martes, 4 de marzo de 2014

On the Role of the Police in Popular Protests

Four months ago, when all the popular unrest now in full force was still quite dialed down, I wrote a piece on why the new wars which are fought in the cities are to be won by the police forces instead of the military. It is something I still deeply believe, seeing as the military forces are not designed or trained for urban combat. Moreover, their urban combat skills are mostly composed of an elaborate, albeit easier (if only on paper), hide-and-seek game with tall, intricate structures that may collapse far easier than a tree or a forest ever would. But the techniques the military uses in urban combat are pretty much the same seek-and-destroy that works in the open field.

Now, considering that the police is a public, rather than a military force, it owes it to the people to protect it and defend it against any enemy. In this sense it is quite different from the military, inasmuch as the latter answers to the constitutional and the legal structure of the country which it defends, whereas the former is the people’s response to any threat at its level. For that reason, the police is better suited to fight the city-based war.
But then 2014 came, and Venezuela and Ukraine began seeing their share of popular uprisings with their normal dose of repressions, carried out by the police. As it happens, it is the local administration that stifles the protests by violent means using the police as its vehicle. See, here lies part of the problem with democracy as it exists today: the people elect the mayor of the city, who is also the commander in-chief of the police forces attached to the city. But the mayor does not necessarily represent the people’s wishes, or at least not the majority in atomized party systems (like in my Bogotá).
This being the case, the police acting against the inhabitants of the cities -which is to say in very abstract terms that the people is attacking itself-, it adds up to an ignorant state/city, oblivious to what the real unrest is. An example that turned out to be too public and graphic for me was what the Ukrainian police officers did once President Yanukovich fled the country to Russia.
Police officers apologize on their knees for repression
To many, this may have been just the right thing to do, as it were the police officers who beat up and bloodied up many rioters in Ukraine. But there are two standpoints that are being overlooked by this perspective: that the police officers were acting under orders, a concept that results a foreign one to anyone not a (former) member of a military or police force; that the police officers are men and women who have families and lives to care for, and that being police officers is their job. It seems unfitting that a person who is doing what they know how to do best, or in some cases the only thing they know how to do and the means whereby they bring food to their homes and families, has to apologize for it. And in public, of all settings.
Of course, there will be those who see this act of public contrition by the Ukrainian police officers as an attempt to get in the good grace of the people, fearing an upcoming purge in which they would sustain the greatest number of casualties. And they may well be right. But personally I see it as a very dangerous precedent.
Dissecting further the standpoints presented above: The members of a force always take an oath which binds them to obey the orders given to them, so long as those orders pursue a greater good, be it safety or stability. Sometimes those orders will include attacking a person in clear disobedience of the law, a bad element in the organization of society. And though this realization might make compliance with the order somewhat reasonable for the police officer, that does not mean they feel any better for having to do it. Be it mentioned here too that police officers and members of the military are removed from society (they are forbidden to vote) and taken into the bosom of the state/city administration to be used as its strong arm. As such, they act in representation of the state/city, not in their own name.
Now, in Venezuela there are still many protests underway, which are also being repressed by force using the police and the military. I do not think the Venezuelan police will ever apologize publicly. Rather, the long-standing social unrest in Venezuela, supported internationally, will more likely develop into a full fledged revolt with the police and the military in on the action. Remember that the crises affects all, police and civilian alike.
In Bogotá, Colombia there have recently been a couple of protests over the poor public transportation service. In like fashion as those in Ukraine and Venezuela, these protests have also turned violent and have been responded to using the police. The protests have occurred as a natural result of the frustration of not being able to catch a bus a mere three blocks away from the main station. That situation has left many bogotanos arriving late to work and school all over the city, which understandably has sparked off citizen anger. I do not believe launching a police attack on the protesting citizens was the right thing to do. But it happened, under orders.
For many people, doing police work for a living seems unthinkable. It is deemed as low, backstabbing and disloyal. “Pigs” are sometimes called the men and women who do this kind of work. I have never agreed with those names. Why would you call someone a pig (and many other derogatory terms) for doing their job?

Take a traffic police officer: you are driving too fast and he stops you and writes you a ticket. You call him a pig because he stopped you and because he is making you pay for your mistake. How on earth is that his fault? But you forget that that police officer is also a human being, who is subject to the very same problems you are subject to. He might be tired, sad, depressed, going through a divorce, having issues with his children, you name it. That police officer is also a person, like you.
Take a riot control officer. You are masked and throwing homemade bombs against a building, possibly damaging official property (paid for with your taxes, mind) and endangering other people’s  lives and yours. He stops you and cuffs you preventively for your protection. For that you call him a pig. But you forget that that police officer is also a human being, subject to the same problems as you are and susceptible to anger, exhaustion and frustration, much like you.

Police forces should not feel afraid to do their job, but supported and thanked by the people they risk their lives to protect. No less important is the need for people, rioters and observers alike, to remember that police officers are human too, susceptible to making mistakes and having feelings, and in need of keeping their jobs.
The role of the police in the face of popular protests and riots is clear, and that is not about to change. This piece is not by any means a call to change that. What I find worrisome and threatening to the social fabric of society is the fact that police forces are found in the position of apologizing and being blamed and sacrificed for doing their job, which is protecting the people from whom they came, and whom they serve.