The worst thing in the world (Thursday edition)

Trigger warning: sexual assault and other violence. Also, police.

When they tore down the Occupy Vancouver tent city, I was there. I was all geared up to get arrested for peacefully resisting the destruction of what was ultimately an important and helpful resource, not only for Canadian democracy, but for the city of Vancouver. I called my parents to tell them I might be thrown in jail; I called my close friends to put them on notice that if they didn’t hear from me in the next few hours, I would need them to start making phone calls. Then I headed downtown, fully expecting to see the scowling face of a judge before I saw my own bed again. What I saw instead was a massive cleanup crew with police helping to facilitate the voluntary removal of a bunch of supplies. The square was cleared without any confrontation whatsoever.

My Occupy experience was entirely bloodless, with the Vancouver Police Department behaving as though they truly understood the concept of peaceful protest and civil liberty. Their professionalism and restraint stands in sharp contrast with what we’re seeing out of their comrades in New York City:

Many of these arrests are carried out in such a way to guarantee physical injury. The tone was set on that first night of March 17, when my friend Eileen’s wrists were broken; others suffered broken fingers, concussions, and broken ribs. Again, this was on a night where OWS actions were confined to sitting in a park, playing music, raising one or two tents, and marching down the street. To give a sense of the level of violence protestors were subjected to, during the march north to Union Square, we saw the first major incident of window-breaking in New York. The window in question was broken not by protestors, but by police—using a protestor’s head. The victim in this case was a street medic named José (owing to the likelihood of physical assault and injuries from police, OWSers in New York as elsewhere have come to carry out even the most peaceful protests accompanied by medics trained in basic first aid.) He offered no resistance.

I used to roll my eyes when activists of various stripes used to throw around the term ‘police state’. I feel like I owe them all a collective apology. The stories in this article suggest that not only are police not respecting the rights of citizens to peaceably assemble and protest, but the right to even walk down the street without getting your head smashed in. The wry component of the above pullquote is, of course, that the victim of the assault by police was there to treat the injuries suffered by other protesters at the hands of power-drunk cops.

That, however, is not the worst part of the story:

Arbitrary violence is nothing new. The apparently systematic use of sexual assault against women protestors is new. I’m not aware of any reports of police intentionally grabbing women’s breasts before March 17, but on March 17 there were numerous reported cases, and in later nightly evictions from Union Square, the practice became so systematic that at least one woman told me her breasts were grabbed by five different police officers on a single night (in one case, while another one was blowing kisses.) The tactic appeared so abruptly, is so obviously a violation of any sort of police protocol or standard of legality, that it is hard to imagine it is anything but an intentional policy.

For obvious reasons, most of the women who have been victims of such assaults have been hesitant to come forward. Suing the city is a miserable and time-consuming task and if a woman brings any charge involving sexual misconduct, they can expect to have their own history and reputations—no matter how obviously irrelevant—raked over the coals, usually causing immense damage to their personal and professional life. The threat of doing so operates as a very effective form of intimidation. One exception is Cecily McMillan, who was not only groped but suffered a broken rib and seizures during her arrest on March 17, and held incommunicado, denied constant requests to see her lawyer, for over 24 hours thereafter. Shortly after release from the hospital she appeared on Democracy Now! And showed part of a handprint, replete with scratch-marks, that police had left directly over her right breast.

I’d like to emphasize this because when I first mention this, the usual reaction, from reporters or even some ordinary citizens, is incredulity. ‘Surely this must be a matter of a few rogue officers!’ It is difficult to conceive of an American police commander directly telling officers to grope women’s breasts—even through indirect code words. But we know that in other countries, such things definitely happen. In Egypt, for example, there was a sudden spate of sexual assaults by security forces against protestors in November and December 2011, and followed a very similar pattern: while women activists affirmed there had been beatings, but relatively few specifically sexual assaults during the height of the protests, starting in November, there were dozens of reports of women being groped or stripped while they were being beaten. The level of the violence in Egypt may have been more extreme, but the circumstances were identical: an attempt to revive a protest movement through re-occupation is met by a sudden ratcheting up of tactics by the security forces, and in particular, the sudden dramatic appearance of a tactic of sexual attacks on women. It is hard to imagine in either case it was a coincidence. In Egypt, no serious observer is even suggesting that it was.

