The images of police in riot gear advancing on unarmed US citizens is nothing new. But for the first time, with Ferguson and the police crackdown on protests, including the arrests of journalists and the gassing of a senator, the wider population is starting to pay attention. For the first time, they aren’t widely dismissing police violence with “well, obviously, the police are just doing their job.” For perhaps the first time, the protest is nonpartisan; it’s not only some of the right or some of the left that is upset about the conduct of the police. It’s almost everyone.
And for good reason. Which means it’s a good time to revisit just how widespread and ongoing this problem is. You’ve probably heard of the WTO protests. You’ve probably heard about SWAT teams accidentally bombing infants and swarming the wrong houses looking for drugs. But there’s more — there’s always much more of this sort of thing that got ignored because the people who were targeted didn’t appear sympathetic enough. For example: you’ve probably never heard of the incident on July 18 1993, in Portland, Oregon. On that day, police in riot gear preemptively blocked off the X-Ray cafe in downtown Portland, having been (probably incorrectly) tipped off that in the crowd of people exiting the venue after a punk rock show, there were going to be instigators of violence.
According to multiple eyewitness sources, some of which I won’t be citing, the police refused to let anyone leave or even tell anyone why they were there, and they blockaded Burnside to ensure nobody snuck away. They did mention something about the crowd “filling up the sidewalk,” which was apparently bad, but not so bad they would let them disperse. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, well, it’s because it is. Some of the crowd did the hokey pokey in front of the police line to try to diffuse the situation. Some started shouting at the police: they were “working-class sell-outs,” they oppressed their fellow man at the behest of those in power. Some started digging bricks out of the side of the wall they were being held against in case things got ugly. Many of the crowd were punk rockers and anarchists, replete with dreadlocks and piercings. There’s a brief documentary of this with several minutes of footage and interviews starting at the 3:16 mark of this video. At some point, the police decided the crowd was getting too agitated, and decided to remedy the situation by spraying everyone with tear gas — or gas of some kind, mace, possibly. The crowd tried to walk away collectively and pandemonium broke out; someone broke a window, then two. Most of the crowd tried to run from the police, and many were chased down, bashed with batons and combat boots, and arrested. There were so many arrests, the police chartered a bus to hold everyone.
They were charged with rioting, which is a Class C Felony in the State of Oregon. The newspapers reported the only facts about the defendants that they appeared to find salient: the defendants were “self-styled anarchists.”
The word, used as a pejorative, dehumanized and cast these young people as lawless criminals. However, anarchism is nothing more or less than a (largely misunderstood) political theory. Leo Tolstoy was a Christian anarchist who strongly believed in “non-resistance to evil,” and his writings on the subject influenced Gandhi — specifically the call for nonviolent protest of the British occupation of India. Though there are some anarchists who call for using any means necessary to gain ground, just as in any political movement, many or most of them currently are devoted to peace. Though there are some anarchists who take a more individualistic view of politics, many are more accurately called anarcho-syndicalists, in that they aspire to a communal society with no overlords. This is different than libertarianism because anarchists do not believe in the authority of the state, not even to grant liberties. This is different than communism because anarchists are suspicious of power, and believe that if you give anyone the power of the people, the power will begin to supersede the people. Anarchists theorize about a society where intellectuals are not considered to be better than craftsmen or workers, and propose a sort of rotating system where everyone shares the burden of decision-making. Cops, for example, are taken from the general population; everyone takes a turn patrolling. Anarchists tend to be fond of George Orwell and Henry David Thoreau.
Anarchists tend to identify with (and some even are) homeless people; the aforementioned Portland anarchists had, in fact, had run-ins with police previously — over feeding the homeless without a permit.
Which brings us back to the legal trouble the “rioters” found themselves in. They were held, and some were released on bail, though not before they’d lost their jobs due to not showing up to work for a couple of days. Some pleaded guilty to diminished charges. Some demurred; five were subsequently taken to court in State v. Chakerian. The case notes that “A person commits the crime of riot if while participating with five or more other persons the person engages in tumultuous and violent conduct and thereby intentionally or recklessly creates a grave risk of causing public alarm.” Judge Janet Wilson dismissed the case on the grounds that the statue was “unconstitutionally overbroad,” and the demurrers were free to go. Of the five charged, I tracked down two; one is married with two children and is now a Jack Johnson fan; the other is divorced with two children and runs a small business. They both look entirely middle-class. The statute, however, was upheld in an appeal and is still part of Oregon law.
What is interesting about the Oregon statute is that by that standard, the police should have been charged with rioting; they moved in unprovoked in riot gear and gassed people. That seems to fit the standard of recklessly creating “a grave risk of causing public alarm,” at a bare minimum.
What is also interesting is that, as far as police and public opinion went, the youth were largely presumed guilty due to their political beliefs, their taste in music and their clothing. Try to imagine the same amount of stigma being attached to being a Christian, a metalhead, or even an Abercromie-wearing frat boy. Try to imagine being arrested for, essentially, attending the wrong concert and thinking the wrong things. In the United States of America.
This stigma is not isolated; public records, again in Oregon, show agents trailing totally peaceful anarchists and even random Subarus and participants of organic grow-op markets because of their loose association with anarchism. Again, try to imagine the same amount of stigma being attached to being a Christian, a metalhead, or even an Abercromie-wearing frat boy. Imagine being followed by the FBI because you shop at the Christian bookstore instead of the local co-op.
For most of the population, this has yet to happen. For the lowest on the totem pole, however, this has been happening for years. There’s no crime that people accept so readily as the crime of looking just a little too weird.