Not Your Friend: Dissensus and the Police
(“Circle of Truth Hovering over The USA” by The London Police)
On police cooperation with the status quo and occupiers’ cooperation with the police
One of the most heated aspects of the Occupy mobilizations—from the Occupy Wall Street mothership to Occupy Boston (the base of my own direct observation) to Occupy Oakland (site of arguably the worst police onslaught thus far)—is their relationship or non-relationship to the police. Before launching a critique on that matter I wish to present two excerpts, one by a preacher in 1963 and another by a physician in 2011. It is very important that I mention their upstanding professions first, because of the troubling occurrence (and sometimes, though not always, establishment appropriation) of the anarchists versus everybody else. That this discourse is so recurrent in the shadow of a hawkish, conservative Democratic presidency is no great surprise, but rarely do we stop and seriously reflect on what this cleavage means about how we make sense of ourselves as a body politic. Physicians and the clergy are emblems of care and conscientiousness in polite society, while “anarchists” in the dominant lingo imply a shadowy group of subversives (usually men, usually white, usually angry), so it is from this intersection of seriousness of aims and moral purpose, regardless of the dictates of polite society, that I want to read Occupy and law enforcement. Neither letter writer has ever publicly avowed himself or herself an “anarchist” in the definition of the dominant lingo, and neither is a white male.
This is Dr. Martin Luther King on the police in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, written on April 16, 1963 from his jail cell and addressed to eight fellow clergymen:
I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping ‘order’ and ‘preventing violence.’ I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.
It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handing the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather ‘nonviolently’ in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.’
They have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. The greatest treason is to do the right deed for the wrong reason. One would be hard-pressed to find one police blitz on an Occupy mobilization that could be described as “nonviolent,” but these words from Dr. King and T. S. Eliot (of all people!) still read as truthful, plausible, and, importantly, morally logical. They get to the heart of the fallacy of good cop/blue shirt versus bad cop/white shirt, as if the role that the police play is contingent on circumstance or even personality and not an oath to enforce civil and penal law by the power invested in them by authoritative owners of property.
Here is a letter by Dr. Rupa Marya, a doctor whose former patient Charles Hill was killed on the Civic Center platform by BART police over the Fourth-of-July weekend this year, just five months after the police killing of Oakland resident Oscar Grant. Her letter on why she joined the BART protests bears reading entirely, but here’s a brief takeaway:
Last month, I learned that one of my former patients Charles Hill was shot and killed by BART police. Per the police, he was armed with a bottle and a knife and had menacing behavior. Per eye witnesses, he was altered and appeared to be intoxicated but did not represent a lethal danger. I remember Charles vividly, having taken care of him several times in the revolving door which is the health care system for the people who do not fit neatly into society. Charles was a member of the invisible class of people in SF—mentally ill, homeless, and not reliably connected to the help he needed. While I had seen him agitated before and while I can’t speak to all of his behavior, I never would have described him as threatening in such a way as to warrant the use of deadly force. We often have to deal with agitated and sometimes even violent patients in the hospital. Through teamwork, tools, and training, we have not had to fatally wound our patients in order to subdue them. I understand the police are there to protect us and react to the situation around them, but I wonder why the officer who shot Charles did not aim for the leg if he felt the need to use a gun, instead of his vital organs. I wonder if he possessed other training methods to subdue an agitated man with a knife or bottle.
I feel this situation quite deeply. It is hard to watch our civil servants (police) brutally handle a person and their body when i spend my time and energy as a civil servant (physician) honoring the dignity of that person, regardless of their race or social class, their beliefs or their affiliations. I know it is not my job—nor the police’s job—to mete out justice or judgment of a person’s worthiness. It is also hard because Charles has no voice, no one to speak for him now that he is gone. It would be easy to let this slide and move on with our busy lives, as we all struggle to make ends meet in this expensive city during a recession.
Through teamwork, tools and training, we have not had to fatally wound our patients in order to subdue them. Charles has no voice, no one to speak for him now that he is gone. Dr. Marya’s testimony to the practicalities of physicians’ Hippocratic oath—that they will practice medicine ethically and soundly—is revealing. A physician’s duty is to heal without doing harm, and that extends even to the most marginalized and vulnerable classes. She also speaks to police in a horizontal fashion, from one civil servant to another; it’s a perceptive move not because she is saying that police and doctors play the same role in society, but because the fractured bodies of persons in police custody take up a wholly different social meaning than they do in physicians’ care. Physicians may “serve and protect” (the universal police motto) but they cannot legally enact force on their patients as the police legally can (and do) on those they apprehend. This is a crucial distinction.
