Last weekend I watched and read about the aftermath of the Oakland police department's decision to forcibly remove camped out protesters. At the time this struck me as a very strange choice on the part of the city. The Storm Troopers of America approach to dispersing peaceful crowds is public relations suicide when every cell phone is a still and video camera. To wit, it didn't take long for video of the serious wounding of a protester and Iraq War veteran to contradict the official line that he was injured by other protesters throwing rocks and bottles. Even absent anything exceptional happening, the standard "cops beating and tear gassing people" footage tends to reflect poorly on city leaders.
Our government at every level makes decisions with public relations in mind and a media strategy in place. This media strategy seemed odd to say the least. Police have learned a few tricks since Chicago '68, namely how to break up crowds without resorting to medieval battle tactics. There are ways to deal with "noncompliant" people that don't produce these Twitter-friendly pics of projectile injuries (If you've ever been paintballing, you know goddamn well what that person's bruise is from.) Cops are not renowned for their brilliance, but someone in the room when this decision was made had to be smart enough to realize that this was a PR blunder in the making.
Looking back, that was something of a naive reaction on my part. Just as the removal of the protesters had nothing to do with permits or whatever official excuse is proffered, the use of force in doing it has nothing to do with the nature of the protest. It's about a different kind of public relations. Police appear with their full array of paramilitary gear for the same reason that people painted their faces and chanted before going to battle thousands of years ago. It's about intimidation and sending a message about who is in charge.
Sure, there's an initial wave of bad publicity when the images hit the news. But people forget quickly, and the story becomes just another reminder to know one's place. Never forget who is in charge or what awaits you if you challenge it, however ineffectually. Then the media goes to work, encouraging the usual victim blaming mentality – If the police told them to leave and they didn't, then anything the police did to them is their own fault, you see – and smear tactics (Dirty hippies! Potheads! Anarchists! Malcontents!) to convince about a third of us that it's a damn good thing that the police did what they did. The suburbanites terrified of the outside world and the blue hairs who love nothing more than young, preferably brown people being arrested make up the bulk of this group. It also includes the elites who see the police for exactly what they are – the security force of the status quo. It's not a huge group of people in total, but they vote and elected officials care what they think.
There is a message. In the short term, the message is that the police are out of control. In the long term, it's that they are firmly in control. They got what they wanted and the protesters didn't. As someone put it many years ago, "Go back to bed, America! Your government is in control. Keep drinking beer, you morons. Watch Love Connection or something. Get fat and stupid."