Something has gone terribly wrong in New York City, where the Statue of Liberty is becoming a more ironic presence with each passing day. I don’t know when it happened – maybe it was always broken and we’re only now noticing it because the kind of people who “don’t deserve this” are facing the types of abuse that have been alleged for decades. Whatever it is, New York City police appear now to be using a tactic of sexual violence against protesters who are made vulnerable by a culture that condemns women for existing adjacent to sexual activity, regardless of their role in it. These are the same police, incidentally, who contribute to this kind of culture by refusing to take sexual assault seriously.

Something has gone terribly wrong with those police officers as well, to obey such an order. Mob mentality being what it is, I can just barely wrap my head around the idea of violating people’s civil rights in ‘defense’ of the plutocratic ideals you’ve been instructed to defend. But when I think of what could possibly possess someone to go to work and decide that they are justified in sexually assaulting someone whose greatest crime is exercising their right to free speech and free assembly, I draw a total blank. It is certainly a failing of imagination on my part, but be that as it may I simply cannot fathom how a person could look at hirself in the mirror at the end of the day and think ‘I have done a good job today’.

Here’s a cute kid being awesome:

An animated gif of a dancing kid

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  1. jamessweet says

    Somewhat tangentially related, this came across my Facebook feed today. Brief summary: Police in Moscow have been harassing people for things as trivial as wearing a white ribbon (I guess some kind of protest symbol there, I am not familiar with all of the backstory), and a journalist decided to see if this was a) just a generally aggressive police presence, or b) the deliberate targeting of people hostile to the current government… by carrying an AK-47 openly down the street (both open and concealed carry are illegal in Russia). The police seemed unconcerned…

  2. says

    I think you could have used “HIMself” in this case. (per last sentence}. I’m down with the gender neutral pronouns, but police coruption is a facet of male privelge, regardless of the fact that there are female cops.

  3. Hatchetfish says

    I’m close to convinced that a great many people don’t look themselves in the mirror and think anything of the kind.

    I think they look in the mirror and think something to the effect of “I got what I wanted today, and everyone whose path crossed mine got what they deserved.” And I think they’re happy about the first part and proud of the second part, regardless of how the first part happened, and regardless of what the second part entailed. Greed (in a general sense well beyond the usual monetary one) and a lack of empathy is an incredibly dangerous mix.

    I also think, and I admit this is probably largely from personal bias (as much as I like to think there’s evidence to support it) that it’s incredibly common in conservatives.

  4. John Horstman says

    I used to roll my eyes when activists of various stripes used to throw around the term ‘police state’. I feel like I owe them all a collective apology. The stories in this article suggest that not only are police not respecting the rights of citizens to peaceably assemble and protest, but the right to even walk down the street without getting your head smashed in.

    I’m one of those, and it’s been this way for the decade I’ve been protesting. The worst I personally experienced was a mounted officer who threatened to trample me with his horse when I was trying to leave a protest as it was winding down (this was during the Bush years: in order to leave the protest, I had to leave the Free Speech Zone), and who flatly refused to talk to me except to threaten me when I stepped up to the barricade. I’ve been lucky – most of my friends suffered much worse (actual beatings, arrests and detentions without charges). The most shocking thing about our protests at Madison last year wasn’t the size of the crowd (though that was uplifting), but the fact that the cops weren’t running around beating the shit out of people; in fact, a bunch of cops were marching WITH the rest of us. It was the first time I’ve EVER been to a protest where I didn’t feel threatened by the police simply for showing up.

    Anyway, I think ‘police state’ applies accurately to any state with a militarized police force that treats dissidents as (potential) combatants by default, instead of adhering to the maxim “innocent until proved guilty”. For example, I would take the number of UNARMED Black men shot by police officers who felt ‘threatened’, and even just the practice of drawing weapons when there is no indication a suspect is armed, as evidence of a police state – the police are more invested in their own power and the personal safety of officers, even at the expense of the lives of citizens who have done nothing wrong, than they are in actually serving and protecting the public. There have been indicators of an ever-expanding police state since at least the beginning of the War on Drugs – increasing militarization, assumption of guilt, the Blue Code of Silence, relegating public safety to a secondary or tertiary concern, etc. – that are not necessary related to police responses to protests.

    I don’t know when it happened – maybe it was always broken and we’re only now noticing it because the kind of people who “don’t deserve this” are facing the types of abuse that have been alleged for decades.

