“We really appreciate the work you all are doing,” said the officer as I was being fingerprinted. I would spend a total of 32 hours in jail for marching nonviolently near Wall Street on the #N17 day of action. And during that short visit in the New York City penal system, I learned some things about the men and women we pay supposedly to protect, not repress, us.
Unlike the police who greeted us at central booking by asking our arresting officers, “Are these the Occupy Wall Street kooks?”, other officers openly thanked and praised the arrestees. They asked genuine questions to try to better understand the movement and offered their opinions on OWS.
Let’s face it: without their riot helmets and batons, police live the same political and economic reality as the rest of us. One officer said he agreed with Occupy’s complaints “100 percent.” He talked about our need to change consumption habits and vote to create political change. But he disagreed on the tactics being used; he said he felt the protests brought us negative attention. Other officers who stood outside the cell reaffirmed that feeling.
Two of them spoke to us for hours. They acknowledged that the few protesters who used violent resistance tainted the perception of the group. “We know who the real criminals are. You all are not criminals,” one said. To this I replied, “You wouldn’t know it from the thick cage separating us.”
The dialogue between cops and occupiers became tense at times, as presumptions and mistrust – and in some cases egos – seemed to underlie the discourse. Those of us on the front lines of OWS know that examples of protester violence, like throwing a bottle, is the exception rather than the rule. Yet, we told them, even the most peaceful protester resistance gets continually met with brutality by baton-wielding police.
When some officers attempted to justify their colleagues’ use of violence, we challenged them. They conceded that police brutality against OWS happens too much and too often. At the same time, they qualified many officers’ actions as “just doing their job” and following orders.
In a particularly memorable moment, one officer said he would refuse to carry out violence against nonviolent protesters even if given the order to do so. Officers of this caliber are not the type surrounding us on a regular basis in the streets. But they should be.
After the violent eviction at Zuccotti and the beatings on November 17, after the pepper-spray attacks from UC Davis to Seattle and beyond—now is the time for brave officers, officers who know the difference between what is right and what is wrong, to step forward. To follow their hearts and say “No” to orders commanding them to apply repressive rule.
Now is the time for heroes in uniform to stand with fellow citizens, as the 99% and as conscientious objectors to state-sanctioned violence against the peaceful democratic assemblies. Now: to make their voices heard through their actions.