Will Police Ever Join the 99%?
The great hope of many OWS protesters appears to be that through reason and vigilance they'll be able to inspire some NYPD officers to leave their ranks and come join the "99 percent" on the other side of the barriers. When I first heard these aspirations, I had to bite my tongue in order to not laugh outright. I've just seen cops violently collide with protesters too many times to imagine a world where the folks in blue and activists join hands in a circle and together skip under a rainbow.
In my cynical mind, there appears to be simply too much animosity between the two sects. A handful of activists will always scream, "PIGS!" at the cops, while a small percentage of officers will beat protesters with batons…and pepper spray them…and crush them with a herd of terrified horses. These two tribes, though they're a minority of their larger bodies, will be always at war. Forever.
At least, that was my opinion. I spoke with activists who have a more optimistic outlook on things. Matt Filipowicz, host of the show by the same name, is also an activist who has been visiting the camps in Occupy Chicago and also Occupy Boston. Filipowicz has a much sunnier attitude about all of this, although he expressed his profound disappointment in the Boston Police over the recent mass arrests at Occupy Boston given the prior, fairly amicable relationship between the cops and protesters.
When I suggest the first stage of many rebellions like this is a tolerant approach from the police (the second stage is when the police lower the hammer and attempt to crush the revolt,) Filipowicz dissents, referencing the video of Marine Corps. Sgt. Shamar Thomas screaming in fury at police after the ridiculously overzealous Times Square crackdown on protesters. Police nearly trampled activists with horses and used motorcycles as tools of intimidation, surging forward in dangerously packed areas. Almost 100 people were ultimately arrested before Thomas told the NYPD there was "no honor" in attacking unarmed civilians as though Times Square was a war zone.
"I think the next phase of this movement needs to be reaching out to veterans and police and getting them on the line with the protesters," says Filipowicz. "I have a hard time seeing cops pepper-spraying other cops."
However, it's one thing to attract veterans to a movement like OWS. There's some kind of historical precedent for veterans joining all kinds of anti-establishment causes, especially anti-war events. Veterans stood between protesters and police during the Occupy Boston showdown and were beaten and dragged across the ground for all their trouble. During the chaos, an American flag one of the veterans had been carrying fell to the ground and became muddied under the boots of the police. I can't imagine how many times that image would have run on Fox News had it occurred at a Tea Party event.
And we've also seen the police have had no qualms with badly brutalising veterans during past protest actions. Nick Morgan, a veteran from Iraq Veterans Against the War, had a police horse trample his face when he was protesting during the final 2008 US presidential debates at Hofstra University.
Unlike some veterans, almost all police officers have remained extremely loyal to their forces when confronted with domestic rebellion.
"Never gonna happen," said one veteran journalist colleague of mine when I asked him if police would ever break ranks to join the protesters. That's what I concluded as well, although reading Josh Harkinson's profile of a police officer who seems rather sympathetic and reasonable about OWS, allowed me to imagine a world in which that tribe loyalty might be challenged.
"We are all in this together," says an off-duty cop—let's call him Jim—who described himself to me as a 99 percenter and supporter of the occupation. Jim says he believes that most of his fellow officers feel the same. "We have no problems with what goes on there," he says.
Jim has stubble, thinning hair, and circles under his eyes. He's been posted to Occupy Wall Street since Day One, and all the mandatory overtime is wearing him down. "I'm really working hard for this," he says. "I'm getting yelled at, I'm getting cursed out; I'd rather be at home with my family right now.""We are in a union as well," says one NYPD veteran, "and we are not rich."
And yet he understands that the same group that's squaring off against him at Zuccotti is fighting for his future. A 10-year NYPD veteran who helped escort people out of the Twin Towers on 9/11, Jim has seen his retirement fund cut in half by a declining stock market, from $40,000 to $20,000. He worries that his kids won't be able to afford college or find jobs. And he's frustrated about not being able to talk about it openly. "We're getting lost in the shuffle," he says, pointing out that other public-sector unions, unlike his own, have backed OWS. "We are in a union as well, and we are not rich."
I mean, how reasonable does that sound? Jim goes on to say he realises the "pig!!" screaming individuals are a vast minority of the protesters, just as Officer Bologna, the pepper-spraying lunatic white shirt, is an extreme minority within the NYPD. Of course, the ramifications for being an unwieldy activist are far more dire than being a crazy police supervisor. For example, Bologna only lost ten vacation days for pointblank pepper-spraying innocent young women in their faces, while the NYPD snatches protesters off the street for the crimes of the century: walking in the street and obstructing pedestrian traffic.
What impressed me about Jim's attitude is that he does express tremendous solidarity and a deep understanding of OWS, and I know he's not alone. Jesse, a protester from Occupy Boston, told me he had a similar experience when he arrived for a court summons after the mass arrests. The officers and guards at the court house thanked the protesters for fighting for them. Additionally, I've seen cops and protesters participate in countless pleasant exchanges at Liberty Park, and apart from the mass arrests and instances of brutality, when I ask protesters how they feel about the police, they usually reply that the cops are nice to them. Kind, even.
It's important to remember that attitudes pre-battle and during violent collisions are vastly different. There is a moment when the police shut down their personal feelings and become parts of a larger machine designed to squash rebellion.
"It's an interesting thing when you put on a uniform. You start to forget who you are and you start to go with the mob rule. What's great about this movement is we don't have a uniform…We can be individuals, and unfortunately for our friends in blue, they don't feel that way," says Josh, a young teacher from P.S. 721 in Brooklyn, who was at Times Square on Saturday and witnessed some of the arrests.
Other factors are at play, of course: fear of losing one's job being a central concern. It would take an enormous amount of conviction, bravery, and faith in a movement for an officer to remove their riot gear, climb over a barrier, and join a fledgling rebellion, which is unarmed and underfunded. Some veterans have already taken that leap and expressed solidarity with the movement, but it remains to be seen if the police are ready to join the 99 percent.