Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Meta-Protest

On Monday, I was in Denver's Civic Center Park when a protest march formed in the street, one that turned brutal as numerous videos document. What none of the videos I've seen capture is the way the cop presence and response brought on the violence. Cops in full riot gear traveled in groups of 10, whether through parks or on pedestrian malls. This clip - "A Taste of Pepper Spray" - from The Denver Post shows you that the cops outnumbered the protesters, but you can't see how astronomically they were outnumbered. Between bike cops, horse-mounted police and foot soldiers, there were a few hundred officers to take down 20 or so punks. You can also see the disproportionate response to the threat. The protesters were standing around, often with their hands up or behind their heads, and you can see cops giving a number of them facefuls of pepper spray, and one officer holds a protester so another can spray him.

This footage posted by USA Today shows one of the more disturbing elements of the confrontation - how witnesses became the enemy, and how the cops turned on them. They didn't just back us up; they pushed anyone who stood their ground - though few did - and kept backing them up, getting people who were only watching and filming farther and farther from the tiny center of the conflict. They escalated it by turning on everybody.

The size of the force begged for a response, and rather than escort the protesters - who gathered under the name"Recreate '68" - they stopped them, criminalizing free speech and prompting the anti-war chant to switch to "Our Streets!" As the video suggests, they were hardly the most robust protesters, nor were they terribly militant. In a speech in the park before the short march started, a speaker advocating revolution preached one that called for us to do what we could, whatever it was. If all we could do is drive other workers to their jobs, that's cool, he said. Hardly firebrand rhetoric.

At some point when things bogged down on 15th Street, the crowd started chanting, "The whole world is watching," and the number of video cameras present says that's possible. You can go to YouTube and search for some combination of "Denver," "protests," "police," "DNC" and "August 25" and you can find plenty of footage. The protesters had cameras. The cops had cameras. They videotaped each other videotaping them. The witnesses had cameras and taped them all. The protest itself was more about creating the photo op and getting the issue of police violence into the public eye.

That gave the whole scene a surreal dimension. It was a four-block lockdown over nothing. It wasn't about Iraq, human rights or reproductive rights. It was a march about the right to march, and cops kept coming. A police truck rolled up and a cop stood on top of it armed with a riot gun. The cops turned on civilians over the exercise of force, showing that they could and would use it on anyone over the slightest provocation.

The crowd wasn't only punks, the unwashed, the diehard and the combatative. The onlookers included people in sport coats, retirees, tourists and people who worked in the neighborhood. The cops didn't just turn on the provocative; they went after anybody who watched such a shameless display of force.

It's easy to find a phrase like "police state" dated or paranoid, but there's nothing like a solid, authoritarian beatdown to remind us that we need some phrase for the concept because it's not just something that happens somewhere else.

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