It’s the casualness of it, the apparent insouciance of the act, that catches attention the most. University of California policeman John Pike strolls in front of a group of seated Occupy protestors and bombards them with pepper spray like he’s using insecticide. The casualness, and the contrast — between the heavily-equipped, helmeted officer and his passive targets.

(Source: The Atlantic)

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In a few seconds, Pike earned himself the sort of international notoriety reserved for southern sheriffs from the 1960s, another victim of the reversal of the panopticon, in which law enforcement are now the subject of ever-increasing surveillance, especially as protests are attended by a bank of cameras, phones and the occasional iPad recording everything.

It also replaced as an iconic image that of Dorli Rainey, who the previous night had, if only temporarily, provided the compelling image of the protests after she was pepper-sprayed by police in Seattle.

They were only the latest of a series of incidents involving police-on-protester attacks during Occupy protests, the most notorious being the Oakland shooting with a “non-lethal weapon” of Scott Olsen that put the Iraq veteran into a coma.

The police tactics had their counterpart here with the violent eviction of Melbourne protesters on October 21. In all cases, police tactics appear designed around responding to violent riots, rather than peaceful protest or passive resistance. But as Pike — since placed on leave-with-pay — may now understand, that has the potential to generate the sorts of appalling contrasts for which he will forever be associated.

There’s some important context here, of course: protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo over the last 40 hours have now left at least five, and probably more, dead (there are currently reports of up to 27 fatalities). There’s a tendency to glib equation of the Occupy protests with the Arab Spring, which overlooks not merely that the reaction of law enforcement to the protests in western countries hasn’t yet yielded a body count, but that even non-violent protesters in less dangerous Middle Eastern countries often risk their lives.

For a movement that has been persistently criticised for failing to articulate any sort of positive agenda, however, the images of police overreaction are enormously beneficial, not merely for cynical reason that they generate media coverage, but because they provide an effective illustration of what the movement is complaining about, a visual counterpart to the cut-through “1%” slogan.

While the movement’s complaints — the debauching of democratic government by corporate interests, the economic double standards of the latter, the skewing of capitalism against the interests of most of the community — are hard to articulate in detail, the overreaction of law enforcement encapsulates the basic notion that the governmental apparatus is hostile to even passive forms of dissent and dismissive of basic rights.

This is enhanced by the reaction of authorities in the aftermath of violent police crackdowns. While Seattle mayor Mike McGinn immediately apologised to Rainey, he was atypical of authorities, who have either had to reluctantly support police despite obvious misgivings about their behaviour, or have resorted to peculiar reasoning to justify actions against protesters. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg justified clearing Zucotti Park on “health and safety” grounds. Melbourne mayor Robert Doyle had a bizarre interview with Jon Faine in which Doyle dismissed the need for any independent inquiry into the violence inflicted on Occupy Melbourne protesters, or even that anything untoward may have occurred. Oakland mayor and former activist Jean Quan has tried to blame “anarchists” for violence in the crackdown in that city. They’ve been supported by some law and order commentators. “It is truly not excessive and I am surprised by how not excessive it is,” said one New York policing academic in the aftermath of violent crackdowns in the US.

Not excessive in a Middle Eastern context, true.

The result is a stream of images, accompanied by a stream of rhetoric, that appears to confirm exactly what the movement is saying: that governments now instinctively lash out at dissent and rely heavily on spin to protect themselves. It reinforces the cynicism of voters who have become all too aware of the credibility gap in western societies between the carefully-prepared talking points of government (and corporate) leaders and reality.

The problem isn’t so much John Pike, an employee who will bear the brunt of the reaction against law enforcement tactics, as the lack of faith voters have in authorities and the way those in authority so frequently give them good reason for that lack of faith.

The photo of the students being sprayed on the Crikey homepage comes from Brad Ngyuen, a photographer for the university newspaper.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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