Police and Occupy

The image of UC Davis officer John Pike holding high the can and giving peaceful Occupy Davis protesters a mouthful of orange pepper spray has, like so many other images, become part of the growing Occupy iconography surrounding police brutality. These attacks are surely disproportionate and appalling; that people peacefully occupying space should incur such violence is incredibly disconcerting.

At the same time, the fact that these responses have become a sort of cause célèbre for occupy is also worrying. Whether the assessment is that police intervention proves the success of occupy actions, or that it has somehow disrupted the current symbolic order in some manner, the focus on direct actions that take aim at police raises the critical question: what does provoking police actually accomplish towards the ends of Occupy?

What I want to do here is approach the question at hand through a number of specific cases of policing organizations and institutions, particularly that of Egypt (specifically in Cairo) and Wisconsin’s own 2011 February–March occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Although I’m just able to sketch the outline of this problem here, the basic point I want to get at is that as long as police are “close” to federal state power, and that power seems illegitimate, then the battle with police makes more sense politically. Otherwise the fight has a great risk at being ineffective and seen as such.


If you’re familiar with the Egyptian blogosphere, you’re familiar with Wael Abbas. Wael started blogging in 2004 or 2005 at his blog Misr Digital. He was one of the first bloggers who began to document the systematic abuses of Egyptian police — against people temporarily detained at police stations and tortured underground in the bases of the Ministry of the Interior. Some of the initial videos of torture at police stations appeared on his site — grainy cellphone videos of screaming victims hogtied and abused, or a victim showing the fresh welts on his back.

Prior to the revolution, the liberal and reform blogosphere, along with the Kefaya and April 6 movements, focused on police brutality and surveillance, amongst issues of economic justice and government corruption. This work came to a head when, in June 2010, 28-year old Khaled Said was beaten to death in front of an Internet café in the port city of Alexandria. As the official police story goes, he was questioned about possessing drugs in said café and swallowed them to evade detection. The already suspicious story was dashed to bits once images of Said’s distorted face, torn skin and broken teeth, surfaced. The story now is well-worn — the creation of the Facebook group bearing his name “We Are All Khaled Said,” the Google executive Wael Ghonim acting as one of several co-administrators, the emergence of the January 25 Facebook event to coincide with the national “Police Day” holiday, all as factors that culminated in revolutionary activity and the unseating of Hosni Mubarak.

Although it’s important to talk about how discourses of police brutality emerge and help to shape how we view these institutions, what I want to try to draw a line through here is more of the character of the institution itself. I am drawing on information and testimonial from Human Rights Watch reports and my own conversations with protesters and activists from Egypt. Like any kind of organization or body of organizations, the police in Egypt are far from homogeneous. The Central Security Forces (the ‘amn markazy) act as a riot police were quite successful at repelling protesters until January 25. These are the guys clad in all black that you’ve inevitably seen in the pictures coming from Cairo. More behind the scenes are the State Security Investigations (SSI, ‘amn al-dawla, or the mukhabarat), which acts as an intelligence organization. SSI (now conveniently called “National Security” after the revolution) is notorious for detaining dissidents on their way into the country, at their homes, and paying plain clothes informants to watch known activists, and acting as agent provocateurs in protests.

Although there’s a bit of heterogeneity here, the basic ministry that oversees all of these agencies is the Ministry of the Interior (dakhalia). The important thing to note is that it’s a ministry at the national level. It’s controlled by someone who is institutionally close to the Prime Minister and the ruling regime. When the initial calls for the January 25 protest went out, it wasn’t just Mubarak’s head they asked for. It was him and his former Interior Minister, Habib El-Adly. El-Adly is now on trial to be held accountable for the deaths of the revolution’s martyrs.

This kind of proximity from the police to the regime is why it makes sense to put pressure on police. In the midst of the November and December clashes in Tahrir, with protesters demanding the end of military rule, Prime Minister Essem Sharaf resigned in disgrace, although only to be replaced by a Mubarak-era fossil in the form of Kamal Ganzouri. Although it may have been a matter of replacing a good man who didn’t want part of this regime (many protesters would consider Sharaf at least trying to do what he could with severe constraints) with a more pliable one, the basic point is that confronting the police caused some kind of movement within state structures.

