Originally posted to spokaneprogressives and sent to other friends…
July 4, 2007
After the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the Walker Report coined the expression, a “police riot,” to characterize the brutal repression of dissent during those unforgettable hours. American citizens exercising their Constitutionally protected First-Amendment rights to assemble and speak out against the carnage in Vietnam were met with the iron fist of the state, a scenario repeated again and again at places like Kent State and Jackson State, against the Black Panther Party everywhere and MOVE in Philadelphia, and on it goes in a list too long to rehearse now. What is demonstrated is the fundamental incompatibility of the national security state with elementary democracy, even in the limited form envisioned by the Constitution.
A generation later, with the Constitution even more imperiled than it was in that last great hour, the police state with its state security apparatus has descended on the people once more like a cloud of poison gas. The slightest expression of civil liberty suffices to provoke the hydra-headed beast to the brutality of its nightsticks, handcuffs, choke-holds, and paddy wagons.
We are choking on it right now, right here, today.
Last week (on June 27, 2007), Dan Treecraft and Rebecca Lamb merely sought to assemble for the redress of their grievances against the Attorney General of the United States. The occasion of their arrest is a scene repeated in city after city all across the land.
The black community in the US has long been weary of the grim conditions of lockdown now visited upon a tepid left, all too happy to secure the proper permits and pen themselves in the corrals known in this Time of Bush as “free speech zones,” once any one of us is even slightly emboldened to reclaim the public spaces now almost wholly given over to panoramic shopping malls and ersatz theme parks.
In our own local community, cops routinely shoot people and beat them up. I do not want to say it, except that it’s true.
You don’t want to say: pig!
You want to maintain proper decorum and civility, the high road, the civic virtues of polite discourse, only to discover that the discursive practice of the state security apparatus is Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition and the prison-industrial complex, Blackwater and Halliburton, talking and refusing to talk in the voices of a Dick Cheney, a Scooter Libby, or a Tony Snow. When you speak, then, this is how it answers: it answers with men who place themselves outside the rule of law, know no accountability for their conduct, and would as easily maim, kill, or disappear you as go to the country club for cocktails.
You would think we were in Argentina in the time of the Colonels and Chile in the time of Pinochet.
I was there today (July 4, 2007). I’ll tell you what happened on my sworn honor to tell the truth. I should have been arrested and I feel guilty that I was not. It must be remembered that the subject is youth. Bob Zeller came out in solidarity, as did Dan and Jan Treecraft. Otherwise, these young people were high-school aged, in their late teens, and in their early twenties. They are suffocating in the cloud of poison gas that has descended upon Spokane. They lack the lungs to breathe this air.
I won’t tell you how I found out that a group of young people planned to meet in Peaceful Valley under the Maple Street Bridge at five o’clock on the Fourth of July in order to stage a protest against the pandemic of police brutality. Many of the same youth had already met with police violence in Critical Mass and other ways. Many, perhaps most, dress in black. You see them gathered and you think for a minute that you’re on the Left Coast. Many wear the bandanas across their faces made famous again by the Zapatistas. They are not especially well clarified in theory and philosophy: they are broadly, roughly, and approximately anarchists. Last Fourth of July, fifty of them turned out. Today the number was greater, perhaps as many as seventy. Peaceably assembling in the park under the bridge, people talked quietly among themselves until a few minutes past five, when four brief speeches were made. The first speaker gave a history lesson on COINTELPRO. Next came a young woman to talk about the gendered dimension of police brutality today. Since I cannot help speaking, I was honored to speak next, briefly, reminding the comrades of the Battle in Seattle in 1999 and the links of this event to a global movement from Venezuela to South Africa. The last speaker presented a statistical analysis of the numbers of police dead by comparison with other workers to make the point that cops rarely die on the job. Everyone listened quietly and attentively. There was a very good vibe.
While the speeches were being made, the cops started to show up. One of them approached an organizer of the event, but the group demanded that everyone be addressed. He told us, in effect, that the police would withdraw if we followed the simple rules of pedestrian right-of-way and so forth. Everyone agreed. No one was in the mood for a confrontation with the police. Please allow me to repeat this: no one gathered was in a mood to tangle with or antagonize cops. Some speech had an antagonistic, oppositional quality to be sure, and not all speech was decorous, although I cannot recall finding a provision to the contrary in the Constitutional guarantee.
The situation is this: these young people have speech and signs; the cops have sidearms, nightsticks, and all of the other lovely accoutrements of the national security state. After all, they are the police, increasingly militarized, with the full force of the police state to back them up. I presume the young people were in the same mood I was in, having no desire to poke a stick or throw a rock at men with guns, because I figure there’s not exactly what you’d call a balance of forces.
