History is replete with tyranny, violence and bloodshed. And even a quick glance reveals the brutal hand of police involved every time.
Look anywhere on a map of the world, look deep, and you will find bloodshed and misery stained into the streets of civilization. The ultimate clash between the oppressive status quo, the powers that be, and the everyday citizen culminates on the streets, in the protest. When all other legal and democratic measures have been exhausted, people take to the streets to decry injustice and demand equality. Nothing could be truer, or more of a pure representation of the American experience than protesters demanding change from those who are most uninspired to yield it.
However, there has always been an equal force to counter the voice of the people. It almost always represents the rich and the powerful. It is the antithesis of peaceful demonstration. It carried weapons, and oftentimes, malice. It is the “rule of law” and it is represented by the police force. In US civil society, laws can be changed through democratic process or by appealing to the justice system to uphold equality. Getting to that point though generally requires some sort of catalyst. Let’s look at a few of these key moments in US history.
1880s catalyst: Haymarket Affair – laborers striking for the right to an 8 hour day were violently opposed by the police resulting in the death of laborers.
1910s catalyst: Bread & Roses – laborers striking in response to a pay cut were violently opposed by the police resulting in the death of laborers.
1917 catalyst: NWP picketers fighting for women’s suffrage were violently arrested and sent to prison. Some prisoners were force fed by the police after going on a hunger strike.
1930s catalyst: labor rights movement – laborers from many major industries such as textiles, mining and autos went on strike for rights such as a 40 hour work week, a minimum wage and social security. This decade is marked with bloodshed and murder as strikers were violently opposed by the police resulting in the deaths of laborers.
1946 catalyst: The Great Strike Wave – laborers across all industries began to strike after WWII ended, mainly due to pay freezes during the war; during the war, laborers refused to go on strike. However, after the war subsided many laborers did not see their wages keeping pace with inflation from post-war growth. Police violently opposed them across the country, including a notable instance where they set up of machine guns in the streets of Oakland.
1950s catalyst: McCarthyism – the police routinely jailed and persecuted socialists and communists accused of subversion or being “enemies of the state.”
1950s – 1960s catalyst: The Civil Rights Movement – this doesn’t need to be explained. The police were routinely used as a tool of oppression and racism to enforce segregation and inequality. Countless African Americans and other people of color were beaten, jailed and killed at the hands of police who were violently opposed to them.
1969 catalyst: Stonewall riots – a major spark in the gay rights movement was a result of constant harassment, arrests and beatings of gay men and women by the police who were violently opposed to them.
1970 catalyst: Kent State massacre – students protesting the Cambodian Campaign were violently opposed by the police. Further intervention by the National Guard would result in the murder of 4 students.
1960s – 1970s catalyst: Vietnam War protesters were routinely beaten and jailed at the hands of police who were violently opposed to them.
1988 catalyst: Tompkins Square Park Riot – citizens protesting a neighborhood curfew were routinely beaten and jailed at the hands of police who were violently opposed to them. Over 100 complaints of police brutality were lodged following the riot.
1999 catalyst: Anti-globalization protesters picketed outside of WTO conferences. Protesters had low level chemical grade weapons used against them and were routinely beaten and jailed at the hands of police who were violently opposed to them. The police used tear gas, stun grenades and billy clubs to enforce their will on protesters.
2010s catalyst: Occupy Movement – Wikipedia has a whole article dedicated to documenting police brutality against peaceful protesters: “Law enforcement and the Occupy movement”. Let us not forget incidents such as peaceful students casually pepper sprayed by an officer, or an 80 year old women bashed over the head with a billy club.
2014 catalyst: Ferguson. Wait. You mean to tell me that there is no police brutality going on? Despite the right-wing media trying to purge institutionalized racism from their broadcasts and instead focusing on the troublemakers and looters, can anyone honestly believe that given the history of policing and their interactions with protesters, that police are not routinely beating and jailing protesters? Protesters who they are violently opposed to.
A brief and incomplete look at civil rights, labor rights and human rights vs the police paints a pretty stark picture. The police have been on the wrong side of history throughout modern US history. Every. Damn. Time. They have routinely acted as the violent force to continue oppression and discrimination. Why should they suddenly get the benefit of the doubt? Why should African Americans feel compelled to trust when history has repeated itself time and time again? Trust is built through accountability. No accountability, No trust.
Trust will have to continue to wait though. Sadly, the killer of Eric Garner will not be held accountable for his actions. Sadly, Eric Garner adds to the ever growing list of African American men who have been victimized by a system of structural and institutionalized racism. So far the protesters in New York City have been met with far less brutality than in other cities. But they need to remember that the police will continue to uphold the interests of the status quo first and foremost. When riots and protests are marked down in the history books as a force in changing how we treat African Americans in this country, we can be assured that there will always be a record of the police who were violently opposed to them.
photo credit: Cory Cousins via Flickr, cc
KIENAN MICK is a resident of the beautiful, lake filled Twin Cities. He has a degree in Economics from the University of Minnesota, and an MS in Applied Economics from the University of North Dakota. In his spare time, he enjoys amateur photography, nature hikes, and bird watching. His interests lie in “alternative” economic systems where the public, unions, and co-ops take a greater stake in our economy.