Consensus and Policing

The recent spate of mass arrests and brutality at various Occupy demonstrations is not a matter of bad cops like John Pike or even bad politicians like Michael Bloomberg. Tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets have occurred throughout the US over the last ten years, as a result of a new theory of crowd control, coming from the broken windows approach toward ordinary crime.

The interest for consensus urbanism is that although the approach seems geared toward protecting consensus values, in reality the values the police is protecting are manufactured from scratch, and are only shared by a minority that treats itself as normal. There is no social consensus leading to the police approach toward public protest – indeed, public sympathy toward Occupy Wall Street soared after the first mass arrest. The new authoritarian approach is the result of an internal development within law enforcement. Just as a truly consensual urban space needs to have ample opportunities for individuality (as opposed to just individualism), community policing needs to treat communication with the people as a two-way avenue.

Although there are sporadic media reports of protester violence, in reality both my and my friends’ observations of nonviolence at the encampments and the history of the past ten years suggest otherwise. In brief: on the heels of the anti-globalization protest in Seattle in 1999, police departments decided that their previous strategy of good-faith negotiations with protesters had failed, and switched to a strategy of surveillance, free speech zones, and selective use of arrests and non-lethal violence, including pepper spray. Under this strategy, communication is one-way, and negotiations with authority are pointless, as anti-war protesters discovered in 2003 when they were denied permits despite months of negotiation. As with broken-windows policing, the police treats protests as disorderly conduct that must be punished in order to promote middle-class values.

The part about middle-class values is where consensus versus authoritarianism comes into play. Although middle-class values seem like consensus, they really are not in this case. In contrast with the broken-windows policing of turnstile jumping and similar petty quality-of-life crimes, in which much of the impetus came from community requests, in the case of protesting the violence comes entirely top-down.

The creation of a fictitious middle-class mentality that considers all protest distasteful masks how much of a minority interest it is. The Progressive movement needed to create a middle-class American identity from scratch and impose it on immigrants and other tenement dwellers (to the point of opposing tenement improvement efforts, which would distract from the need to suburbanize); French nationalists needed to impose Parisian French on a country that did not speak it; modern-day police departments impose conformity and distaste for protest on a population that dreads unemployment and has rock-bottom approval for such major institutions as Congress. Everyone is a deviant in one way or another. At best, what society can do short of recognizing this fact is to list special personal interests and weird habits that are more acceptable, and relegate the others to people’s private homes.

The importance of solving the problem of police authoritarianism by consensus is that doing it any other way will just replace one master with another. To me, nonviolence, consensus, and democracy are not just abstract values. They come from the impossibility of improving things by force. Any political force powerful enough to control the police is by definition more powerful than the police, which means it will be able to exercise even more control over people; this is why communist revolutions always result in repression. The only way to improve the situation is to make the political force one that is comprised of ordinary people rather than an elite vanguard, and one that works by persuasion and communication rather than by raw power.

Update: I forgot to talk about this, but one way to see that the cops really do see themselves as values enforcers is their behavior toward cyclists. Anyone who occasionally reads Streetsblog will be able to cite multiple examples in which cops were lenient toward drivers who blocked bike lanes or even ran over pedestrians or doored or hit cyclists (and in one case ran over a pedestrian themselves), and multiple other examples in which they were treated lawful cyclist behavior as illegal or clipped bikes for trumped-up reasons and harassed their owners. All of these examples are from New York except the cop who ran over a pedestrian, who’s from Jersey City. This is a city in which drivers are a minority, and yet they’re considered Us, whereas cyclists are Them: hipsters, radicals, immigrants, Europeans. Not only are cops upholding a set of values rather than the law, but also those aren’t even consensus values.


  1. TMLutas

    I think you might be ignoring the elephant in the room which is that we’ve actually got recent mass middle class protests in the form of the tea party. Now politically they may not be your ideological soul mate but you have to admit that their police interaction dynamic is, well, completely different.
    Whatever model you have to explain police/protester difficulties needs to hindcast why the tea party movement has had so few arrests even in the face of some pretty aggressive acts, like open carry of firearms in the middle of a political protest. So far from reading this post, you haven’t gotten a workable model to fit all the protests, just the left-wing ones. What’s different about the right wing ones that has led to a difference in the behavior of the police?
    It can’t be that the power structure hates OWS and loves the Tea Party. That doesn’t fit the available fact pattern either. Take a look at what’s going on in Richmond, VA where OWS got fees waived while Tea Party was charged full freight. When the disparate treatment in favor of OWS was noticed by Richmond Tea Party, they sent a bill to the city to get their money back. The city sent back a tax audit notice.