Consensus with police regimes
I will comment at length on two pieces by Jeremy Kessler called “The Police and the 99 Percent” and “An Open Letter to the Men and Women of the New York City Police Department.” Before doing so, I note some of the exchange that has preceded my writing: a response to Kessler by Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clovers, and Annie McClanahan was published on the Los Angeles Review of Books. Kessler’s response was generously published on the LA Review’s blog. Willie Osterweil responded to both Kessler and Bernes, Clovers, and McClanahan on his blog, Wasted Ideology. My purpose in writing is not to respond to Kessler but to problematize his worst assertions, draw attention to an endemic public-police dilemma at the heart of the Occupy mobilizations (unlike Kessler, I do not refer to them as merely protests—a protest to what or whom?), and create some openings to how we might collectively sort through the dilemma through both theoretical and practical judgment.
Beyond the extended rebuttals to Kessler’s original pieces, published on the n+1 magazine site, it is worth noting that the eponymous article on the police and the “99 percent” is one of the few pieces posted on the nascent Occupy Police website. Further, after the sudden appearance of Occupy Police on the web a few days ago (on the heels of the national day against police brutality), the managers of the Occupy Wall Street Twitter account gave it their endorsement:
Also, n+1, in addition to publishing Kessler’s pieces, retweeted this police sighting that, unless they say otherwise, appears approving:
I have no further information on Occupy Police than its own website and a few tweets (the Twitter account writer has mentioned that s/he is “an advocate for homeless people here in Boston, and we have sympathizers from BPD”) so, without any further identifying data on the site’s managers nor their ambitions, I choose to read the mystery it produces as less a product of bad publicity than circumspect goals until proven otherwise. I am not suggesting that appealing to cops to lay down their uniforms and arsenal of weapons and join the mobilization is at all undesirable. However, since I have no other fact-based knowledge about this particular entity or its ambitions, I will comment on the text it promotes—Kessler’s—which is readily available.
In Kessler’s first piece, called “Police and the 99 Percent,” he begins with infamous cases of recent police brutality during Occupy Wall Street, such as Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna (already under investigation for previous claims of brutality) pepper-spraying young women in a police net cage (he has since been docked 10 vacation days) and the unprecedented and violent Brooklyn Bridge arrests of over 700 people (a mass class action civil suit has been launched). He contrasts this with the news about J.P. Morgan Chase’s gift of $4.6 million to the NYPD to ‘“strengthen security in the Big Apple.”’ Kessler acknowledges what “any good American protester knows about the police: they’re bought and they’re brutal.”
Despite this nod to the moneyed and armed nature of U.S. police departments, in the next paragraph Kessler takes it upon himself to prescribe what the Occupy mobilizations should do. Namely, they:
should not be too eager to escalate confrontation with the police. The tedious transformation of substantive political protest into protest against police abuse of protesters at times can be ideologically appropriate and tactically useful. But unlike student, neighborhood, and even civil rights protests, whose participants generally present themselves as a conscientious minority oppressed by larger forces—particularly police power—the Occupiers’ central claim is that they are the ‘99 percent,’ the moral majority of the nation.
By including police in the “99 percent,” Kessler reduces class antagonism to a quantitative division and props up two myths:
Myth #1: Police participation [if we stay deliberately blind to what this even means] will increase Occupy’s longevity and diversity.
Making a miscalculation about “99 percent” as literal numbers rather than a picture of dissensus allows Kessler to suggest that “police might even become participants, taking a large step toward confirming the radical 99 percent claim.” In his words:
Such an ambitious recipe calls for two ingredients that more targeted protests don’t—longevity and diversity. The police who currently ring the park could provide both.
His point about longevity is a straw man because he fails to produce any argument connecting police participation (active duty? retired? uniformed? undercover? he doesn’t say) to how long the occupations last. The reality-based fact is that each and every police crackdown on encampments have led to soaring numbers, from New York to Cleveland to Chicago to Oakland to Philadelphia (I documented the crackdown on Occupy Boston here, and, as predicted, participation has grown considerably since).
The absence of the police themselves from the Occupation chips away at the 99 percent claim that is central to the movement’s populism. Here, the first problem—of police power—produces something of a vicious circle. To the extent that police power limits the protesters mainly to the young and the nomadic, individual police will find few protesters with whom they can identify.