The second part of this story is legitimacy. The police force in Egypt is reviled for its self-serving incompetence and corruption. A friend of mine recounted a story about how once a former cleaning woman had stolen some of her jewelry. She told the police about it, and even after she had given them the woman’s address, they had done nothing. Almost all the people I’ve spoken to have talked about the police mentality — the Egyptian people were serving them, and not vice versa. This is what made the notion of a revolution on “Police Day” so appealing; on this day that the police were supposed to be celebrated, fighting them in the streets had more appeal.


Policing in the US is a bit of a different matter. Policing agencies that protesters interact with are defined mostly at the local and state levels, notwithstanding the recent debate on agency coordination between Naomi Wolf and Joshua Holland. And for the most part, or rather in dominant discourses, police are seen as legitimate and serving the public interest.

What I can say is as a protester and occupier during the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol during February and March of 2011, the police that we dealt with were first mostly the Capitol police with backup from many different local policing agencies. In those first days, the Capitol police took a rather hands-off approach to policing — engaging protesters instead of using force, using words instead of batons. A few nights into the occupation, when police started taking down posters and stirred up a huge outcry from those protesters who were still awake, a group of occupiers met daily with Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs to discuss safety, public health, and whatever concerns both groups had.

This kind of tack is known as “negotiated management” in the policing literature — using as little force as possible in crowd control, with force reserved in the absolute last resort. It’s a smart maneuver on the part of police agencies. First, for the most part, protesters don’t engage in direct action that challenges the boundaries of police authority. Last year, in Wisconsin, protesters pushed back very little, the most extreme event being the brief sit-in in front of the vestibule leading to the Assembly chambers. Protesters were carried out by state troopers but not charged (more on state troopers in a second). It also puts legitimacy strongly on the side of police. Protesters look obstinate in the face of a negotiated and orderly policing operation. And the newspapers don’t get that above-the-fold image of an officer striking — or spraying — a peaceful protester in the face.

On the brief sit-in: the state troopers in Wisconsin were seen in a more precarious and less legitimate position by protesters. State troopers are under the state’s Department of Transportation, but by protesters, were seen to be under the direction of the Governor-controlled Department of Administration. My sense is that the Secretary of Administration, Mike Huebsch — a crony of Governor Scott Walker who another unionist referred to disdainfully as “the twerp” — was able to exercise more control over the state troopers than the Capitol police, although the Capitol police are directly under the supervision of his agency. Compare this to Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, who, when Walker put the Capitol under pseudo-lockdown, remarked that “[his] deputies will not be palace guards.” I venture that this wasn’t out of any solidarity with the protesters, even though Madison cops came out to march with them. Instead, Mahoney and Tubbs knew that Walker was putting them in a situation in which negotiated management would break down, and would create a situation that could easily escalate. Moreover, this kind of autonomy between policing organizations means that putting on pressure on one doesn’t necessarily put pressure on the others. They’ve got different hierarchies and different people to report to.

Occupy’s Police Problem

The problem with casting a battle against police is that police can be highly differentiated organizations. It matters where you are and how they’re set up. They can be the most ruthless, corrupt organizations, but they can be on our side. In the US, trying to battle them is often going to blow up in our faces.

To put it crudely, it’s a matter of tactics, whether we choose to chant “Join us!” at police or face them black bloc-style. But the reality is facing US police with homemade shields and black bandanas tied around our mouths probably is not going to shake any foundations of any structures — political or economic. If anything, it further delegitimizes police only for those already most harmed by them, like minorities in Oakland and New York. That may be a worthy goal — after all, the success of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer was predicated on getting hundreds of mostly white, idealist college students to “dramatize” (Doug McAdam’s word) the starkness of denial civil rights abuses in the South.

But if the goal is to put pressure on the state and its corporate clients vis-a-vis the institutions of policing, I don’t see the same thing playing well in Peoria. Or Madison, for that matter.