    • Alon Levy

      My guess is that although both the Tea Party and Occupy rattle the power structure, the demographics of the Tea Party are silent-majority types whereas those of Occupy are the people the police thinks normal to arrest. And this goes back to the development of the new militarized way of dealing with protests: it came in response to the anti-WTO protest in Seattle, not to the militia movement (even though the FBI reacted with some violence, e.g. in Waco).

      More precisely, right-wing protesters cast themselves as the normals, fighting off welfare leeches, weirdos, and socialists. The politics they preach has plenty of room for power. Left-wing protesters cast themselves as normal in economic terms, not cultural ones, and this leads to confrontation with the police and the military. (It goes back at least ninety years: in Germany, when there was a right-wing coup attempt shortly after the end of WW1, the army refused to intervene on the grounds that the coup participants were former soldiers and the army would not fire on its own, and the coup was defeated only after the governing Social Democrats declared a general strike. In contrast, the military squashed uprisings by communists.)

      For what it’s worth, in Israel, the police brutality was conspicuously absent while the housing protest was a general effort that visibly attracted middle-class support; Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai only sent in the cops to clear the tents after the major institutions had pulled out and the protests became more associated to the lower class. It was fine for people with housing to protest high rents, but not for people with no affordable choice but to squat. The Israeli police is quite brutal toward left-wing protests when the subject matter is Palestine, but could not be violent toward a movement that was truly middle-class.

      • Adirondacker12800

        And this goes back to the development of the new militarized way of dealing with protests:

        It’s not new, it’s been suppressed for a few decades. They are just itching to get out the fire hoses….

        Those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

        The difference between the Tea Party and the Occupiers is that the Tea Party is pro-status-quo. Why you have to protest for the status quo is beyond me but that’s what their cover story is. Or whatever they think the status quo was in what they think 1955 was like. Cops and mayors want it to be 1955 again. Where they can turn fire hoses down uppity protesters… Though tear gas wasn’t widely available in 1955 so maybe not….

        • Alon Levy

          No, it is actually new. You should follow the links in the post. The police was very violent in the 1950s and 60s, but between the 70s and 90s was accommodating of protesters and open to negotiation, and viewed its role as protecting the protesters and keeping traffic out of protest areas. The way of dealing with protests of the last decade is in part a return to the brutality of the 60s, and in part a new development: state-of-the-art surveillance that was not available back then, free speech zones within which some activity is permitted, heavy riot and military equipment. All of this can be thought of as an evolution of hierarchist, pro-status quo thinking. In addition, the force used is nonlethal against healthy people: whereas deaths used to be caused by massive shootings, today they are caused when people react to tear gas or pepper spray in a way that is not quote-unquote normal. Usually this is accompanied by an explanation that the death was unforeseen, with an implication that it was the dead person’s fault for being killed; Israel uses the same tactics against anti-security fence protesters in Bil’in.

          • anonymouse

            Having participated in some anti-war protests in the 90s, I can say that at the time, the cops really were there to direct traffic and occasionally protect us from the random person who wanted to violently disagree. But that was before the whole notion of “homeland security” (and “homeland” in general for that matter).

          • Adirondacker12800

            I followed the links in the post. All stuff I watched on the evening news. Along with body counts for the day in Vietnam. Or clips of Sam Irwin skewering some amnesiac Republican. … isn’t it odd how Republicans have no recollection of anything anytime anywhere… I digress.

            By 1972 they held the conventions on an island, much easier to cordon off. There were free speech zones on the 7th ave side of Madison Square Garden in 1976. There may have been zones on the 8th Avenue side but I had better things to do than wander around 8th Avenue. Like get through security to get to my office.Through security to get out of my office. FBI and Secret Service agents are so transparently obvious… They made all the buildings overlooking the Garden sterile corridors, you had to prove who you were to enter. PITA.


            In 2004 they suggested shutting down Penn Station and the subway stops at it. Same deal with security. Though apparently they did background checks too.

