Monday, November 21, 2011

Freakin' Cops

"And these children that you spit on
  As they try to change their worlds,
  Are immune to your consultations,
  They're quite aware of what they're going through."

  David Bowie; "Changes"

Back in the bad old days of the Nixon era when, like today, public unrest was reaching critical mass, I found myself involved in a campus demonstration at UT-Knoxville that began as a theatrical protest over the lack of a student voice in university affairs. A student group had petitioned, and was granted, a vote on the search committee to find a replacement for the beloved Andrew D. Holt, the retiring  President of the University. Instead, the committee waited until Spring Break when the campus was vacant, and chose who they wanted. The local version of the SDS, called the BODS (Big Oranges for a Democratic Society), gathered a crowd on The Hill to object to the bureaucratic bait-and-switch with some street satire and guerrilla theatre, only not everyone got the joke. Several beefy-looking jock types confronted the hippies during a break in classes, the crowd swelled, and the mood grew ugly. Predictably, the university panicked and called the Knoxville city police, enraging the students, who began chanting, "Pigs off campus." When one of the protest leaders was arrested and thrown into a squad car, what had begun as fun and games turned deadly serious as the group of protesters turned into a crush of people who rushed the doors of the Administration Building, which were quickly locked by university employees.

I was trapped in the middle of a sea of rage and could see the police riot squad, now inside the building, assembling a flying wedge in preparation to disperse the crowd. You could feel the mentality of the mob take over, driving the protesters' anger. The fear was palpable. When the squad of baton-swinging riot police waded into the mob in a skull-cracking frenzy, beating students to the ground and spilling their blood onto the late spring snow, I turned and ran. Casualties began trickling into the Student Center, none worse than the wound to my own conscience. Because I ran, I considered myself a coward; and no rejection hurts quite like self-rejection. I vowed that the next time a situation arose where I could be in danger from the police, I was going to be prepared like the South Koreans and bring my own damn helmet and stick. The cops hated us; we hated the cops. Fortunately for my health, I never had to put my freshly-minted, false courage on the line. No other campus or anti-war demonstration in which I participated ever again turned violent. Although when I was pamphleteering Richard Nixon's crashing of a Billy Graham Crusade in Neyland Stadium, I was spat upon by a few of the more righteous attendees.

Ultimately, I reached an age when the World War II era cops were pretty much retired and a few of my oldest friends had even joined the force. I could no longer think of the "cops" as a monolithic thing as much as dedicated individuals doing a difficult job, no more than the police could classify any long-haired or black person as a revolutionary. With the exception of a few major cities where corruption was systematic, police forces became more professional, better trained, and increasingly attuned to the law. The end of the Vietnam War seemed to also bring an end to the venomous rancor among citizens, and the intimidating image of the helmeted riot cop was iconicized in the disco group, The Village People." Since we've been through all this generational nastiness before, it was with particular disgust to hear Newt Gingrich say to the "Occupy" protesters, "Go get a job after you take a bath." I thought I was having some hideous flashback of the worst of the Seventies. In any case, there are no jobs and all the bathtubs are in use by the Cialis Company. What could really use a thorough rinsing, however, is Gingrich's soul. He was among the architects of the very difficulties that are causing the street protests today. The return of police violence, however, was unexpected.

By now, everyone has seen the video of UC-Davis campus police Lieutenant John Pike using pepper-spray on a group of passive protesters, as if he were spraying the baseboard for termites. The repugnant casualness of his actions made my blood boil, as it did for one old friend whose daughter is a student at the university, and said, "It was like Kent State without the bullets." In other cities where the police have shown excessive force, particularly New York and Oakland, there is a chain of command in which to distribute the blame. Although Oakland's Mayor Jean Quan and New York City's Michael Bloomberg have become the modern equivalents of Richard J. Daley and Bull Connor, the police are there to insure public order and have no further responsibilities to the protesters. Not so with UC-Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, whose first concern should be the safety of the students in her charge. Katehi complained that students staying on the Quad overnight constituted an "encampment," something she had unilaterally banned for the weekend protests. It was her office that sent in the campus police. The two "officers" impersonating exterminators were put on "administrative leave" while Katehi forms a "task force" to study the incident. I'm sure in the eyes of my friend, whose daughter is now participating in the protests, Ms. Katehi is not someone you can entrust with the care of your child, and needs to resign immediately and hire a good civil attorney.  

There's no question that the movement has been infiltrated by "agitators" who, in the case of the black-clad window breakers in Oakland, turned out to be undercover police. But for every cop like the ones at UC-Davis, there's Captain Ray Lewis, former Chief of the Philadelphia Police, whose arrest at the OWS protest for disorderly conduct while in full uniform was caught on a video that also went viral. Lewis, who had been retired for eight years and led a self-described "secluded life," with the Internet as his only source of information, felt inspired by protesters "who were doing this for all people suffering from injustice," and felt compelled to make the trip to "assist the movement." He understood that the protesters were there for the protection of policemen's rights too. Captain Lewis carried a sign encouraging the NYPD not to become "Wall Street's mercenaries." Lewis also demonstrated the power of the Internet at the very same time the police evicted all protesters from Zuccotti Park, proving that the "Occupy" movement needs no permanent encampment to continue, and that we've finally discovered a useful purpose for the "flashmob." Winter shouldn't bring on a self-inflicted Valley Forge. It's one thing to suffer for a cause, it's another to get pneumonia for it. And for the cops that don't yet get it, thanks to cell phone-cams, the whole world really is watching this time. You will not be allowed to beat these people, so you had better damn well join them.

