The occupy protests have taken the spotlight in news as of late, but not for the reasons they should. Across the nation protesters are gathering to begin a peaceful revolution in the corrupt system that has been misguiding our country and our economy, steering us into this crippling recession. Unfortunately, that’s all old news. The headlines today are covering the police brutality that’s taking place against the usually harmless people who are sitting in on the demonstrations, and the country is split between horror and justification.
In most locations where protests are taking place, the local law enforcement has asked for the crowds to disperse for a wide array of reasons: sometimes it’s a traffic matter if they’re blocking roads or sidewalks, sometimes it’s a safety matter (some protesters have been killed and raped at the camps), and sometimes it’s simply a way for law enforcement to rid themselves of the nuisance the people have become, an attempt to silence the rising voice of the 99%. Most protestors believe it to be the latter, and all have refused to dissipate, bringing the tension between police officers and demonstrators to a head.
Many demonstrations have simmered into a boil as police encroach upon the gathered civilians and civilians respond by banding together and refusing to move. Some confrontations have become face to face showdowns, where police and civilians stand nose to nose waiting for the other to blink. Frustrations mount as a war of words flies between the two adversaries, and then someone makes the first move: a shove from a civilian or a baton to the stomach by an officer, and all hell breaks loose. Civilians are beaten as officers throw punches, jab their batons, and pepper spray the living daylights out of the crowds.
Given the excitement, the massive numbers of the crowds and officers, and the muddle of the two meshed together in extremely close proximity, 20 years ago it would have been difficult to know who started what, which side was justified, and who was the innocent party. But in this day and age, thanks to the incredible advancements in technology (and let’s face it, even with the simplest of inventions like cameras) one does not have to be Sherlock Holmes to realize in most cases, the police are using excessive force in trying to “regain control” of the crowds, some of which weren’t out of control to begin with, for example a group of students at Northern California’s UC Davis. Protestors sat on the ground, arms interlocked, refusing to move as police officers circled and marched along the line like power drunk dictators. Suddenly, completely unprovoked, officers began shooting pepper spray over the heads and in the faces of the peaceful individuals. Many ducked, most had their heads covered with their jacket hoods, but if you’ve ever been around a fresh cloud of pepper spray, you don’t need it to be shot directly in your face, you don’t even need to be present when it is sprayed for it to have an effect on you, stinging your eyes and burning your throat as you breathe in the residual vapor that lingers in the air.
Other protests have resulted in harmless non-violent civilians being pepper sprayed as well, including 84 year old Dorli Rainy, and a priest. Elizabeth Nichols (pictured above) said a police officer actually began the dispute by jabbing her in the ribs with a baton then pressing it against her throat. When she reacted verbally by shouting at the officer that she was being mistreated, she was met with a steady stream of pepper spray at approximately a range of no more than two feet.
Driving out to dinner tonight with my dad, he had the car radio tuned to his favorite talk show, and they were discussing the typical debate of whether the force was necessary. Some on the show agreed that police are justified to react to any violence portrayed by the demonstrators. “What are you going to do when you have people standing right up in your face, shouting, spitting, and shoving you? Are you going to stand there and let them shove you and spit in your face? You do what you have to do,” said one. And I sat, thinking, "you couldn’t be more wrong."
I’ve frequently and very recently discussed my experiences working in group homes with troubled teens and the violence we were usually faced with when intervening in their crises or simply being in the way when they were having a bad day. The rules were clear: do not ever put your hands on a client, do not ever use physical force unless they are a clear and immediate danger to themselves or others. Such work is a high stress job and it takes a very patient and dedicated individual to do it and do it well. Usually, employees like this were in short supply, thus the several reports that speckled the news headlines when teens were dying in restraints in various facilities; employees who lost their cool and patience and used too much force. But at our facilities, the preceding policy usually meant if you had a client in your face screaming and shouting, if you had a client spit at you, or if you had a client shove you with minimal-moderate force (if they didn’t shove you hard enough to make you fall down), you were expected to take it, walk away, or call group therapy. Sometimes, even more violent behavior was tolerated, simply because you managed to keep your cool or because restraints require a minimum of two attending staff members and you were alone. Whatever the case, there were several times I was threatened and injured without resigning to physical force: being pushed down the stairs, being cut with a small piece of glass, being slammed into a wall, being hit with a metal folding chair and other various pieces of furniture, the list goes on.
Of course it’s easier to maintain one’s self-control when starting at 0, but what happens when you’re rushing towards 60? Many cases of police brutality occur after a high intensity event, such as car chases, or during riots or stand offs, when the adrenaline is rushing and some claim it's hard to maintain control. Well, sorry boys, but that’s usually bullshit too. There were plenty of moments where we were forced to engage in restraints at our facility, those moments where they were a danger to themselves or others; at one time in our facility when we housed a few more colorful characters, we were engaging in, on average, 15 restraints a week, sometimes as many as four restraints on four different clients in one day. Of course company policy also stated if it was determined to be required, place them in a restraint that would immobilize them, NOT harm them, making sure to never use more force than necessary. This meant stop them, get them to the ground or wall, and hold their arms and legs still until they calmed down, making sure they could breathe and their circulation was adequate at all times. Now at times, restraints did not go smoothly. Sometimes the clients were difficult to get on the ground. Sometimes there was a chase or a great struggle before they could be effectively immobilized. Sometimes their struggles and attempts to break free resulted in their own injuries. Our adrenaline was usually pumping by the time we hit the floor, and with a kick to the face or chest, a bite on the hand, or a sudden grasp of hair that is quickly ripped from your scalp, the test of maintaining your calm becomes almost impossible.
But we were trained to handle those moments, to avoid reaching what our training supervisor called the level of “pisstivity”. Now everyone’s human, everyone makes mistakes. I recall the moment when I finally reached my level of pisstivity with a client. She had attempted to strangle me with a lanyard draped around my neck. After trying to evade her until I was backed into a corner, I finally went into a wall restraint with her and another staff member. She was too strong for us to hold against the wall so we transferred her to the floor, where she proceeded to struggle for the next 30 minutes, biting me on the hand twice. After she claimed she was calm, we allowed her up. She slowly rose to her feet, straightened her clothing, then turned to me and snapped “Bitch! You can’t hold me down!” and shoved me with brute force. I flew back and slammed into a steel pole, my head flying back and cracking against the metal. We immediately resumed a wall restraint and at one point, as we struggled with her, I became fed up and forced her to the wall a bit harder than I needed to. It went unnoticed by the belligerent teen, but I still felt guilty when all had passed.
It’s reasonable to assume that at some point, even a police officer is going to be pushed to the brink; they are, after all, human. But if anyone should be better trained in maintaining their cool in high-stress situations, and using appropriate force at appropriate times, it’s those who have to face these types of behaviors on a regular basis. If people who are given guns, batons, and pepper spray can’t be trusted to use it effectively, why the hell are we giving them these things? Why are we entrusting our safety to people who have no knowledge of how to provide and maintain it? They are given weapons and limitless power, practically free of consequence and responsibility. But someone needs to remind them that having power doesn’t make you powerful. Having the power to control yourself is true strength.