Friday, October 21, 2011

Of Police States and Occupations

Monument To World Peace, With Proletarian

The Occupy Wall Street movement and its offspring seem to be building up steam around the world. I like that. It's pretty unlikely that it'll result in the kind of revolution many of its adherents would like to see, but it's already shifted the discourse. Stuff that just wasn't talked about is back on the agenda. Some good ol' progressive ideas have been dusted off, and a bunch of new ones are being floated.

This kind of change is good. So carry on, occupiers. I'll be cheering from the sidelines, and maybe even showing up with my "The System Stinks" sign every once and anon. Thanks to Robert Aitken Roshi for that slogan.

It's brought out the nasty, too, in new ways. I haven't been a huge fan of the USA for a quite a while, but some of the ways the political establishment there has reacted to it has shocked even me. The American system really has come scarily close to a police state, and it's even possible that this will push it over the edge.

I'm incredibly fortunate to live in one of the few countries of the world where the police come pretty close to living up to that "to serve and to protect" slogan of theirs. Finns trust the police, and by and large, the police live up to that trust. They're not easily bribeable, they generally don't harass or mess with you, and if there's a problem, you really can call them and expect them to help. Conversely, they're watched pretty closely—just about every police shooting goes through the courts, for example,  and there's a pretty high standard for justifying that. But it works: the cops rarely overstep their authority, and people, by and large, trust them.

That means that my basic reflexes when dealing with cops are dangerously wrong in most of the world. I've tangled with the militsiya in Russia and Ukraine a few times, and only gotten away with having to pay a $20 bribe once out of sheer luck. I chatted with a Syrian mukhabarat at a checkpoint once, and while I intellectually knew that he had the power to do some incredibly nasty stuff to us, I didn't feel that fear. I simply do not know how to deal with the police as they are in most of the world.

I remember being bewildered when I visited a friend of mine in Montana in 1999. There, it was perfectly clear to everyone that the cops were bad news. You avoided them as much as possible, and talked as little as possible if approached by them. It seemed like there was a law or an ordinance in place preventing just about everything fun. That meant everyone was doing something illegal, which meant that the cops could easily find some perfectly legitimate reason to arrest you, which gave them a lot of power.

This video scared the bejeezus out of me, and explores this characteristic of the American landscape in more detail.

That's the thing with police states. They can only emerge if the laws give the police enough power to cause basically "normal" people a lot of trouble. Even in utterly corrupt police states the police tend to operate within the letter of the law... to start with. Once they've put you on the wrong side of the law, you're theirs. That opens the door to bribery, police violence, political imprisonment, and what have you.

That Russian militsioner who caught me did so perfectly fairly. My crime was that I was carrying a cell phone. There was a law on the books stating that all travelers to Russia must declare any radio communication equipment at the border. I don't recall if I was aware of this law. Even if I were, I wouldn't have bothered, as I would've had to get out of the train, stand in line for easily a few hours, and pay a fee, and I didn't even have a ticket for the next train. There might not even have been a next train the same day. So I was a criminal, and when the militsioner patted me down at the entrance to the Lenin mausoleum, he found my phone, and voilĂ , I was at his mercy. The punishment for my crime would've been a fairly small fine, but procedure being procedure, he could've locked me up at the precinct for at least the rest of the day, perhaps longer.

So I made a date behind a corner, slipped him a $20 note, and went happily on my way. It was all very businesslike.

I was privileged. I'm a Finnish citizen, and the worst he could threaten me with was a day at the precinct waiting to be 'processed' and a smallish fine. I could've called the embassy, and they could've made a fuss he probably wouldn't want.

Imagine if I had been, say, a Tajik guest worker, and the militsioner just didn't like my face. Or had a grudge against me. Or something else.

A friend of a friend of mine, also a Finnish citizen, was killed in Moscow, almost certainly by the cops. So it's not like we're immune.

None of this can happen in a system where the laws are relatively sensible, relatively well understood, and, most of all, limited. Where you know where you stand. Where you actually have to knowingly—or grossly carelessly—transgress to get on the wrong side of them. Without laws like that, cops are automatically much more powerful than they have any business being.

Most of the world doesn't have laws like that.

It's too bad there's not even much of a fuss about it. An open society can't survive without them.

Perhaps something for the Occupiers to think about there, too.


  1. "The American system really has come scarily close to a police state, and it's even possible that this will push it over the edge." Yes, it's been really interesting to watch our local police handle the Occupy group in Minneapolis. They're hesitant to intervene at all, but at the same time, the surveillance efforts are constant and perhaps growing even.

    Starting with the WTO protests in 1999 in Seattle, there's been a deliberate militarization of police and sheriff departments all over the U.S. Billions of dollars have been spent on equipment and training in tactics formerly used only by combat troops. I witnessed all of this up close and personal in 2008, during the Republican National convention, which was held a little over a kilometer from my apartment building.

    I don't know what is going to happen as a result of OWS and the myriad of other Occupy groups doing our thing, but it's sure as hell a lot more interesting and filling with possibilities than sitting around watching Presidential candidates attempt to outrun each other to the edge of a right wing cliff.

  2. I think OWS is a part of a shift in the narrative. A visible part, for sure, but perhaps more of a symptom than a cause. Although it will certainly have effects, too.

    That's really one of the few things keeping me from getting so depressed about the state of the world that I'd just tune it out. Stuff is falling apart, but new stuff is already growing in the remains. I can't help feeling that we've hit an inflection point of some sort.

    As a friend of mine just wrote in a rather grim poem, humans are a lot tougher than they look.

  3. The mask is dropping on the use of police in our society, how they are used to maintain a certain kind of social order, and actually to inhibit citizens' right to peaceful assembly and public dissent. A prominent author, Naomi Wolf, who was not even participating in an OWS protest, but spoke to police supervisors about laws they were essentially inventing on the spot, was arbitrarily arrested earlier this week having broken no law. It's out in the open.

  4. I remember when it would've been inconceivable that the USA openly assassinates an American citizen with a drone strike... to cheers, and at most a few mild tut-tuts.

    That's the thing with due process. It has to apply to everybody. Once you start making exceptions, the door is open.