            Lynchings made for bad press so they turned to dogs and fire hoses. Dogs and fire hoses made for bad press and tear gas became commonly available. Tear gas tends to go wherever it wants to including wafting across people who are stalwart supporters of the status quo so they developed MACE. MACE is really nasty so they developed pepper spray. Tasers became available. They’d much rather be hosing ’em down and or shooting rubber bullets at them but that makes for bad press. And the protesters in the 80s and 90s tended to be small well behaved groups who gathered for a few hours and then went home.

  2. Andre Lot

    I think the issue is misrepresented on the original article and in the Tea Party comparisons on the comments.

    The 1990s saw the emergence of a very disruptive class of protesters that have no agenda that reasons with people but their own extreme world views. This has been the tone of most “anti-globalization” protesters: it is not they want to march and congregate a lot of people, but they want to vandalize and restrict the rights of other people (G8, G20, NATO chiefs, World Economic Forum) from merely reuniting themselves.

    I found this idea of putting cities under siege to avoid people you don’t like coming there peacefully to discuss World’s affair outrageous. You can’t negotiate with these global dial-a-protester that are mostly young (thus more reckless), and eager to engage in confrontations first place.

    This is the same genre of violent protester that breeds in part of the environmental movement that, after feeling they no longer had popular appeal after air and water in streets were made significantly cleaner, resorted to violence because they don’t like nuclear power, or whaling, or else. You can’t negotiate with somebody willing to chain herself to a tree to prevent a new high-speed line or whatever being built there, you need to deal with them by force because it is the only language they are willing to accept.

    It is a very different situation of political “festive” protesters that preceded them, Indeed, these extreme activists hijacked the peaceful (if silly and misguided) acts of most of the 1980s and 1990s.

    Now, we see a similar thing with the “Occupy” movement. It started on a peaceful tone, but in many cities was hijacked by people eager to use the movement or the cover it offers to commit violent acts. Top that with misguided youngsters thinking smoking marijuana as an act of defiance is anywhere near as worthy as boycott buses because of racism.

    Another great (counter) example of policing by consent are the recent London riots in July. The non-militaristic policy of the British police plagued the British capital with 2 days of horror and vandalism. At least, many people were arrested and sentenced relatively harsh compared to what they’d have if they committed those acts in more calm times.

    • Alon Levy

      You’re right that it goes back to disruptive anti-globalization protesters (and also 9/11, which put surveillance and the national security state back in vogue). But it’s then applied to everyone who the cops consider an affront to their values. Take the example of the anti-war protesters, who were denied a march permit despite months of negotiation. The police demanded proof that the march would not turn violent – in other words, it treated protesters as guilty until proven innocent. The surveillance tactic is part of it, since the anti-globalization protesters, annoyingly enough, do not commit criminal acts in their daily lives.

      The attempt to divide protesters into good and bad is not a police tactic, but is a really vicious media and political tactic. It was used in Israel, too – the city kept claiming the protest was being hijacked by “anarchists” (it wasn’t). And there’s a large gap between the media reports I’ve seen about Occupy, and both my own observations of Occupy Providence (and those of the local AP reporter) and my friends’ and friends-of-friends’ observations of Occupy Wall Street. The people who run the OWS camp may be annoying and may rant about symbolic issues, but they’re not violent.

  3. Danny

    I disagree with your assertion that the values that you claim the police are protecting are minority values. The fact of the matter is that it is an exaggeratedly small proportion of the population that is protesting, and only a subset of that group is breaking laws as a means of protesting. The political views of the protesters are without a doubt much more common, maybe even majority view…but their interactions with society are very “middle class”. Most of them wake up, go to their jobs in the morning, obey the vast majority of traffic and public order rules, provide for their families, and conduct their social lives in ways that are non-confrontational and respectful to all.

    The point that I think you are overlooking is that police models of interaction with protesters have coevolved with academic theories of group mentality – almost all approaches are aligned with some prominent theory of how riots develop. Some of those theories are wrong, and some of the responses to the theories (wrong or right) are unacceptable by a consensus moral code. But the responses are intended to prevent violence, and have very little to do with the political views of the protest or the economic or cultural class of those protesting.

