The violence inherent in the system - Office of Naval Contemplation
Nov. 21st, 2011
01:02 pm - The violence inherent in the system
I don't know enough about the details of each particular incident, or about policing tactics and procedures in general, to judge with confidence whether any particular police action against Occupy protesters involved excessive force. It's certainly plausible that they could and should have used less force in many cases, and I've seen video and heard firsthand account of several incidents where I strongly suspect the police used far too much force, far too soon. But that's not what this post is about. Instead, it's about the more general question of the legitimacy of the use of force by the police.
There are many ways to describe the role of government, but just about every detailed description I've encountered prominently features the organized use of force. Indeed, that's often considered the heart of very definition of a government: an organization which dominates the use of force over a certain jurisdiction. Governments do lots of things for lots of reasons, but underlying all of it is the threat of coercion: laws that are optional are requests, not laws; and taxes that are optional are suggested donations, not taxes. If you refuse to obey laws, if you refuse to pay taxes, somebody's got to come over there and make you, and that somebody is usually the police.
Suppose I come home to find an intruder in my living room (*). I've got a few options. I could offer him a beer and let him make himself at home, but that's rather unlikely. I could ask him nicely to leave, but what if he refuses? What if he tells me it's now his living room, not mine? At that point, I could simply acquiesce, but again, that's rather unlikely. I could either hit him with a crowbar until he goes away, or I could call Officer Friendly to haul him away in handcuffs.
(*) For this hypothetical, assume I have good reason to be confident he is not an invited guest of my roommate, nor is he anyone else with a legitimate reason to be there without my prior knowledge and explicit permission.
Those last two options are fundamentally equivalent. I've got a piece of paper on file with the County of Santa Clara confirming that that living room is in fact "mine". The government of the State of California has passed laws saying that assuming that paper's there and in good order, I have the right to decide who has access to my living room, and that that right justifies the use of force to eject intruders. Both the legal right to call Officer Friendly to haul the intruder off in handcuffs, and the legal right to hit the intruder in the face personally, stem from the laws of the State of California.
The intruder wasn't being violent. He was just sitting on my couch, watching my TV. It was I who initiated the use of force, or it was Officer Friendly at my behest, depending on which course of action I chose. But I'm fairly confident in either case that most independent observers would fault the intruder, not the actual initiator of the actual violence.
Now, suppose instead that one day, Officer Friendly knocks on my door and tells me that the law has changed, and the house is his now, not mine, and would I kindly clear out? Assuming the law were indeed on his side, he's got the legal right to drag me off in handcuffs if I refuse, and I do not have the legal right to bring forth my trusty crowbar and try to stop him. He probably does not have the moral right to kick me out, or at the very least the State didn't have the moral right to order him to do so, but even so it'd be highly questionably for me to respond with violent rebellion rather than appealing to the courts or the legislature.
If we go even further in our contrived hypotheticals, and Officer Friendly shows up not to Eminent Domain my house, but to haul me off to the gas chamber because I sing off-key, then he's clearly in the wrong morally, and I'd be clearly in the right to resist by any means at my disposal.
All of these are contrived examples for illustrative purposes, not in any real way a good analogy for police actions against Occupy encampments. I'll get to that later. The point of the examples being that the police are the violence inherent in the system, that it is their job to use force to ensure compliance with the rules the government makes, and that there's a fairly strong (but not infinite) presumption that they've got the moral right to use reasonable force to enforce those rules, and that the legitimacy of the use of force by the police depends largely on the legitimacy of the laws.
An important aspect of this is the moral legitimacy of the government to make the laws. In Hypothetical 2, we gave Officer Friendly a certain amount of leeway for enforcing a valid but immoral law because that law came from the State of California. But would look very different if we replace Officer Friendly with Don Vito, my friendly neighborhood mob boss, or with an officer of the Coldstream Guards acting on behalf of Queen Elizabeth. Likewise if there were a military coup in Sacramento and Officer Friendly were acting on behalf of the California Junta.
Another important factor is the appropriateness of the amount of force used to the situation, but that depends not only on the violation itself, but also on what the law-breaker does to escalate the situation. If I've driving 80 mph when the speed limit is 65, it'd be clearly unreasonable for Officer Friendly to call in a drone strike to blow up my car. However, it'd be quite reasonable for him to order me to pull over so he can verify my identity and hand me a ticket. If I neither pay the ticket nor get it overturned in court, the situation escalates, and I may wind up hauled away in handcuffs to serve a brief jail sentence in lieu of the fine. Likewise, if I speed off instead of pulling over, that also escalates the situation, and there's quite a bit more force that the police will deploy to stop me in a high-speed chase (depending on the situation, they may do so immediately on the spot, or they may simply let me go, then look up where I live based on my license plate number).
In the case of the Occupy protests, there are any number of minor laws being broken by the protesters and their encampments. The violations are relatively minor, but the laws being violated exist for good reasons. In most jurisdictions, you're not supposed to hold any large event on public property without getting a permit. There's a few reasons for this: to make sure the event isn't too disruptive to the primary intended use of the property in question (streets for traveling, parks for recreation, etc), to mitigate disruption to nearby private property from noise and other side-effects of the event, to make sure somebody takes responsibility for keeping order and coordinating with the police on how to deal with the occasional unruly yahoo, to make sure someone buys insurance to reimburse the city for any damage done by the event and its participants, to make sure there's adequate toilet facilities for the event, etc.
By and large, the Occupy encampments haven't been doing this. The authorities generally tolerated the violations for a while, but eventually city governments started deciding that they wanted their parks and streets back. Building and maintaining parks and streets is expensive, and cities spend taxpayer money on this because they believe the parks and streets to be important amenities for the residents of the cities. And in several cases, some of the protesters have been unruly and harassing (shouting abuse at passers-by, barricading intersections, etc), or even violent. So to reclaim the streets and parks for their intended uses, various city governments have cops to tell the protesters to go away. Whenever the protesters didn't leave, then we saw the violence inherent in the system. Again, I'm fairly confident that in at least some cases, the police have resorted to too much violence, too quickly, and too indiscriminately, but if the police were justified in ordering the protesters to leave, then they were also justified in using at least some level of force to enforce that order when the protesters didn't comply.
The moral of the story is: the key word in "enforce" is "force". If it's unconscionable to use violence to enforce a given law against someone who's openly violating it and refusing to stop when challenged, then the law probably shouldn't be on the books.