    This. This is nothing new in the US: I know two women who were sexually assaulted by police officers on my campus, with their silence coerced by threats of ticketing and arrest (temporarily – they filed complaints after deciding that the potential for drinking tickets wasn’t a bad price to pay for combating institutional sexual assault). It’s likely just more visible and possibly more systematic (though, again, maybe not – police officers can pretty effectively coerce silence around assaults/abuses they commit, especially if the people they’re assaulting actually have broken a law).

  5. John Horstman says

    There have been, repeatedly, for decades; they usually are reported as ‘riots’, irrespective of the direction in which most of the violence flows. People not directly affected by it are surprisingly effective at rationalizing state violence, even more so when it’s directed at people they consider to be undesirables of one sort or another. Seriously, the charges of a ‘police state’ at which Crommunist used to roll his eyes didn’t come out of nowhere, they just came largely from marginalized persons whom it was easier to ignore than believe.

  6. says

    I don’t even need to look at the police themselves. I would say that the disproportionate media focus on protester violence, characterization of the disproportionate police response to such violence as “clashes”, and the ever-retreating goalposts as to what constitutes adequately “distancing” a “peaceful” protest from violence (we can’t take the protest group at its word?), is evidence of a police state.

    In fact…when have you ever heard of “black blocs” at right-wing protests like Tea Parties? A simple look at the Wikipedia page reveals only references to decidedly leftist protests; there appears to be nary a rightist protest where the “black bloc” has reared its ugly head.

    And for Crommunist and other fellow locals, how many heard anything about the anti-Olympic protests and sentiment other than the black-bloc violence?

    I could go on, considering that reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia completely re-defined my perspective on socialism (as a tidbit, Orwell argues that Comintern and their Russian backers were trying to re-introduce capitalism to Spain, not usher in the proletarian revolution they kept promising). Suffice to say though that this privileging of viewpoints seems to have been going on for a while, and the effort has been decidedly against the Left.

  7. lirael_abhorsen says

    Thank you for posting (and tweeting) about this.

    Like I said over Twitter, in Boston, we had a march specifically in response to the NYPD treatment of female protesters (some of our people were down in NYC for the aforementioned March 17 event). And the BPD made misogynistic comments at us. The BPD, while not always restrained with us, are usually restrained during marches. While there was no physical violence, just some verbal aggressiveness, this was weird and disconcerting.

    We’ve not been treated as badly as our NYC comrades. But I know at least two people who are still disabled by injuries that they received at our raid in December. We had a few broken wrists and hands, a few other nasty injuries. A lot of intimidation, people getting shoved around. An LRAD (never used). Those crazy MK 60 pepper spray tanks (also not used). Neutral legal observers arrested (and ones who arrived after the start of the raid not allowed on scene). Medics arrested, one for not leaving his own patient (and I can attest that the medic tent was one of the first places they gave a dispersal order to). One woman saying that she had been groped by an officer. A guy lifted off the ground by the pressure points on his jaw. Every single male arrestee charged with resisting arrest.

    This was at a raid that was widely described in the press as being absolutely the perfect raid, no violence whatsoever, kumbaya, city government officials calling from all over the country wanting to know how Boston pulled off this amazing wonderful thing.

    For more misogynistic fun, we recently discovered that the Boston police union puts their newsletters online. You can find them at if you’re in a masochistic mood and really curious. Suffice it to say that they are absolutely obsessed with the idea that Occupy is full of (paraphrasing their own language here) stupid slutty rich college girls who sleep with every homeless man in sight to assuage their liberal guilt.

  8. lirael_abhorsen says

    I’m going to make a quick point here that black blocs are not necessarily violent or committing vandalism, and not everyone who does those things during a protest is in a black bloc. I’ve seen people form a black bloc because they wanted the focus to be on the message and not them, because they were being targeted by police and didn’t want to be individually recognizable in the crowd, because they were rape survivors who wanted to hide their gender out of fear of being molested by police, because they were protesting an anti-woman event and wanted to scare off the dudebros who were harassing female protesters, because they had recently been beaten by police and were afraid to go to an anti-police-brutality rally at police headquarters without some kind of anonymization, and because they feared losing their jobs. On the other side of the coin, the small group in Oakland who vandalized their City Hall on 1/28 were mostly not in black bloc gear.

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