I deliberately limit myself to Kessler’s claptrap logic to debunk his claims, but let’s stop and ask: Where does he get “populism” from? Rather than attributing the relatively young median age range (and even this is arguable) to the class consciousness of young people and students who have played by the rules only to be discarded and divested of aspirational mobility, or even dignity, commensurate with their education or work experience, Kessler merely resorts to the idea that police can “identify” with older, more stable people. He does say that the Local 100 Transit Workers Union joining Occupy Wall Street suggests “more middle-class participation” but fails to mention that the union workers went to court not wanting to bus protesters rounded up by the NYPD, its president stating “TWU Local 100 supports the protesters on Wall Street and takes great offense that the mayor and NYPD have ordered operators to transport citizens who were exercising their constitutional right to protest—and shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place.”
Kessler’s follow-up pieces make no mention of major contradictions to his claims about the supposedly too young, too aimless, and too nomadic occupiers versus the great water bearers of social stability, the police. For example, thousands of observers of the police incursion on Occupy Boston’s second encampment watched as a line of riot police with the Special Operations unit of the Boston Police mowed down elderly members of Veterans for Peace that stood between the masses of people and the police. But instead of illuminating these moments of highly charged political polarization, Kessler papers them over in favor of flimsy promotions of cooperation. He manages to take the one thing about Occupy Wall Street and its sister Occupies that nearly everyone agrees on, namely its highly broad social and economic base, and turn it into a weird apologia for why more police haven’t joined the movement. He even concedes that “there is something boring and obvious in this sociological calculus” but, rather than heed his own self-assessment, he turns it into a conclusion: “But it is the only hope of the Occupation.”
Myth #2: It is important to court the police, despite the objections of “many anarchists at the center of the Occupation [who] have no love for the authorities.” (This is connected to a corollary, as pointed to previously.) The mobilizations are responsible for keeping violence at bay.
The most striking thing about this visionless pronouncement is the loud and notably present absence of any attempts to grapple with race, gender, or class. Why on earth would people of color and immigrants and poor people and women and service workers and queers and the disabled and any other marginalized majority/ sizeable minority not wish to “court” the police? This is a profoundly important void.
In his open letter to the members of the New York Police Department, Kessler displays the sycophancy to power that one would expect from the police themselves on the difference between modestly behaved protesters and angry mobs:
As in any crowd, there are some who make the lives of police personnel harder than they ought to be. But as the police assigned to the Park over the last month can attest, the vast majority of protesters are peaceful, passionate, and good-humored. They have come to the park not to wreck property or insult hardworking citizens. They have come to the park because they believe in a fair shake, and know they haven’t gotten it.
This is sheer and reckless groveling, the kind of distortion one expects from the dominant press that for weeks either ignored (or in the case of the New York Times, mocked) Occupy Wall Street until the spectacle of police brutality became so great that they either had to cover the mobilization or become irrelevant.
American citizens have a right to assemble in public in order to communicate with one another and with their elected leaders.
If Kessler believes the Occupy mobilizations are about seeking redress with elected officials, I fear I have nothing further to add as far as he’s concerned.
In responding to the authors at the LA Review who artfully invalidated his “99 Percent” piece, Kessler writes:
They incorrectly state that my piece advocated a strategy of ‘police compliance.’ It did not. Rather, I spoke to a very specific question: to what extent should the Occupation—circa early October—actively seek to escalate police violence.
Again, we are reverted back to police logic itself about the aims of Occupy, not the finely-tuned and process-oriented way the mobilizations have grappled with difficult questions about expansion of space, growth of numbers, greater participatory reach, etc. and crucially, how to escape violence. If there is one point Kessler appears to willfully dismiss, it’s this one.
At this point, his response to the LA Review authors descends into outright offensiveness:
At the Occupy Philadelphia protest, we have recently seen how calls for violence by an ill-positioned minority retard rather than energize the movement.
A commenter on the piece writes: “What on earth is this about? I ask as a participant in Occupy Philly who has seen nothing of the sort.” In stark contrast to Kessler’s puzzling claim, Occupy Philly produced its own Statement from the Occupiers Protesting Police Brutality. Not only is the statement rightfully defensive and protectionist about police repression, it even outlines community demands of police officers and condemns the “treatment by the police of Occupy community members in New York City, Boston, Denver and other cities across the country” as it suffers its own egregious abuses. Its demands of the Philadelphia Police Department include:
• A personal apology to Occupy Philadelphia community member Deborah VonBerg for refusing to adequately investigate her sexual assault case; for ignoring her, for making her insignificant, and for giving her a reason not to trust anyone.
