The above photo is mine, from a Prop 8 protest. I post it because of my description: “I got a little freaked out at one point when I realized the cop to protester ratio was pretty dang high.” This defined the police action last night against #OccupyLA
Many police officers must experience a powerful tension between their priorities to protect individual rights and to enforce the law. Civil disobedience lives in this hazardous borderland where rights and laws do not always play nicely together. Even when it is non-violent, effective protest provokes those who defend the status quo, and officers often have to rely on a different approach than what they seem to typically rely on when apprehending law-breakers–especially those who resist arrest. The media plays an interesting, complicating role in all of this.
I haven’t read any news analysis of the LAPD’s massive sweep of Occupy LA’s encampment last night and this morning, but I’m going to attempt to figure out the LAPD’s motivations behind their methods.
The operation was huge. Perhaps it is the largest in the Department’s history. Los Angeles has the third largest police force in the nation, and it looks like they mobilized anywhere from 1500 to 2000 officers last night–from 15 to 20% of the police force. And the operation seemed to progress in careful steps: police in riot gear assembled at Dodger Stadium around 8:30pm; a perimeter was secured around City Hall and no one was allowed in by 10:30 or so; by daybreak 1400-2000 officers (according to one major news outlet) had formed a human noose around City Hall and were arresting protesters.
This show of force takes place in multiple contexts, but there are two I’d like to highlight: 1) recent incidents of police brutality have reflected poorly on New York City, Oakland and UC Davis’s police forces in particular, and eroded public trust in American law enforcement as a whole; and, 2) Rodney King. This was an opportunity for the LAPD to polish the image of both the city and its controversy-laden police department.
I think that this is one the main reasons the LAPD took the two extra days past the eviction deadline to carefully orchestrate this operation. I imagine that at least this much time was needed to plan, train, and mobilize the force. Because all it takes to descend into PR hell is one photo or video capture of the disproportionate of force by one rogue/stressed officer, I’m sure that every individual was told not to fuck this up. Finally, they took the additional step of heavily restricting which media sources got to go in and what they were able to report. For example, KTLA (CBS/Time Warner) reported that they weren’t showing news copter footage of the riot police moving in as part of their agreement.
I have no illusions that there is probably daily abuse and mistreatment of individuals by some fraction of the LA police force. Most of these victims are probably brown-skinned and/or impoverished. The public and the media aren’t interested in them.
Ultimately, OccupyLA’s protest and the LAPD’s response are performances. Without the media–mainstream and social and viral–there is no audience. This isn’t to devalue the motives behind these performances, but it shows how dependent citizens in any democracy are on the media to foster an environment in which political change can occur, and how much power the media also has to curb the excesses of use of force by the police.
Last night, both groups knew we were watching, and were subsequently on their best behavior. Kudos to them both.