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Elephant Walk

Can you believe the presidential election is less than a year away? So, here's what's going to happen. After another dozen or so more debates, the Republican presidential candidates are going to loathe the sight of each other because there's no way to weed anyone out of the process before the primaries begin. The worthy Jon Huntsman will be first to go, followed rapidly by Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum, Paul, Cain, and any other fringe candidates. Except, they're all fringe candidates. This will leave only Mitt Romney and the idiot Rick Perry standing, even after the stunningly ridiculous vaudeville routine the Texas governor delivered in New Hampshire that has become a viral video. By the time the GOP Convention begins in Tampa next August, the nominee designate will be Romney, because the Republicans always nominate the rugged looking guy who's turn has arrived, just like Bob Dole and John McCain. This will leave the Tea Party faction madder than Herman Cain's wife. They'll beg someone; anyone, to be the ABR (Anyone but Romney) candidate, up to and including Sarah Palin and Jeb Bush, and when rebuked they'll attempt a brokered convention or try to draft someone. But in the end, Romney will be the man and the Tea Party will go insane. They'll either attempt a third party  run with God knows who, perhaps Glen Beck, or intentionally sabotage Romney's campaign. For the Tea Party crowd, the choice between a Muslim or a Mormon is too much to fathom.

I know this because I have (insert your own cliche here: read this book, seen this movie, trodden this path) before. The only variable is at which party's convention will the most protesters gather. And  what happens in the streets could revive that whole "law and order" business the Republicans have run on so successfully before in times of civil disobedience. Already, they mock the "Occupy" movement as being populated by hippies and the homeless. It's unpredictable what will happen when the movement "occupies" Tampa because of Florida's irrational governor Rick Scott and the allegiance of the police. In 1968, when the Democrats nominated the moderate Hubert Humphrey, who was a defender of LBJ and the Vietnam War, street protests turned into bloody, skull-cracking melees after Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley unleashed his baton-swinging police on the protesters, in what an independent commission later determined a "police riot." The ugliness and brutality caused the populace to turn to Richard Nixon, our second worst president, to restore order in the land. The moderate Democrat lost because of discord within the party and the anger of the liberal left. Mitt Romney will lose because of the same anger on the rabid right. My hope is that voters are enlightened enough to see that the Tea Party Congress they put in power in 2010 has done nothing but harm, and they will just as assuredly vote them out. The right-wing's blitzkrieg on public employees and their unions should seal the deal.

Everyone seems to have gotten the message but the police. As public employees, their rights are under siege as surely as teachers, city service laborers, and nurses. The right's open war on collective bargaining includes police unions too, yet police forces in Oakland, New York, Chicago, Denver, Boston, Atlanta, and Nashville have attacked the "Occupy" camps with violence and arrests. If the police were not ensnared in an "us vs. them" scenario, they would join the protesters instead of beating them. But riot squads train for similar situations requiring crowd control, and when assembled to face a large group of disgruntled citizens, they will exercise that training. When the police are ordered by a municipal lackey to dismantle an assembly with nightsticks, helmets, Plexiglas shields, pepper spray, and all the toys, don't you think they're going to use them? If Memphis Mayor A C Wharton were wise, and I know he is, he would instruct the police to protect the protesters in the Civic Center Plaza against predators in their midst, and put up a dozen port-a-potties as a gesture of goodwill. If nothing else, the movement has Bank of America quaking in their jackboots. New York police arrested 24 people over the weekend who were attempting to remove their funds from Citibank.

The Democratic Convention, which usually attracts the most protesters, will be in Charlotte, N.C. in September. Depending on the state of the economy and the intransigence of the Republicans in office, President Obama will either be regaled as the guardian against the barbarians at the gate, or excoriated for granting the Tea Party Congress a foothold by trying to reason with them in the first place. Nonetheless, Democrats don't force their members to sign tax pledges or defend traditional marriage, like Kim Kardashian's, from the encroachment of the gay hoards wishing to live happy lives, so the convention should be less tumultuous. Despite the expected Obama anger outside, within the convention hall, Democratic unity has been strengthened by the irrationality of the opposing party. Regardless of the President's shortcomings as a political negotiator, none of the carnival barkers that pass for Republican candidates can match him for intelligence, judgement, or respect on the international stage. So, with zero precincts reporting, I can now predict the next president will be Barack Obama. The question is, what will happen with Congress?

The country desperately needs a jobs program for infrastructure repairs, educational improvements, and technological advances, but we'll never get there with the conservative logjam that blocks any and all progress. The House Republicans have wasted their opportunity to lead with a series of meaningless bills concerning social issues rather than addressing the real economic concerns that have made the U.S. a borrower nation. And the Senate has been paralyzed for years by the tyranny of the minority and their misuse of the filibuster. Early on, Senate Republican leader Mitch "Frogman" McConnell freely acknowledged the party's supreme goal was to unseat Obama, and their "just say no" tactics should be repugnant to anyone who values democracy. Yet, in spite of the GOP's obstruction, Obama brought the nation back from the brink of a second great depression, passed healthcare insurance reform, saved the American auto industry and accelerated the development of the electric car, killed Osama bin Laden, stopped a genocide in Libya (for which he was criticized as "leading from behind"), which enabled the Libyan people to kill a murderous dictator, and he ended the war in Iraq. Imagine what he might accomplish with legislators who actually had the best interests of the country at heart.