• An apology for the police brutality inflicted on Ian, Shane, and Kayla (Occupy Philadelphia community members) at a private, off-site event where they were beaten with batons, ridiculed, and unjustly detained by the police and for the bigoted behavior of the police officers involved.
• An apology to the family of Billy Panas, who was murdered by Officer Frank Tepper, who remains on desk duty.
• An apology for failing to adequately investigate, because of their transgender identity, the murders of Nizah Morris and Stacey Lee Blahnik.
In contrast to Kessler’s incomprehensible preamble on Occupiers seeking violence, note the verbal nature of Occupy Philly’s demands, even at the expense of sexual assaults and death in their communities: They are seeking an apology.
But what about violence in police tactics? What should occupiers do when confronted with incursions?
Here’s an account of outwitting police violence by Egyptian political revolutionaries in a statement of solidarity they sent to Occupy Wall Street.
We faced such direct and indirect violence, and continue to face it. Those who said that the Egyptian revolution was peaceful did not see the horrors that police visited upon us, nor did they see the resistance and even force that revolutionaries used against the police to defend their tentative occupations and spaces: by the government’s own admission; 99 police stations were put to the torch, thousands of police cars were destroyed, and all of the ruling party’s offices around Egypt were burned down. Barricades were erected, officers were beaten back and pelted with rocks even as they fired tear gas and live ammunition on us. But at the end of the day on the 28th of January they retreated, and we had won our cities. […] Be prepared to defend these things you have occupied, that you are building, because, after everything else has been taken from us, these reclaimed spaces are so very precious.
The activists use of these means to defend themselves were directly related to protection of occupations and spaces in the face of tear gas and live ammunition. Tear gas, “bean bag” bullets, and rubber-coated steel bullets were used in this week’s Occupy Oakland police assault, which Esquire called “a military assault on a legitimate political demonstration.”
(It’s also worth mentioning that I spent much of August in Cairo and only add that by all accounts, the nearly simultaneous torching of 99 police stations is still attributed to proxies of the Mubarak regime, and I have yet to locate one Egyptian who believes demonstrators could even manage to set them on fire in such a calculating and orchestrated way.)
Dissensus from police regimes
One of the most useful and succinct definitions about a relationship or non-relationship with police regimes has been contributed by (but does not originate with) the contemporary French social theorist and labor historian Jacques Rancière, who I think will prove to be a crucial theorist for how we observe the rise of the current political mobilization that necessitates reclaiming space.
Politics stands in distinct opposition to the police. The police is a distribution of the sensible (partage du sensible) whose principle is the absence of void and of supplement.
What does this mean? For one, politics does not have a commonsensical meaning of politicians, citizenry, etc. Instead, Rancière defines politics as the distribution of the sensible. On the surface this may not appear to stray so far from the tepid one offered in millions of high school Government classes in the U.S., namely who gets what, when, and where. But where it diverges strongly is the element of partitioning space and roles.
Political dispute is that which brings politics into being by separating it from the police, which causes it to disappear continually either by purely and simply denying it or by claiming political logic as its own. The essential work of politics is the configuration of its own space. It is to make the world of its subjects and its operations seen.
Rancière’s contention is that what politics does is to claim and create a space. Crucially, that space is a reclaiming separate from the police. His essential argument is developed along Louis Althusser’s work on the police, arguably the most frequently cited principle on the police. Althusser, who was Rancière and Michel Foucault’s teacher (Rancière broke with him following the May 1968 worker-student rebellion), wrote that law enforcement works through interpellation, or, “Hey, you there!” In Rancière’s notion of politics as a circulation or distribution of the sensible, “Hey, you there!” becomes “Move along! There’s nothing to see here!” The deflection from spaces or places not under the state’s “protection” (the “void” alluded to earlier) consists in “recalling the obviousness of what there is, or rather of what there is not.” Rather than viewing the Occupy mobilizations as ordinary denizens do—that it is a space that does and is—the state and its police proxy see it merely as a nullity (or defiance) of their care.
Politics (insert Occupy here for the same effect) consists in “transforming this space of ‘moving-along,’ of circulation, into a space for the appearance of a subject: the people, the workers, the citizens.” Politics refigures space, or what is to be done, to be seen, and to be named in it. If you have been to an Occupy in your city, regardless of a positive or negative experience, this is what you would have seen—a dispute over the circulation of space.
