by Keith Miller — NYU/ Gallatin School
November 19, 2011 – 11:08
Look at the video. The students sit calmly, surrounded by chanting supporters. The masked perpetrator walks calmly to them and like a house painter would a wall, blasts them with pepper spray. The near serenity in his gait, in his gesture, speaks to an ease with which power asserts itself through violence. The very relaxed air is almost more chilling than the thought of the pepper spray burning the eyes.
After the rage inspired by the criminal use of force in this video, the next thing that is clear is one, the speed and carelessness with which the forces of power are willing to use violence against non violent protest when the protest represents a real and present threat to existing conditions. The initial pepper spray is so clearly an abuse of the weapon that if there is not an investigation leading to criminal charges it only indicates yet again that not only is the police state made manifest, so is the absurdity of calling the justice system just.
While the eventual retreat of the offending group of aggressors is a victory for the students and demonstrators, what is demonstrated here is the always present violence the so-called forces of law have within arm’s reach at all times. That proximity to violence, and the arbitrariness with which they use it, is how power addresses any option for real dialogue, whether they actually use weapons or merely hold them in threat.
The retreat at the end is striking for a number of reasons. The first is clear: a victory of the people’s mic, non-violence and the willingness of the students to hold their ground in the face of an armed force that has just shown its willingness to use its weapons without regard to the conditions on the ground. That the protestors were sitting, non-violently, recalls immediately the image that first galvanized rage around Occupy Wall Street of the women in orange netting being coldly sprayed by the officer Anthony Bologna, who bragged, “I’d do it again.”
Another striking feature is the genuine fear in the masked faces as they retreat. Perhaps because of the many cameras, or just their own shock at their comrade’s attack, they too realized the cruelty of the moment. Their recoil is loaded with genuine fear -it’s clear- that this unruly crowd has been galvanized and might just be willing to not take any more. Their arms and pepper spray are outnumbered and if the students disregard their non-violence it would be the masked police who would risk serious harm. But their fear, or the realization that they had pushed things too far, also opens the door to a humanizing moment.
This moment, their first step back, represents a transformational opportunity. It is times like this when history holds it breath and opens to a change. The same pregnant pause occurred in Tahrir, just before the army joined the demonstrators and when the tanks would not crush the lone figure in Tiananmen. Poised on the precipice of the abyss, each of those officers has a decision to make, to break ranks and stand with justice and against arbitrary cruelty. But the force of history, the present, social conditions is obviously great. While any one of them might have thought, “This is wrong. I should be protecting them,” the challenge to speak is based more than just the present moment. Indeed, a salary, economic realities , children are all tied up in that decision because a betrayal of his ranks represents not only a risk to financial stability but also to a whole way of thinking and being.
We can only hope that these moments are not brushed aside and that people as brave and strong as t he UC Davis students stand up more so that not only do they drive back the small cadre of aggressors but also drive back the inner police state that is borne in each of those individuals, and all too often in all of us.