Hearing the drumming

>> Monday, November 21, 2011

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
U.S. Constitution, Amendment I

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIV, Section 1

I don't want to write this post. What I want, what I really want, is to crawl under a rock and curl up.

I want to curl up because I'm not even sure I recognize my country anymore. Or I recognize it, and what I recognize turns out to be even worse than I thought it was. Or it's as bad as I thought it was, but I've become morally compromised by age, by investment in the system, by my career.

While the obligatory four-year-farce is ramping up in the political news, police officers are assaulting kids who are, as far as I can tell, doing no more than exercising their basic Constitutional rights as defined in the First Amendment and made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth. I've watched the video of a police officer in California, Lt. John Pike, assaulting a group of students at the University Of California, Davis. I made myself watch the whole video, something that ultimately took an act of will on my part. I didn't think things like this happened anymore, yet I'm completely unsurprised.

After all, the truth is that I'm professionally aware that police officers all over the country make use of non-lethal force in inappropriate circumstances all the time. I have this deep and profound ambivalence over arming our cops with Tasers and chemical agents because leaving aside the fact there's no "non-lethal" weapon that can't be deadly when abused, I can't help thinking if cops had no choice but that between possibly killing somebody and finding an alternative means of handling the situation, most would choose the alternative means; giving them a "non-lethal" out of a dilemma leaves a lot of these guys with the psychological safe place of thinking they're "not really hurting" anybody. I mean, look at the video clip embedded at the Joan Walsh piece I linked to in the last paragraph, if you can handle it: look at how casually Lt. Pike sprays the students, as if he's spraying Pam nonstick spray on a cookie sheet, as if he's spraying bugs at a cookout.

Working in a public defender's office, we get people coming in all the time who have pretty clearly been Tased or maced for little or no good reason. And what's in their best interests when this happens? I mean, we could take a lot of these to trial and see if an elected politician will publicly call out a law enforcement officer for misconduct or we can see if the ADA working the courtroom is willing to let our folks do a little community service or something for a dismissal; if we run with it, maybe our people get a criminal conviction on their record that's going to screw with their chances of getting a job down the road, but if we roll over, hey, it sucks to have to pay for being the real victim, but at least your record's clean, right?

And this is part of the way I'm morally compromised, you know? I'd love to say I'm this guy who's standing up for truth, justice and the American way, but the grotesque reality is that I'm this sniveling backroom dealer who is trying to help individuals who need to be able to put food on their kids' plates avoid having one more stone tied to their ankles, pulling them under.

So in trying to help people, maybe I end up being part of the public problem. Maybe if the last guy John Pike pepper sprayed had taken a case to trial, maybe Lt. Pike would have been been chucked under the chin just hard enough to think twice before he attacked a bunch of college students. Or, y'know, maybe I'm not being fair to Lt. Pike, and maybe this is the first time he's drawn cannisters on anybody (I kind of doubt it), but maybe if someone had made a few examples out of his coworkers, maybe then he would've hesitated a little longer. But we let them get away with this all the time, and I have no good way of making them stop; I could, I guess, start trying to make a better omelet, but all the eggs that would get broken along the way have names and families and a shitty enough hand they've drawn from the deck already.

At this point, I can't say I agree with the Occupy movement, to the extent it represents anything but a sustained plaintive wail against how bad everything has gotten here; that is, I should say, I agree completely with the sustained plaintive wail itself, it's just that the bulk of the alternatives and solutions Occupy members have proffered tend to be facile and naïve. We've talked about this before (specifically, see the comments thread). To pick just one example off the top: Citizens United is an appalling decision, but the clamor for a legislative repeal of the decision are simplistic; Citizens United is the direct, inevitable and logical product of two premises, (first) that corporations are "persons" and (second) that money is speech. Both of these premises are problematic, but they're also both much deeper and more complicated and (much like icebergs) ninety percent of their mass is beneath the surface; e.g. while it seems a bit absurd to say that "money is speech", by the same token it is equally absurd to try to come up with some arbitrary distinction between paying $100 to print posters favoring a candidate and giving the candidate himself $100 for the implied purpose of printing his own posters to his own liking; along similar lines, many of us surely have misgivings about Bank Of America lobbying Congress, but do we feel the same way about, oh, let's just semi-randomly pick The Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, a non-profit corporation (I know next to nothing about the IBCRF: I Googled "non-profit corporation cancer research" to pick a victim to make my point with; you can switch-out any non-profit corporation promoting any cause, if you'd like, the point is what it is). Of course, we might try to distinguish between for-profits and non-profits, but only a moment's thought leads to the realization that all such a distinction would accomplish is creating fancier bookkeeping: for-profits would simply launder their money through sympathetic non-profits, is all. I don't know what the answer is, I just know I haven't seen any Occupiers who have one that wouldn't ultimately undermine their own (presumed) agendas by crippling charities and public-interest groups in what would most likely be a futile attempt to keep billionaires from further corrupting political processes they're already well-rehearsed at circumventing.