If politics, seen this way, is by its very nature a dispute, then its essence is dissensus. Dissensus doesn’t mean a clash of opinion or desire. Instead it points out the “gap in the sensible itself,” demonstrating worlds within worlds that were not meant to be seen. “It places one world in another,” and the way I read Rancière’s example of workers in a factory is that dissensus breaks down the traditional understanding of public and private. If a Wal-Mart worker expresses a cry of pain, for example, we might think of this cry as a private world. But:
The worker who puts forward an argument about the public nature of a ‘domestic’ wage dispute must demonstrate the world in which his argument counts as an argument and must demonstrate it as such for those who do not have the frame of reference enabling them to see it as one. Political argumentation is at one and the same time the demonstration of a possible world in which the argument could count as an argument, the construction of a paradoxical world that puts together two separate worlds.
One might pose a counter-argument: The police are part of us. We pay the police’s salary. Therefore, like all other civil servants, they work for us. (This is also summed up in the frequent chant, “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?”)
An anonymous Occupy Wall Street writer addresses this question head on: “Are cops part of the working class?”
Cops depend on wages and salaries like the rest of us—that is true. They might have a series of grievances against their ranking officers and the government.
But every cop knows that the moment they publicly sympathize with a people’s movement, or refuse to carry out repressive order, they will be out of work. They understand that part of their job is to stop the people from rising up.
Rank-and-file soldiers in the military, who typically serve only for a few years, have at several key historical moments defected, torn off their uniforms, and switched back to the workers’ side in large numbers. Professional police officers, who have chosen to join that institution of repression as their life’s work, almost never do.
Professional police officers, who have chosen to join that institution of repression as their life’s work, almost never switch back to the workers’ side in large numbers. Are there incidents of disobedience on the part of the professional police class? I can cite two. In February 2011, hundreds of cops marched into the Wisconsin State Capitol building to protest the anti-union bill, and were quoted as saying: “We have been ordered by the legislature to kick you all out at 4:00 today. But we know what’s right from wrong. We will not be kicking anyone out, in fact, we will be sleeping here with you!”
More recently at Occupy Albany, cops defied an order to arrest hundreds at a publicly-owned park.
On a personal note, police in Iran have both tried to jail my cousin for taking part in protest and protected her from the Basij militias that beat her for showing up to an anti-establishment street demonstration. Police have both been friendly to me—in college one Korean officer sympathized with our cause of occupying a building in protest of our university’s business-military dealings with Israel and explained he took the job that he did to support his family and make a great living (around $74,000 annually, adjusted for inflation), and a black officer openly wept as he arrested us at that same occupation. I’ve also been hit, pushed, and pepper-sprayed by police so severely it landed me in the hospital.
But the greatest fault with exceptions-prove-the-rule arguments (that individual police have interior lives, that they are human too, etc.) is that they again ask us to forget the sociopolitical role of the police. What may be ideal—”nice” police petting kittens, as seen in this Washington Post report on the heels of the Oakland assault—is not the reality or even the norm. Anecdotes such as these do not get to the heart of the politics-police separation that is embedded within the distribution of the sensible, seeable, and sayable. The appeal that the “police are not your friend” is shorthand for the constitution of our polity, handed down to us from Roman law and several centuries of coercive bondage, about enforcers of authoritative justice. Mike Davis has written on the Occupy mobilization: “My generation, trained in the civil rights movement, would have thought first of sitting inside the buildings and waiting for the police to drag and club us out the door; today, the cops prefer pepper spray and ‘pain compliance techniques.’” The severity of bodily harm and the discourses used to justify that harm may fluctuate from one generation to the next but the logical kernel remains intact.
What would police “involvement” even look like? Kessler doesn’t say, although he does write in his open letter, “We appeal to your conscience as men and women and to your sense of justice as American citizens. If you are ordered to disperse the Occupy Wall Street protesters, please refuse.” As I have outlined, professional police refusal is very rare in American history, though if Kessler were serious about his point that the police join the “99 percent,” he might ask them to walk away from the job entirely.
Parenthetically, my argument does not extend to veterans and former military officers, who are known to join in sizeable numbers, but it is worth noting the Department of Defense directive on the authorized political activity of active duty officers. I have pulled a section of the directive that may apply to Occupy actions. Per section 4.1.2. the directive states that a member of the Armed Forces on active duty shall not:
220.127.116.11. Speak before a partisan political gathering, including any gathering that promotes a partisan political party, candidate, or cause.
