Wright from Washington City
March 28, 2003


You are the Enemy


At the tender age of 19, I went on a trip to Europe, where I saw and experienced a lot of interesting things, many of which I'm sure I'd appreciate more now than I did then. One was seeing a busload of rough-looking French military riot police parked every day near the Champs Élysées, quaintly armed with submachine guns, giving passersby the hairy eyeball. This was five years after the great leftist upheavals of 1968. At the time I thought their hard-core appearance illustrated an important difference between the state-loving Europeans and us free Americans.

Well, no more. I've been worrying for years about a troubling new trend in the United State — the militarization of the police. I don't recall seeing police wearing combat boots with their pants tucked into them when I was younger, or dressed in black, wearing armor and combat helmets, and armed with rifles. Now they're a familiar sight, especially here in Greater Trantor, capital of the Empire.

Seeing cops dressed like soldiers is bad enough, but with the cosmetic transformation has come a change in the attitude of cops toward the rest of us. They don't seem to like us any more.

That change has been a little harder to detect in some jurisdictions than in others. Los Angeles, for example, has long been famous as the home of stone-faced police wearing insectile mirror sunglasses, trained to behave as intimidatingly and robotlike as possible, answering questions with monosyllabic grunts. [1]

Here in Washington City, cops have always had a lousy attitude towards their job and the public, at least since the advent of Home Rule in the 1970s. Dee Cee police are well-known for harassing and menacing people minding their own business, and at the same time failing to carry out what the public thinks of as their duty: arresting criminals, helping those needing emergency assistance, and so on. Here's a case in point, arising from a fire a few weeks ago in the trendy Dupont Circle neighborhood. Unsurprisingly to Washingtonians, the first couple of attempts on the part of the reporting citizen to get through to 911 reached "all of our operators are busy" recordings. Also unsurprisingly, it took 14 minutes after a police officer finally arrived for a fire engine to show up. And during that time the cop sat in his car in front of the burning building while someone inside burned to death.

But the traditional stories of incompetence and blatant corruption (the police chief before this one had to resign for living free in an apartment; his cop roommate told the landlord they were on a long-term stakeout) are being supplemented with something more sinister. When I first came to Washington, the cops were known for being cooperative with demonstrators. No more. Increasingly, the Trantor po-leece are showing their brutal side in dealing with organized dissent. (See my article "Life and death in Bizarro World" from October 2000.) Last September, four hundred demonstrators, denied a parade permit by hostile authorities, were rounded up like cattle, along with hapless passersby, without being told to disperse, without being given the opportunity to disperse, and then arrested. Most of them were hogtied, wrists to ankles, for twelve hours. According to the "alternative" Washington City Paper:

Protesters and bystanders, nurses on their way to a convention, lawyers on their way to work, a woman training for a bike race — all rounded up, seized without warning, without orders given [to the citizenry], and arrested en masse. They were then tied up like farm animals for hours.

The next day, in the Washington Post, [Police Chief Charles] Ramsey described the scene at Pershing Park this way: "Ain't it a thing of beauty. To see our folks up there ready to go."

... Protesters at the park were charged with failure to obey a lawful police order. The problem, as one city official familiar with the cases notes, was with the order. "It's not clear whether orders were given at Pershing Park," the official explains. [2]

The ultimate outcome was that none of the people arrested were charged, because it could not be shown that they had done anything wrong. But the treatment they suffered when arrested was punishment enough:

By 2:25 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 28, lawyer Julie Abbate had arrived at D.C. Superior Court under the close watch of U.S. marshals. Once in the building, Abbate says, she was put up against a wall and patted down. The officers then told her to pull down her green slacks and underwear, squat, and cough. "I thought they were kidding," Abbate says. "They weren't." She felt stupid. "Every order I obeyed — even 'Take off your f---ing pants and cough.'"

... She spent five hours handcuffed on a bus. Eventually, she was hogtied wrist-to-ankle on the floor of the police academy's gym. That lasted for another 12 hours.

On Saturday morning at 5 a.m., Abbate was transferred to central booking downtown. She and other Pershing Park arrestees crammed into a cell consisting of cement floors, one bench, and one toilet. They had to form a "pee wall" to prevent officers from watching them go to the bathroom. Officers took their time processing them; some even threatened to leave them in custody through the weekend.

"That's what you get," taunted the officers, according to the 36-year-old Abbate.

Eight hours later, they were transferred to Superior Court, where they went through the squat-and-cough routine. They were moved to a cell that became so crowded that arrestees had to stand on the toilet to make room.

Meanwhile, in New York City, organizers of the recent huge antiwar rally were also given the runaround by the authorities when they tried to get a parade permit. The excuse was the current terrorism "emergency," and the denial was backed up by a judge. As a result, the rally was confined to one place. On the day of the demonstration, the police used barriers to "pen" the participants in separate enclosures, preventing them from moving. Police blocked people trying to get to the rally and prevented people from leaving it, much as the cops had done in Washington. From the Village Voice:

As [59-year-old wheelchair-confined Annie] Stauber recalls, "I told a police officer that I felt sick and needed to leave, but she said, 'You're not going anywhere.' I told her I'm diabetic and need to check my blood sugar, but she wouldn't let me out." When Stauber tried to steer over to a corner where there might be an opening, the officer, she says, grabbed the chair and "flung me around," leaving the wheels askew and bending the chair's control stick so far out of Stauber's reach that she couldn't drive.