But all of that has little to do with the awfulness of assaulting protesters, regardless of what they're standing for. There's something seriously damaged in the public political consciousness when the right of "the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances" is being met with pepper spray at less than five feet.

And if it isn't clear from the video clip of what just happened at UC Davis, here's an interview with one of Lt. Pike's victims, along with quite a lot of photographs by Bryan Nguyen, taken for the UC-Davis campus paper, The Aggie. One photograph shows arm-locked protesters smiling and talking; the student protester says the Occupiers had offered Lt. Pike food and coffee the evening prior to the assault: clearly, this is not your Weatherman mother's riot going on.

We should be glad, Chez Pazienza suggests, that this isn't Mary Ann Vecchio crying over the body of Jeffrey Miller at Kent State; he's right about that. There's some good from arming officers with "non-lethal" weapons as far as that goes. Nobody's dead yet. And it may be that some good can come of this if it leads to somebody stepping back; the problem is that I don't know where we step back to.

The students have a legitimate grievance: California is dramatically hiking tuition because, I presume, the legislature is unwilling or politically unable to raise taxes and make other budget adjustments that might make the hike unnecessary or at least less drastic. And, as it turns out, many of the people California doesn't want to raise taxes on are in a position to make quite a bit of money off of increases in student loan interest, so raising tuition ends up being twice the benefit. The students, on the other hand, end up screwed one way or another. Some would no doubt suggest that the real problem is the contemporary expectation or pressure placed on high-school grads to go to college at all, that the UC-Davis protesters could save themselves quite a lot of money by not going to college, but at this point such suggestions are simply delusional unless the suggester has some clever way of magically restructuring modern America's culture and economy so that there's a sudden guarantee of good jobs for people without any college education; let's start with the fact you'd have to recreate a pension structure that allows people to retire in their fifties or early sixties (making way for the next generation) and increase wages and benefits for young people so that blue-collar jobs are as attractive as white-collar professions used to be--none of this is happening, if you haven't figured it out; what's almost certainly going to happen is that corporate stakeholders are going to continue to look for ways to keep bleeding a stuck pig for profit until the beast is completely exsanguinated, at which point we all ought to be praying the boar doesn't rise, vampire-like, from its shallow grave to gore the bastards.

And there I go missing my own point, actually: you know, it doesn't really matter if they have a legitimate grievance. I mean, yes, it does help their case, but the First Amendment right to assemble and petition pretty explicitly doesn't try to make a distinction between what's a proper beef about governance and what isn't, because it shouldn't. (Let's face it: the major beef of the Founding Fathers can be characterized as an unwillingness to pay for their lawful government's efforts in keeping their farms from being overrun by the French--i.e. not really all that legitimate.) People who think that public school classrooms ought to have access to "more accurate" cubical globes (if "globe" is the right word for such an object) and people who think farm animals should have their shame hidden beneath suitable clothing (trousers for stallions, long skirts for hens, etc.) have as much right to gather and protest as people who think their taxes are too high or the government shouldn't provide anyone with healthcare (okay, so those two may be poor examples of "legitimate grievances"); the bottom line is that the students at UC-Davis had a right to assemble and protest without being assaulted by police officers even if what had them riled was a new brand of chicken nuggets and a switch to an off-brand breakfast cereals in the student cafeterias.

I don't know where I'm going with this. I don't have any solutions, I've got nothing but problems. I couldn't in good conscience not put up a post, but all I can come up with right now are tears and regrets. I don't feel like we're getting off the track; I feel like we've gone through the guardrail and there's nothing but darkness between our freespinning tires and the oncoming treetops.

UPDATE November 21st, 2011, 9:16 a.m.: Or maybe there's a lot more hope than I could see when I wrote this. I'm feeling proud of those kids.


Warner Monday, November 21, 2011 at 9:24:00 AM EST  

I would point out that Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, the NYPD officer who seems to have been the first to gratuitously use pepper spray in an OWS function, received a whopping 10 days lost vacation as penalty. I think the citation actually was for mis-use of government property.

I would point out that in the NYPD vacation accrues, and if he has the work habits that got him to Deputy Inspector - which is the first political rank in the NYPD - he has a lot more than 10 days accrued. So he has no penalty until he retires, if anyone remembers at that time (my company for reasons obscure at one point changed our work weeks relation to pay check and lent us a week of pay to cover the difference, week of pay to be paid back at retirement, at retirement they decided to forgive the debt.)

He was further penalized by losing his position in Manhattan and being assigned to work closer to his home.

The UC Davis police officer is on paid leave.

Eric Monday, November 21, 2011 at 9:59:00 AM EST  

If what you're getting at is that Bologna ought to be fired, I agree. Similarly, at this point I think Pike should be fired. (That said, I don't think it's unreasonable for Pike to be put on administrative leave until a final decision is made. It's hard to imagine any set of facts that would alter what I believe that decision should be, but I'll concede he's owed due process and I would like to think I'm level-headed enough that if a second chance was fair, I'd be merciful and just in the final act and not merely as sad and angry as I am in the present.)

