can’t be the sole reason.

In the above situations, adrenaline and groupthink are often blamed, a groupthink that insulates officers from self-doubt and responsibility and exaggerates their sense of authority. The police do have unenviable, extremely high stress jobs that continually place them in conflict, which is why increased and intensive counseling should be mandatory for all officers. This would alleviate the routine emotional buildup involved with police work and counter the macho, independent silence that characteristic of the field.

In California, the minimum requirement for a CHP officer is a high school diploma. This too should be revisited. If only to join the bandwagon, educational requirements are going up, up, up in our country—the police, as figures of authority in our neighborhoods and elsewhere, ought to be reflective of the majority’s background and ability.

Policing comes with just this special demarcation of knowledge. They serve not just as agents of protection (or punishment), but as agents of situational authority. A significant line exists between officers and civilians—especially in protest situations, which are not as simple as speeding, but are social demonstrations of broader, vaguer struggles of judgment. Protests, union actions and the like are manifestations of power, which in our society is routinely ceded to the police. This in turn creates a populace that feels disempowered, the wonders despondently, “What can I do?” rather than asks with optimism, “What can I do?” People move deeper into isolation, escaping into personal media and other diversions as they feel less and less like legitimate citizens.

Social movements such as Occupy or organized labor solidify responsibility within the community once more, the same community that promoted the police department—and theoretically the individuals it employs—to its position. When the purpose of that authorized group splits so radically as it arguably has from its original empowering purpose, a deep realignment should occur. Individual citizens acting as moral and social authorities in their own right is one excellent corrective method. Using cell phone cameras to become citizen journalists is another. Pondering aloud the practical philosophy of the organization is another.

As an educator, I have worked in some diverse places, including a mental hospital. My first post-graduate teaching position came, shamefully, at a for-profit—the kind advertised in the middle of the day during commercial breaks for The Price is Right and Tyra Banks. The school in question had a few specializations such as video game programming, interior design, and criminal justice.

Regardless of the decision-making process of all who choose to pay $40k a year for knowledge you could get for exponentially less, the lowest performing students in my classes were inevitably the criminal justice majors. I cannot say that they went on to become police officers.

I do not know that they bumbled their way into a uniform and firearm like Alex’s lackeys in A Clockwork Orange. Though during one class, one students was actually served papers by uniformed officers for a domestic dispute. The student had been dodging it for weeks and refused to take them from the officers who dropped them at his feet.

The final disturbing insight into the group’s mentality came when I asked one student why she even wanted to become a cop. Her unflinching answer was “So I can carry a gun.”

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