Well then, after the speeches, we fell more or less into order and proceeded to march. The last I heard, such marches are a hallowed American tradition, and what better way to celebrate the revolutionary heritage of the Fourth of July. We kept mainly to the sidewalk, up from Peaceful Valley and into downtown Spokane. We marched around the gods of commerce with their gaudy logos and then made our way into Riverfront Park. Naturally, the park was crowded. Perhaps we took people too much by surprise to react much. It was fun, it lasted ten or maybe twenty minutes through the Park, and then we came round by the clock tower. An organizer invited us to stick around for something to eat and to talk, but the event was essentially over at this point. In fact, I had just made the reasonable decision to go home, get some dinner, walk my dogs, even feeling a little elated to find things coming off so nicely in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
We took up our space by the clock tower and some companions laid out a blanket, appropriately depicting the Flag. People began talking and eating and things were, as someone my age will be sure to say, mellow. Meanwhile, we noticed police forming a perimeter, initially I would say at a distance of about forty yards–SPD and Riverfront Park Security personnel–to the north, and then along the sidewalk to the immediate south of our location. Gradually, choreographically, the perimeter began to tighten. Pretty soon it was hard to ignore the fact that we were being surrounded by about twenty cops. I didn’t count, so I can’t be sure of the number. It was not a small number. I began to think about the talk the one cop had given us under the bridge and how compliant everyone was. But the perimeter continued to tighten, we were surrounded, and now there were two rings of cops, the first closing in on the blanket at center, the second on all points of the compass further out. Then the inner ring of cops started taking pictures with the clever little cameras we have these days, and they were positively starting to crowd the folks now hemmed in on all sides on the blanket. Some of the kids started–I would say, squawking–and then obstructing the camera lenses with the signs we’d been carrying.
You know how it is when somebody comes right up on your personal space? Being an American white “middle-class” white guy, I’m inclined to take this sort of thing as a sign of aggression. I don’t know, maybe it’s different in Hong Kong or Manhattan.
Since I was in the act of leaving at this moment, I must say I didn’t quite see exactly what happened next; I saw it, but I’m not a very good reporter (even though I co-hosted “On the Clock” for over two years with Wil, who was also there and has a much better eye for detail). I was on the outer perimeter. Suddenly, perhaps four cops bum-rushed one young man who was sitting on some kind of canister just off the blanket. Wil told me afterwards that the young man had touched a cop, which I guess was all the provocation they needed (although the whole episode had the feeling of a pretext). You’ll have to remember that the cops were steadily closing in on the blanket area and undertaking this homeland security business of snapping everyone’s picture, and by now the kids-to-cops pixels were rather high-resolution. It looked to me, in other words, like they just wanted any excuse to start roughing people up. You can see the fourteen photographs by going to the link I’ve posted below (from the SR, sent courtesy of Rebecca Lamb). They hauled this one kid off, perhaps as many as four cops heading south with him out towards Spokane Falls Boulevard.
There was a brief lull in the action. I believe people were trying to find their bearings. A crowd was beginning to gather, initially mainly in support of the kids, although as the crowd thickened, I would say to several hundred onlookers by the end, its complexion also changed and there was many a brown-shirt cheering on the cops with some of the blockheads volunteering to form a human chain.
After the lull–I was having one of those slow-motion experiences–near pandemonium set in. Cops were knocking kids down right and left. The crowd began to chant, “Let them go!” On the outer perimeter where I still was, having unsuccessfully tried to call Beverly on my little cell phone gadget to ask her whether I should try to get arrested, a goon, if I may call him that, came up to me and another friend of ours who meanwhile had shown up and could give his own account of what happened, and he told us that unless we vacated, or if we remained where we were we would be subject to arrest for criminal trespass. I’m sure there must be some legal authority for trumping up this charge. Our friend and I stayed right where we were, but it appeared that now that the cops had secured the center of the action at the blanket–under a tree, by the way, where the remaining kids had joined arms–they were cherry-picking various people off to the side to subject them to the same hospitality. So the effect was that this was happening around me but not to me.
Again, it appeared that the cops were singling out certain people on the periphery, then rushing and arresting them. I was even wearing my tee-shirt with the photograph of Fidel Castro shaking hands with Ernest Hemingway, which Wil had brought me back from Cuba; but I guess this wasn’t enough to win me a nightstick.
The SR reporter was there whose name is included below, and I gave him a somewhat impassioned statement, taking the First Amendment, peaceable assembly, free speech, civil liberties, and the Fourth of July as my themes, especially eager to point out that THE YOUNG PEOPLE HAD DONE NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO PROVOKE THE POLICE EXCEPT CONCLUDE THEIR MARCH BY GATHERING AROUND A BLANKET TO SHARE SOME FOOD AND CONVERSATION, bringing to an end what would have been AN UPLIFTING EVENT FOR THE FOURTH OF JULY IN HONOR OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY TRADITION, and a much better way to spend the afternoon than shopping in River Park Square.
Around about then, I left the park and came home, to discover that fully seventeen youth had been arrested on this gorgeous evening in Spokane.
The term, “riot,” connotes mayhem. I use the term, “near-riot” instead because police procedure on this occasion was systematic and orchestrated. It was as systematic and orchestrated as it can be when brutal thugs take out nightsticks and handcuffs and start wailing on innocent youngsters.
Ironically, the absurdly thuggish, unprovoked, and gratuitous police conduct on this occasion enacted the raison d’etre of the occasion itself, to protest police brutality. It was as if they were determined to demonstrate, almost as if it were theater, the very bill of particulars that had been brought against them.