Protest In The Age Of YouTube… And The Long Term Consequences Of Focusing On 'Enforcement' To Deal With Moral Panics
from the and-don't-forget-the--militarization-of-the-police dept
By now, I expect that many of you have heard or seen the reports of police in riot gear pepper spraying students at UC Davis late last week. If you haven’t seen one of the many, many videos of the incident out there, this one is particularly popular and has a pretty good view of the police officer walking up and down the line of peaceful protesters with their arms locked, spraying them heavily with pepper spray:
First, it’s fascinating to see how protest is changing in the age of YouTube. In the past, photographs often captured iconic moments in similar situations. Or, in some cases, merely the stories of what happened. And while there can be something powerful and moving about a still photograph, the video of these latest incidents really lets you see the details, and I find such videos to be much more powerful in showing the full extent of what’s happening. It makes it that much harder to cover things up or try to explain away the actions of the police. We’ve talked about why the right to record police is an important right for Americans, but in situations like this, it also shows not just the value of recording what the police are doing, but also the power of bringing millions of people around the world right into the situation of what happened.
Related to that is the fact that such a large percentage of people these days now carry handheld video cameras, often in their mobile phones. That we don’t just get one angle on these stories, but coverage from pretty much every perspective, is really quite an incredible experience.
The other issue worth discussing is the long term unintended consequences of regulatory and legal battles against vague bogeymen without a thought to what happens. If you want to read a really fascinating opinion piece on what happened at Davis, you should read what Bob Ostertag had to say. Ostertag, among other things, is a professor of Technocultural Studies and Music at UC Davis, and his discussion is really fascinating — directly calling out the administration for its bogus defense of the pepper spraying (and comparing it to a similar situation that was handled quite peacefully at Columbia). He goes on to highlight other ridiculous overreactions first within the UC system (at nearby Berkeley) and then elsewhere in the country, such as the pepper spraying of an 84-year-old woman in Seattle.
One of the key points he uses to summarize all this is the following:
Last week, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper published an essay arguing that the current epidemic of police brutality is a reflection of the militarization (his word, not mine) of our urban police forces, the result of years of the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror.” Stamper was chief of police during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, and is not a voice that can be easily dismissed.
Stamper’s article is also a fascinating, yet disturbing read. He points to his own failings in 1999, but also how much worse things have become. He also points to some ideas for turning things around — creating radically different police forces, with civilian involvement.
Part of me wonders if these two issues converge. The ability of people to so widely document the abuses — and horrify the watching public — will hopefully lead people to seek out the sorts of “radical” solutions Stamper suggests (and, yes, I do recognize the ridiculousness of suggesting that police work closely with civilians is considered “radical”). But part of me wonders about the likelihood that things just get worse. We see this elsewhere, where “law enforcement” or the government through declaration or regulation declares “war” on something, rather than trying to understand and deal with the underlying issues. It never helps solve the problem, and oftentimes serves to make it that much worse. But oftentimes it seems like once the moral panics and the “war on…” announcements have been made, politicians and law enforcement become totally committed, unable to back down, even as their “solution” makes things worse.
It’s stories like these that should make us wary of jumping on any sort of moral panic that doesn’t involve a true look at the underlying causes, and how to fix them, but rather seeks solely a stricter “enforcement” solution. What we see, over and over again, is that that level of “enforcement” becomes a weapon that is used more and more regularly and more and more indiscriminately. Even as some amount of transparency hopefully counteracts some of it, people get so committed that the situation moves far away from solving problems, and just creates more and more new ones.