The recent spate of mass arrests and brutality at various Occupy demonstrations is not a matter of bad cops like John Pike or even bad politicians like Michael Bloomberg. Tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets have occurred throughout the US over the last ten years, as a result of a new theory of crowd control, coming from the broken windows approach toward ordinary crime.
The interest for consensus urbanism is that although the approach seems geared toward protecting consensus values, in reality the values the police is protecting are manufactured from scratch, and are only shared by a minority that treats itself as normal. There is no social consensus leading to the police approach toward public protest – indeed, public sympathy toward Occupy Wall Street soared after the first mass arrest. The new authoritarian approach is the result of an internal development within law enforcement. Just as a truly consensual urban space needs to have ample opportunities for individuality (as opposed to just individualism), community policing needs to treat communication with the people as a two-way avenue.
Although there are sporadic media reports of protester violence, in reality both my and my friends’ observations of nonviolence at the encampments and the history of the past ten years suggest otherwise. In brief: on the heels of the anti-globalization protest in Seattle in 1999, police departments decided that their previous strategy of good-faith negotiations with protesters had failed, and switched to a strategy of surveillance, free speech zones, and selective use of arrests and non-lethal violence, including pepper spray. Under this strategy, communication is one-way, and negotiations with authority are pointless, as anti-war protesters discovered in 2003 when they were denied permits despite months of negotiation. As with broken-windows policing, the police treats protests as disorderly conduct that must be punished in order to promote middle-class values.
The part about middle-class values is where consensus versus authoritarianism comes into play. Although middle-class values seem like consensus, they really are not in this case. In contrast with the broken-windows policing of turnstile jumping and similar petty quality-of-life crimes, in which much of the impetus came from community requests, in the case of protesting the violence comes entirely top-down.
The creation of a fictitious middle-class mentality that considers all protest distasteful masks how much of a minority interest it is. The Progressive movement needed to create a middle-class American identity from scratch and impose it on immigrants and other tenement dwellers (to the point of opposing tenement improvement efforts, which would distract from the need to suburbanize); French nationalists needed to impose Parisian French on a country that did not speak it; modern-day police departments impose conformity and distaste for protest on a population that dreads unemployment and has rock-bottom approval for such major institutions as Congress. Everyone is a deviant in one way or another. At best, what society can do short of recognizing this fact is to list special personal interests and weird habits that are more acceptable, and relegate the others to people’s private homes.
The importance of solving the problem of police authoritarianism by consensus is that doing it any other way will just replace one master with another. To me, nonviolence, consensus, and democracy are not just abstract values. They come from the impossibility of improving things by force. Any political force powerful enough to control the police is by definition more powerful than the police, which means it will be able to exercise even more control over people; this is why communist revolutions always result in repression. The only way to improve the situation is to make the political force one that is comprised of ordinary people rather than an elite vanguard, and one that works by persuasion and communication rather than by raw power.
Update: I forgot to talk about this, but one way to see that the cops really do see themselves as values enforcers is their behavior toward cyclists. Anyone who occasionally reads Streetsblog will be able to cite multiple examples in which cops were lenient toward drivers who blocked bike lanes or even ran over pedestrians or doored or hit cyclists (and in one case ran over a pedestrian themselves), and multiple other examples in which they were treated lawful cyclist behavior as illegal or clipped bikes for trumped-up reasons and harassed their owners. All of these examples are from New York except the cop who ran over a pedestrian, who’s from Jersey City. This is a city in which drivers are a minority, and yet they’re considered Us, whereas cyclists are Them: hipsters, radicals, immigrants, Europeans. Not only are cops upholding a set of values rather than the law, but also those aren’t even consensus values.