Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Guy in Blue

I considered writing about this yesterday, but I'm glad I waited until today.

Yesterday Salon.com ran this photo that was making the rounds.

It was accompanied by an article by Justin Elliott on "Occupy Wall Street's struggle for nonviolence." Apparently the right-wing media had jumped on the photo as proof of OWS's violent tendencies. Numerous commenters on Elliott's article pointed out how unclear the picture was, especially since it had been taken on the fly and the photographer didn't see it until afterward, when he looked over the images he had. But what is going on here? Was the guy in the blue shirt actually attacking the policeman, or had he been shoved from behind or simply lost his balance -- not hard to do in a big, agitated crowd -- and was simply falling forward, trying to brace himself against the person he'd been thrown onto? No one seemed to know anything, not even what had happened in the immediate sequel. Had the demonstrator been arrested?

The reason I'm glad I didn't write about it yesterday is that we know a little more today. Turns out the man in blue didn't just fall, he was throwing himself at the policemen. But someone who was present has spoken up.
The “tackling” photo appears to have been taken just moments after protester Felix Rivera-Pitre was punched in the face by NYPD Deputy Inspector Johnny Cardona. A couple of videos of the punching have gone viral on YouTube (see below for one).

Rivera-Pitre tells me that the unidentified man in the blue shirt in the “tackling” photo merely entered the melee to come to Rivera-Pitre’s aid.

“He was just trying to help. The cops were pretty violent. They were the ones actually elbowing people,” Rivera-Pitre says. “The reason I didn’t get arrested was this guy [from the photo] was one of the guys around me. I think he was the one who started screaming, ‘Save him! Save him!’”

Naturally, the police deny it. (Which, according to Duncan's Law of Official Denials, means that it's true.) They say Rivera-Pitre tried to elbow Cardona, and got punched in return. It's hard to tell from the video Salon links to, but we have to remember who we're dealing with: a lawless police force that has been caught initiating violence against peaceful protesters many times already. And whatever the guy in the blue shirt did, he didn't use pepper spray, or a truncheon, or a horse against Cardona. The police violence at OWS and elsewhere is indubitable, amply documented, and far outstrips anything the protesters have plausibly been accused of.

I'm glad the Occupation is committed to nonviolence, simply on practical grounds. As Noam Chomsky wrote during the antiwar movement of the 1960s:
It is quite easy to design tactics that will help to consolidate the latent forces of a potential American fascism. To mention just one obvious example, verbal and physical abuse of the police, however great the provocation, can have only this effect. Such tactics may seem "radical" and, in a narrow sense, justified by the magnitude of the infamy and evil that they seek to overcome. They are not.
(in American Politics and the New Mandarins [Pantheon, 1969], 398)

Besides, the police outgun the protesters and are trained in the use of violence. If the Occupiers renounce nonviolence they will lose the high ground they now occupy, and will lose anyway in any real fight.

I'm not saying that peaceful protesters should be abandoned to police violence. Lots of pressure can, and I hope will, be put on the government to rein in and punish police; this won't be easy, of course, since the police are acting on government orders -- they are not "out of control." Notice that the officers in the photo are wearing white shirts, which means they are supervisors, like most of the police who've been documented assaulting protesters. They're not rogues, they're leading the attack on freedom of assembly. This is all the more reason to raise an outcry against police thuggery, instead of wringing one's hands because the protesters may have hit back once or twice.

Once again I have to ask why the story is being framed solely in terms of the Occupiers' "commitment to nonviolence"? Why not the state? That may seem a somewhat ingenuous question, since everyone knows that states claim the monopoly on violence. What I'm asking is why so many people, especially toward the left end of the political spectrum, don't see state violence as discrediting the state, and can still regard violent states as moral agents in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, and become so indignant when citizens fight back against the violence of the state, no matter how ineffectually and mildly.

(As I've noticed before, not all violent protests are created equal. If they speak for the government's interests, like anti-Japanese protests in South Korea a few years ago, they're acceptable and even laudable. If they are right-wing thugs attacking peaceful demonstrators, probably incited by the government, that's okay too.)

If the police want the OWS protests to be nonviolent, all they have to do is renounce violence themselves, because the violence that does occur is almost all theirs. The rest of us must remember that.