On Monday a New York jury found Occupy Wall Street activist Cecily McMillan guilty of felony assault on police officer Grantley Bovell, during a protest in New York’s Zucotti park on March 17, 2012. McMillan was convicted of deliberately elbowing Bovell in the face, during a violent police assault on a protest to mark the six-month anniversary of the Occupy movement.
A graduate student from the New School, McMillan claimed that she instinctively elbowed Bovell without knowing who he was a police officer, after someone grabbed her right breast. Videos of the protest show McMillan in handcuffs lying on the street, apparently having a seizure, while police look on. Another photograph shows her with bruises on her right breast.
These claims were dismissed by the prosecution, which accused McMillan of lying and fabricating her injuries. Evidence that Bovell had a history of excessive use of force was excluded from the trial. The jury saw a grainy video which appeared to show McMillan elbowing Bovell, it did not see he police assault that preceded it. A reporter from the New York Times witnessed the events that night, in which:
‘Officers pushed the crowd until more than 100 protesters on the sidewalk were pressed against a wall that borders the park. Then the police began grabbing and arresting people, taking into custody at least half a dozen. Officers surged into the crowd, dragging protesters toward the street, as people yelled objections…One sergeant grabbed a woman wearing a green shirt by the bottom of her throat and shoved her head against the hood of a car. A moment later, another officer approached and forcefully pressed her head against the car before placing her into the back of a police truck.’
It is worth recalling that this operation was directed at a peaceful protest that was more like a street party, yet the jaw-dropping upshot of it all is that McMillan now faces the prospect of a seven-year jail sentence.
Criticisms of this grotesque verdict have rightly focussed on the issue of police impunity. But the violent assault on Zucotti Park is also a symptom of a wider tendency to use disproportionate force in the policing of protest that has become increasingly prevalent in many countries since the 2008 financial crisis, in which police have tended to respond to protests like soldiers dealing with an enemy.
The militarisation of the policing of protest is not new in itself. Precedents can be found in the 1983-84 British miners strike; in the 1998 Seattle protests against the WTO, in the savage assault by Italian police on protesters at the Genoa G-8 summit in 2001. In the last decade or so however, militarisation has increasingly pervaded all areas of law enforcement.
Last month even the resolutely establishment Economist criticized the tendency of the US police to carry out commando-style ‘no knock raids’ for relatively minor non-violent crimes, using battering rams and flash-bang grenades. The Economist found evidence of militarisation in the growth of SWAT teams, in police expenditure on body armour, helments and armoured cars, and the ‘ martial tone’ of police recruitment and training materials, with an emphasis on headlocks, assault rifles, chasing suspects and the use of dogs.
Its reporters attributed these developments in part to the availability of ‘Federal cash—first to wage war on drugs, then on terror’, and noted the frequently lethal consequences of militarised law enforcement that was primarily confined to low-income sectors of American society, which bore the brunt of the gratuitously violent SWAT raids of the type celebrated in dozens of films and cop shows.
The 2008 financial crisis has fuelled the tendency of the American police, and police forces across the world, to resort to extreme violence and quasi-military tactics in response to popular protest. In Catalonia the regional government has just passed a law banning the use of rubber bullets, after seven people have lost an eye in the last few years, one of whom was an Italian football supporter who was shot during the celebrations in Barcelona of Spain’s World Cup victory in 2010.
In Greece, police violence against protesters have included one incident in which a policeman hit a demonstrator over the head with a fire extinguisher.
Such incidents don’t happen by accident, or because a few police officers have lost control. Militarized policing is a tactical and political choice. It is the inevitable blunt instrument of austerity, and its growing use is an indication of the prevailing nervousness amongst the corrupt and discredited financial elites that have attempted to ‘police the crisis’, as the late Stuart Hall once put it in a different context.
Truncheons, batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and extra-legal ‘kettling’ are only one component of this process. Because the corrollary of militarised policing is impunity for the police themselves, supported by politicians and enforced and guaranteed through supine courts that will always acquit police officers and find excuses for them, no matter what they do.
The grotesque verdict handed out to Cecily McMillan is just one more example of this tendency.