How Cops Really Feel About the Occupy Wall Street Protests

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 14 2011 11:23 AM

Which Side Are They On?

How cops really feel about the Occupy Wall Street protests.

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Update, Nov. 15, 2:55 p.m.: The NYPD moved in this morning and cleared out Zuccotti Park. Mayor Bloomberg, as he should, took responsibility for the decision. From a tactical police perspective, the operation appears to have gone well in that the park was secured and nobody was seriously injured. Of course the situation is still rapidly evolving. Among other things, an important court decision is expected in half an hour.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the mayor’s decision, such is the way things are supposed to work in our representative democracy. (I, for instance, find the arrest of reporters particularly distasteful.)

As to the protesters, I have sympathy. I can only hope they will direct their anger not toward the men and women following orders (lawful orders, mind you), but to those with the power and means to actually affect change.

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As to the police, I also have sympathy. You are stuck in the middle, as usual. But you must exercise professionalism and restraint. The whole world really is watching. And the good job of many can easily be undone by the out-of-control action of few.

But to those who may be intent on provoking and hurting police, I can offer no better warning than one told to my friend years ago by his father: “Don’t get into fights with police; they’re not in the habit of losing.”

There’s a dirty old joke about two men watching three other men go at it, in bed. One observer, a bit naïve, asks the other about the man on the left. The second observer, more knowledgeable, describes his role. The naïve one then asks about the man on the right and, after receiving a detailed answer, finally asks about the third man, the man in the middle. The cognoscente says, somewhat longingly, “The man in the middle? Why that’s Lucky Pierre!”

I think of Pierre when Occupy protesters ask police, as they do, “Who the fuck are you protecting?” It’s certainly a valid question. Police are supposed to protect everything and everybody—shop windows, people who need to get to work, even the protesters. It’s an impossible task. On one side a very small minority of protesters wish to create something between mob rule and a literal revolution. On the other side, perhaps a few totalitarians wish to eliminate all dissent and relive battles of bygone decades. Placed between conflicting demands, police end up like Pierre, but unlucky: stuck in the middle and screwed from both sides.

Protesters—the vast majority peaceful—exercise their 1st Amendment rights to speech, assembly, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Meanwhile residents and businesses whose livelihoods depend on normalcy oppose the protests, if not on ideological grounds, than simply because of their disruptive presence. Our democratically elected leaders make the laws and order police to enforce them with legal force. City officials, their eye on overtime and the bottom line, order police to clear an area—which requires force—and to make sure nobody gets hurt. It can’t happen.

Police become the messenger stuck between two irreconcilable forces. The results can be tragic. In Oakland, a young veteran was critically injured when police tried, unsuccessfully in the end, to keep a public plaza free from protesters. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and Tasers are called less-lethal for a reason. They can and occasionally do kill.

Occupy protests complicate matters by bringing a segment of society—a white middle-class segment—into, what is for many, first contact with police authority. If you think of police as coming whenever you call for help, you may be surprised to learn that police do not work for you. Officers work first for the police department and then for the city that pays them. A force designed to maintain order and the status quo will never sing Kumbaya with protesters who combine a desire for change with a privileged sense of agency and entitlement.