Warner Monday, November 21, 2011 at 2:48:00 PM EST  

Well the penalty that Bologna received was so minor that one can only assume that he had the approval of the commissioner. His rank of Deputy Inspector is entirely at the discretion of the commissioner and he could have been reduced to captain, his civil service rank, with no hearing required.

In NYC an officer can not be fired without a hearing unless convicted of a felony and in some cases a misdemeanor; however some union contracts and civil service rules do have acts that can result in a firing without hearing. I believe that in the NYPD a serious enough charge can result in unpaid leave.

As example
Most broadcast unions have a clause permitting summary firing for working for another broadcast facility without prior permission.

Nathan Monday, November 21, 2011 at 4:50:00 PM EST  

I don't have the words to express my admiration for the silent "perp walk" Chancellor Katehi was subjected to. That's probably entirely appropriate.

r*bird,  Monday, November 21, 2011 at 9:51:00 PM EST  

There have been so many shitty things happening in response to the protests. I'm pissed off at Bloomberg for the media blackout in NYC during the Zuccotti eviction, for one. But what I find the most appalling about the UC Davis incident is that it doesn't really matter whether you agree or disagree with these students, the University is a place where we hope to send our kids so that they can become free-thinking individuals and practice making change. I was part of several protests when I was at ASU and GSU. I was ENCOURAGED to take part in projects to improve my community and voice opinion. These kids shouldn't have been pepper-sprayed; they should have been given extra credit. It makes absolutely no sense what happened. No sense. And I too have cried.

Eric Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 11:11:00 AM EST  

You hit on something big, Bird. I sort of side-stepped, in the post, some of the First Amendment complications like reasonable time/space/use restrictions; i.e. the fact that certain restrictions on when, where and how speech occurs are inevitably necessary for the sake of things like health, safety, access, etc. While I think Bloomberg's tactics with Zuccotti Park range from the dubious to the reprehensible, I think reasonable minds could agree that there's some reasonable compromise between the interests of the protesters in having their assembly rights protected and the city's interest in making sure the park is safe, clean and accessible to others (n.b. I am not defending Bloomberg's tactics: I'm not satisfied that what Bloomberg has done is (a) done solely for legitimate government interests or (b) constitute anything approaching reasonable compromise if they were being done for legitimate reasons).

But the university is a different species of animal. This is an institution that has, pretty much since its invention in the Middle Ages, stood for a basic human right or need to assemble and exchange ideas. It has, in other words, always been a place where students have gathered and protested, and efforts by governments and churches to suppress the "sedition" and "heresies" remain entrenched in the Western liberal tradition as examples of overreach by tyrants, never to be suffered again.

It's not unreasonable to say that if students can't protest at a university--regardless of whether their grievances are legitimate or ridiculous--nobody can protest anywhere. The idea that you can protest in a park or on a street corner is, historically speaking, a relatively recent innovation in Western (and, subsequently, world) civilization. The idea that you can protest in a university, on the other hand, is part of a now-ancient tradition of students and academics stirring the pot. Of course students have been encouraged to voice their opinions and peacefully engage their communities; this is essentially the entire raison d'être of universities going back nearly nine hundred years.

As Nathan said, Chancellor Katehi's "perp walk" was absolutely appropriate. So too, I would add, would be her resignation. And I'm not aware of any reason the police officers involved shouldn't be fired.

r*bird,  Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 10:23:00 PM EST  

Yes, this is exactly what I mean. I have mixed feelings about the whole NYC OWS movement and to a large degree I think that the movement is antagonizing the police and Bloomberg and as adults breaking rules and antagonizing they are looking to create conflict...every time they block traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge they are willingly getting arrested in order to create tension (and get the media attention needed for their message). The University, however, is a different kind of space, and these are kids...although they might be of legal age to get arrested, etc. The University space, as you illustrate, is historically a place where "new ideas" are born and where critical thinking is inspired. The fact that these students went through the student government and even got permission to set up their tents goes to show this wasn't just something that was supposed to antagonize police.

They were doing exactly what students should be doing! And this is learn how the system works and practice community organizing and they did it respectfully. They were, not to sound patronizing, learning something and applying knowledge.

I'm not articulating my thoughts very well. I imagine these students at UC Davis could actually defend their position better than I can. Anyway, the deliberate abuse that occurred last week is symbolic of so many hypocrisies that exist in this country. And I love my country and think it can do better.

r*bird,  Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 10:35:00 PM EST  

I don't mean to minimize the police brutality in NYC (even using that term almost feels trite...like using "genocide" every time people die in war), it's been well-documented. I just think that you expect a certain amount of police misconduct and unfair arrests and even violence when hostile protestors meet conservative under-paid and under-trained police in public spaces. And every time the police misconduct in NYC gets documented and put on youtube it can only further the cause. That's why the protestors chant "the whole world is watching".

But at the University the social contract is different...and I didn't feel "yeah, go protestors go!" when I saw the video on youtube...I cried.

Eric Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 10:49:00 PM EST  

I think you're articulating things at least as well as I am, Bird; you're expressing a lot of my own feelings very well, anyway.

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