    There might be some correlation with certain political views and violent tendencies, but correlation isn’t causation. Andre has brought up something that I think deserves mention: certain political views are accompanied by some passive aggressive behavior, where the intent is to provoke a violent response. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the various theories of group behavior, but I do know that all theories that I have personally read include passive aggressive behavior as a sort of tipping-point…a few individuals try to provoke a response, respond in kind when the provocation receives a response, and visible violent interaction lowers personal morals of non-violence in other individuals as they move toward a solidarity view with their sympathized party. The more deplorable models of police interaction with protesters involve preemptively suppressing the passive aggressiveness with superior force with the intent of provoking a fear to join in. The less deplorable models tend to allow protest and to identify anti-social behavior (the misdemeanor-type offenses) and to pick them off swiftly in an effort to weed out the potential tipping points.

    Although I do not agree with most of the OWS views, and I do not agree with the police responses to their protests either. My perspective is that the police have been put in a situation where the police as an organization is trying to prevent a riot, but their chosen response has put them in a situation where it is too easy for an individual police officer to respond on basis of racism, classism, agism, or even nervousness/self-preservation. There is no doubt that we have to prevent riots from occuring, but I think the appropriate question to ask is: How do we prevent riots without putting individual police officers in situations like this?

    • Nathanael Nerode

      The police, when they assault groups like Occupy, are protecting minority values. Consider the anti-war protestors — a majority of people continue to oppose the wars. Yet permits for anti-war protests are denied. A majority of people want banking crimes to be investigated; they are not. Then people start protesting legally, and the police act like it’s a crime….

      That is definitely protecting minority values. I will of course credit departments like the Albany police for doing the right thing and upholding the law, rather than protecting an authoritarian mindset.

  4. ENbrian

    With the disposition of the NYPD towards bikes and how they implicitly define ‘Us’, it should be investigated how many of those officers live in New York (or some sufficiently urbanized borrough/suburb) and how many of them spend their days in their cars and off-time in their cars. New York is a totally different experience in a car.

  5. Daniel Miles (@daniel_t_miles)

    Great post, thank you for writing it. I’ve been struggling to find some words for similar ideas I’d had, and I think you got them.

    However, it does leave me a little troubled. There are a lot of statements and conclusions here that I want to believe because they fit so well with views that I already have, but I’ve learned that desire to believe often flags something I should examine more carefully and upon looking closer, I’m not finding a lot of support for the central theme that the values being protected aren’t majority values. For example, you said that “public sympathy toward Occupy Wall Street soared after the first mass arrest” but I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past month trawling the Internet looking for polls and the only polls I’ve found have said the opposite. It looks to me like public support for OWS was growing rapidly until the Oakland police engaged in violence. When that happened, I expected a ground-swell of public sympathy and outcry like you suggested, but the polls I found actually showed a rapid loss of support, favorables/unfavorables seemed to have flipped overnight as if most people assumed that if the police went in shooting, they must have had a reason.

    I wonder if you can share some of your underlying data, I’m eager to believe I simply found the wrong stuff…?

    • Alon Levy

      I haven’t looked at underlying data, only at the reports through 538, which pointed to more and more positive media coverage. The event Nate Silver was looking at was not the Oakland violence, but rather the initial spate of NYPD arrests, back in September.

      One possible difference is the perception of how the violence occurs. The first spate of mass arrest broadcast the message that the police are brutal toward nonviolent protesters, resulting in sympathy. This helped made Occupy a broader movement, not just an anti-corporate personhood protest in New York. Subsequently, individual episodes of violence can still produce sympathy outburst (for example, after the UC Davis pepper-spraying incident), but the perception of the general trend is different: it’s that these are professional protesters who are not normal people.

      Tellingly, in Israel, where J14 was a true mass movement, there was no police violence until after the major protests had subsided and many organizations had pulled out, allowing Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai to say that he sympathized with the affordable housing protesters but felt compelled to intervene to remove anarchists, lowlifes, and the homeless. (He was lying, but he lied much more professionally than Mike Bloomberg.)

      • Nathanael Nerode

        “(He was lying, but he lied much more professionally than Mike Bloomberg.)”

        Competence matters. I still think Israel’s government is doomed because the national government is grossly incompetent, but the Tel Aviv Mayor seems a lot smarter.

        The thing which astounds me repeatedly is the lack of political sense on the part of authoritarian elites. But this behavior seems to be older than the French Revolution, where the elites managed to get their heads chopped off by acting like asses.

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