Several years ago I was a cop on the front lines of an increasingly hostile strike, an action conducted by a certain local aerospace company. The group had ignored the request to stop blocking traffic and continued chanting- something about being underpaid and the fact that management and the cops, to use the vernacular, sucked.
The first rock arrived with the phrase, “%$#& you cop!” Then it got ugly.
Not much has changed since then. We have witnessed the mob mentality in Los Angeles (Rodney King riots), Seattle (WTO) and Vancouver, B.C. (Stanley Cup riot). More recently we have watched the protests from the somewhat ambiguously entitled, “Take Back Wall Street.”
An offshoot of this last protest likewise got ugly in Seattle’s Westlake Mall (Post-Intelligencer). Police arrived en masse to move along a large group that had been camping in the mall for several days. It was time to leave, the cops told the protesters. It’s a city park and not a KOA campground.
The result was typical. Some of the protesters who refused to leave began flailing their limbs like adult children having tantrums, and wailing “Police brutality!” like a glee club chorus.
Is this what passes for protest today?
Before we go further down this road here’s a principle we can all agree on: Civil disobedience is an American birthright. Our collective outrage at perceived injustice is an inherent trait with roots in colonial times when the notion of America was little more than theoretical. Without this willingness to rise against tyranny (and with all due respect to Great Britain) we would be drinking tea instead of coffee, eating biscuits instead of cookies, and answering our smartphones to the tune of “God Save the Queen.”
From John Paul Jones to modern day war protesters, from early American abolitionists to Martin Luther King, Jr., we are a country that has fought for our beliefs in the trenches and in the streets. And fortunately, our founding fathers built a unique government whose very nature allowed it to bend before breaking.
So on this issue we should all be in agreement: You gotta stand up for your rights.
To an extent it is also true that the police, who represent authority, act on behalf of the government. But government is not always the target, and police officers don’t make policy.
It is also true that many police officers may harbor sentiments very similar to the protesters themselves (we’re part of the 99% after all). But no one asks a cop’s opinion before the slur, egg or rock is hurled. Cops make good targets.
Rather than make this a pity party for police–especially those of us in Civil Disturbance Units wearing the latest in black stormtrooper outfits–it is more about the behavior and expectations of protesters.
When you choose to exercise your freedom of speech and assembly, in a public area, within a legal system with rules, then you must be prepared for the consequences of civil disobedience. In a constantly escalating progression you may be asked to move, directed to move and pushed along. If you fail to comply, or you resist, you will be arrested. Someone will grab you, force your hands behind your back and restrain you with cuffs. The level of force used for your arrest will usually be one level above your response.
Instead of understanding and accepting this outcome, protesters increasingly seem appalled that a police officer would have the gall to put hands on them. I’m exercising my rights, they say. You can’t touch me, they say.
Wrong. Democracy isn’t pretty, and changing a society can be a painful process.
I’ll give you this- we can and should demand that police officers behave professionally and show respect for our rights. We should also recognize that civil disobedience comes with a price tag.
Just be ready to pay up.