A few troublemaking protesters does not justify police brutality

So, according to James West’s coverage of the events at Occupy Oakland last night, the escalation in the standoff with the police may have been due to a small, belligerent minority:

No one appeared in control and the group was divided into two groups: the largely peaceful, and a small, visible, determined group of agitators.

At the height of this melee, I saw two men throw bottles at the police. People screamed and scrambled for air ahead of the inevitable: a half-dozen canisters of tear gas—some crackling and echoing off the Rite Aid building. Caught up in taking pictures, I breathed and choked. It felt like I had swallowed chilies and then rubbed the chilies into my eyes for good measure. I heard reports of rubber bullets and saw demonstrators tending to the distressed. My Twitter feed told me of at least one bloody injury—a man hit in the head with a canister—but the gas made the intersection impossible to rejoin for 10 minutes to confirm injuries.

Now, many people will undoubtedly use this to justify the police response. After all, there was an attack on the police. Nevermind that the police were all in full riot gear and in absolutely no physical danger from thrown bottles. To a certain mentality, if the crowd throws something at the police, that justifies a violent response, no matter how disproportionate.

Here’s the thing, though. West’s account makes it clear that the majority of the crowd was peaceful, and in fact, actually trying to discourage the belligerent minority.

Now let’s ask what happens when you have a situation like this if people are NOT protesting societal inequalities.

Imagine, say, a baseball game, where, say, a belligerent group of fans was throwing things onto the field while the people around them were telling them not to. Do you think the cops would fire rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd as a whole? Or do you think they would move in and try to apprehend the people throwing things, while being careful not to hurt the rest of the crowd, who are fundamentally on their side?

My guess is that it might depend on how much time Republicans had spent decrying the baseball game as class warfare.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, CNN quotes Mayor Kasim Reid as saying,

This movement is moving toward escalation. That it is no longer peaceful in my judgment and there are elements in that movement that are willing to engage in violence. So I’m not going to let that stand.

Yes, that’s one possible response. Because there are elements that are willing to engage in violence, we need to send riot police in to stop the protests, using violent means if necessary.

Another, less dickish, less hegemony-protecting response would be to reach out to the rest of the protesters, the peaceful majority who are there engaging in constitutionally protected speech, to identify and remove the violent elements, to ensure the safety of both the police and the protesters.

Of course, that would assume that the Mayor’s goal is actually public safety, rather than just coming up with an excuse to shut down an inconvenient and embarrassing protest.

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