18.104.22.168. March or ride in a partisan political parade.
22.214.171.124. Display a large political sign, banner, or poster (as distinguished from a bumper sticker) on a private vehicle.
126.96.36.199. Display a partisan political sign, poster, banner, or similar device visible to the public at one’s residence on a military installation, even if that residence is part of a privatized housing development.
Further, directives like Kessler’s would have us ignore what we explicitly know to be true about policing in the global North, just as the local municipalities and mayors they answer to decry civil disobedience. This includes:
Outright distortion, such as the NYPD blaming Occupy Wall Street for a rise in murders. The Gothamist writes: “Perhaps the flimsy excuse for an uptick in shootings stems from the NYPD suffering from a lack of esprit de corps. ‘Morale is as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” the president of the PBA tells the Daily News. Why? Take your pick of headlines: Rape Cops, ticket-fixing, flaking, Tony Bologna, racism.
Even before the stunning Oakland raids, police brutality charges at Occupy mobilizations across the United States.
A personal account by a young woman at Occupy Melbourne: Why I was ridden down by a horse and punched in the back of the head.
An account from a Baptist reverend at Occupy Melbourne: Physical violence only went one way.
Outside of Occupy proper, we would have to ignore rapes by police officers (at least four NYPD and two Chicago police officers in recent public memory), prisoner sexual abuse (most recently by the LAPD), and the fact that no charges were brought against the police who body-slammed a wheelchair-bound man.
We would also have to ignore the regular use of infiltration and sexual manipulation as a police tactic to break into activist circles.
Keeping the peace, “internally” or “externally,” and where we go from here
Kessler produces one anonymous, succinctly cop-hating person at Zuccotti Park who objects to outsourcing “peacekeeping” outside of the Occupy mobilization:
[A] handsome, dark-haired man in his mid-twenties, who has taken on an increasingly central role in the daily discussions, stated unequivocally, ‘I hate the police.’
This is at best a disingenuous move by the author, as the issue of whether or not to report “internal” crime to the police is a major source of (healthy) debate at nearly every Occupy I’ve followed. Kessler’s off-the-cuff dismissal shows an unwillingness to acknowledge that several worlds of what we might call social crime co-exist. We currently live in several social worlds at once, and violent crimes like rape and sexual assault are a hugely disconcerting part of even our alter-worlds. Since legal action following a sexual violation frequently relies on police reports, the option of police reporting absolutely belongs to the victim of that crime.
One illuminating and complicated personal account of this conundrum that I’ve come across is in one of Eileen Myles’s books, in which she recounts calling the cops on her “violent girlfriend” despite opposition to the police in the lesbian community and encouragement to work out problems privately “in ‘the community’”:
Some of this feeling I knew was about the ugly history of homos in America. Those famed police stings on gay bars. And anyone political (including myself) had been jailed on several occasions for civil disobedience. But this was violent crime and I had been the victim. But most of the angry people in the community were younger than me. They hadn’t been getting busted pre-Stonewall. So I smelled a rat. If any of them had a problem I felt certain that there was a ready system of privilege for them to draw upon—lawyers, family friends, people they went to college with, husbands and wives. None of these social networks were every publicly acknowledged in ‘the community.’ No one I knew had ever gone to jail for drugs for instance. Meanwhile US prisons are loaded with black and Hispanic men and women who in many cases did a lot less buying and selling of drugs than my friends. This is in fact the American way—and meanwhile I was being blamed for being so stupid (as in lower class) as to find myself in a violent situation, to not have known it inherently. In my subsequent years of thinking it over I wondered if anyone actually believed that lesbians were not entitled to the use of the court system, the police department that had worked so well for me, the hospitals and schools. Did they really believe we were supposed to reinvent these institutions on our own?
Myles’s account points to the complexities of internal/external divisions that marginalized communities and Occupy mobilizations are contending with. Sexual assaults and rapes do occur, and frequently, and no liberal, leftist, radical, etc. community is immune from them. By all accounts, Occupy mobilizations are having these debates, some more successfully than others, and it remains to be seen how they choose to evolve. But they need to be given that chance. People in each disciplined, process-oriented mobilization decide this together. Can several truths about the police coexist? I believe so. It is possible to be protected by police, just as it is possible to be brutalized. But that police are emboldened by legal authority to enact force—and in the United States this includes lethal, militarized weapons of war—makes the police, to put it in colloquial idiom, “not your friend.”