... Cheryl Mantia, 23, a senior at NYU, was arrested for stepping into the street when the sidewalk could not hold the flow of demonstrators, and was held until 7 a.m. on Sunday. She was frightened by the whole ordeal, but most disturbed, she says, by an officer who called her a "c--t." When she objected — "Hey, I have rights, you know," she said — he replied, "Yeah, the right to suck my d--k."

... Among the hundreds arrested (police put the number at 272; attorneys count 342), most were kept for eight, 12, 15 hours — far longer than is usually required to process those accused of minor violations. Demonstrators recounted that while they were in custody, police asked them not only their names and addresses, but what organizations they were affiliated with and where they were located. Some say they were even questioned about their opinions of the 9-11 attacks. [3]

During the demo, a high-ranking NYPD cop (in photographs of the incident, he is wearing a gold badge) shoved a female newspaper photographer to the ground, breaking her thousand-dollar camera. She was photographing arrests of demonstrators at the time. Other press people were physically prevented from even getting near the rally. [4]

We are now seeing the other, not-so-polite side of polite totalitarianism: the viciousness of the Establishment's enforcers when they feel justified in expressing it, as they did at Waco and Ruby Ridge. We haven't yet had an event equivalent to the Chicago police riot against the Yippies at the 1968 Democratic convention, but give it time. And remember: Minitrue, the mainstream news media, is much less likely to report on such an event today than it was 35 years ago. In fact, the respectable press ignored the outrage in the Imperial capital; only the "alternative" newspaper reported it. The behavior of the New York cops got scarcely more coverage.

The '68 Chicago police bludgeonfest was made possible by the conspicuously disreputable appearance and arrogant, annoying conduct of the demonstrators. For the most part, they were a bunch of young, self-satisfied, long-haired, leftist punks. They were different enough that the cops felt justified in treating them as nonhumans (although once the blue-uniformed thugs got blood in their eyes, they went after everyone in sight). [5]

Today, however, even the distinction between left-wing neohippy crazies and regular taxpayers seems to be melting away: many of the people abused by the New York and Dee Cee constabulary were just normal people who got caught in the crossfire. Apparently, all you have to do now to qualify as nonhuman is to have the wrong opinion — or seem to. Or stray within hog-tying distance of those who have them — or seem to. That, of course, is consistent with the increasing encouragement of infantile attitudes and behavior — "patriotic" and otherwise — in the popular culture.


Cop brutality can also pop up at other, less predictable times. One example is a certain traffic stop by police in Tennessee. After pulling over a middle-class family on their way home from a vacation, state troopers screamed threats and pointed guns at them, making them grovel on the ground. The victims asked the cops to close their car door so their pet English bulldog wouldn't jump out; the cops yelled at them to shut up. When the dog did jump out, the cops immediately blew off its head with a shotgun. Film taken from the patrol car shows that the doomed animal didn't make any threatening moves; in fact, it was running away when it was shot. [6]

It turned out that someone had reported seeing money flying out of the car: the driver had left his wallet on the roof at a gas stop. Apparently that was reason enough for Barney Fife and his cohorts to assume that the occupants were dangerous criminals.

And that isn't the only example of cops shooting people's dogs. Such despicable incidents seem to be on the rise. Apparently, the possible penalties for shooting Fido aren't very stringent, so what the heck.

Across the country, police are being trained in the same techniques of arresting and subduing their quarry that were used against the vacationing family. Those techniques — lovingly showcased every week on the Fox TV show "Cops" — seem designed to inflict the maximum possible amount of humiliation and intimidation on the victim without the actual use of physical violence. As part of the training, cops are taught to look on every person with whom they interact as a possible threat.

Such training, and the militarization of police equipment and dress, have, I believe, encouraged cops to look upon themselves as an elite, apart from and above the rabble. That is reinforced by the official folklore about how dangerous police work is, and how cops "put their lives on the line" to protect us poor peasants. In fact, police work is far less hazardous than occupations such as mining, farming, and construction, along with many other mundane pursuits that aren't celebrated in nine TV dramas every night. The average cop is far more likely to die of a myocardial infarction brought on by excessive doughnut consumption than of being shot by criminals.

While miners or farmers don't give their colleagues 21-gun salutes when they buy it on the job, police funerals have become ridiculous self-parodies. Every time a cop dies, whether "in the line of duty" or not, the funeral seems to become more absurdly pompous and elaborate, with battalions of cops in dress uniform and white gloves saluting their fallen comrade and great flotillas of shiny motorcycles and police cars escorting him to his final rest, at the same time massively tying up traffic for the serfs. (And what's the deal with all the bagpipes?) They even give fallen police dogs official funerals with full honors, in sharp contrast to their attitude toward our dogs. [7]

The result of all this esprit de corps — this emphasis on police "otherness" — must inevitably be contempt toward the public. It's only a small step from there to seeing regular people as the enemy. In fact, in plenty of places it looks as though that step has been taken.

So look out. You may suppose that you have the right to dissent and to express your dissension. In reality, if you exercise that right in public, or just happen to be in the wrong place while someone else is doing it, some Dudley Dooright may feel perfectly justified in cracking your head open, or worse. And don't take your dog on road trips.

© 2003 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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