Have you or anyone you know ever been made to feel safer in the presence of Riot Police? No? That's what I thought.
I hate Riot Cops. Maybe, as individuals, some of them are great. I don't know, because I'm mostly terrified of speaking them. Their presence alone automatically elevates a situation to unnecessary levels of militaristic fear and panic. If there are Riot Cops around, then there is an expectation that something is going to go down — something akin to a "riot." The general police force could have any number of reasons to anticipate this kind of chaos. Maybe some of those reasons are even legitimate. But the mere presence of Riot Police almost always guarantees that a riot will take place. Because that's what their real function is. That's what they want.
Riot Police exist to incite riots. I'm sorry if this sounds paranoid, but it's true. Yes, we're trained from birth to trust police, and depending on who you are (read: how you dress and the color of your skin), you can generally trust them. But when men show up with batons and shields, dressed in armor that looks like something out of a dystopian science fiction film, no one feels any safer. Instead, you feel intimidated and scared. And that's exactly what they want. Riot Police are trained in crowd dispersal tactics — regardless of why a group of people are gathered, the Riot Police arrive because someone in power does not want that group there. So they call in the SWAT Teams to do what they do best: break up the (usually peaceful) gathering by causing people to panic, which leads them to irrational decisions, which then turns into a "riot" and justifies any and all use of excessive force.
I'm writing this now in the wake of the situation in Ferguson, MO, which has arisen in response to the unnecessary slaughter of an unarmed black teenager by police, just because he was being black in the wrong place at the wrong time. The people in the neighborhood are understandably upset the situation, and have gathered together to make their voices heard. So naturally, the response is to call in the Riot Police to quell the justifiable uprising of outraged people.
That's right. Behind the fence of their own property, people put their hands up — and a Riot Cop still shoots them with a tear gas bomb. Because clearly the best way to deal with a group of people who are upset about excessive and unnecessary police violence and the murder of a neighbor is...to shoot them, too? Yes, that's going to solve the problem. Of course it is. (And that's to say nothing of the obvious racial issues that are prevalent all over the case of Mike Brown's death, which plenty of people smarter than me have already written about and discussed)
And if you want to talk about "non-lethal" weaponry, I'll remind you that a girl at my college was killed by a riot cop's pepper spray pellet my freshman year, after the Red Sox won the ALCS against the Yankees. She wasn't even destroying property or flipping over cars — the pepper spray pellets were shot out at random to make the crowd disperse, and one happened to hit her in the eye. That wouldn't have happened if the scene hadn't devolved into absolute chaos. But why did it turn from rowdy college kids roaming the streets, into a full-fledged riot? Because the riot cops started shooting pepper spray pellets and bean bags into the crowd.
When a man in heavy armor starts shooting at you, you tend to act irrationally, because you kind of start fearing for your life. And that's exactly their intention. Because you've started to panic — maybe one person throws a glass bottle in self-defense — then in their minds, it has become a full-fledged, and the are justified in doing whatever the hell they want in order to bring it to an end.
To clarify: gatherings of people turn into riots when Riot Police insert themselves into the situation and exacerbate and instigate the crowd until they start to riot. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I should also point that after the Boston SWAT Police killed Victoria Snelgrove that night, they decided that the best way to prevent further problems during the course of the World Series would be...to prematurely deploy more Riot Cops all around the Fenway area. Because that sure made us feel even more safe!
No, I have no idea why I'm making that face. Probably because I'm terrified because I tried talking to the nice Riot Cops and they yelled at and threatened me in response.
Last year when I attended the Clarion Writer's Workshop at UC San Diego, there were several other camps and summer programs on the campus as well. The Soccer Camp kids were lovely, the "Future Leaders of America" camp spent a lot of time making out in the bushes and singing Katy Perry and generally making me fear for the future of our country. And then the last two weeks, we were accompanied by what I like to call "Teen SWAT Camp." Which was basically Summer SWAT Team Bootcamp for Teenagers. They were very polite and orderly in the dining hall, which I guess was nice, and they were required to formally greet all adults when they were running late for morning drills (nothing wakes you up quite like a dozen kids in a row running through the field saying "Good morning sir!" "Good morning sir!" before you've even had your morning coffee).
But the worst part of this was the drills they ran. It's hard enough to focus on your writing when there's a bunch of adolescents marching around the campus, shooting marching orders at the top of their lungs. And then there was this:
That was in the parking lot right behind our common room. This went on for about 90 minutes, and as you might imagine, it filled me with anxiety and gave me heart palpitations. Imagine you're at a peaceful gathering, protesting something, anything, I don't know. You're staying in your designated protest area, not really causing any trouble behind being a large and visible public gathering of people. Then some Riot Cops show up and start yelling at you to "GET BACK! GET BACK!", even though you're already back. But they keep getting closer, stomping their feet and screaming at you. Even if they don't actually touch you, you damn well bet that they are counting on at least a few protestors panicking and running through the crowd to get away from them, as those protestors push through the other protestors to escape — well, now it looks like chaos, right? People are pushing and shoving and shouting and...oh look, a riot!
Still, I couldn't help but wonder what kind of kid wants to go to Teen SWAT Camp, and I feared for how those instructors shaped the kids' impressionable minds.
And then there was Thursday night, the big closing ceremonies of Teen SWAT Camp, where the kids got to apply everything they learned in a big fun game on the soccer field. Blackhawks and tanks were brought in to impress the campers, and the kids were organized into two teams: Riot Cops and Protestors. The Riot Cop side was equipped with shields, batons, tear gas, bean bag guns, flares, and more, while the Protestor side was armed with fake glass bottles to defend themselves with.
Yup! That's right! They role-played a riot. FOR FUNSIES. The instructors taught the kids how "protestors" act, and encouraged them to yell things like "fascists!" at the Riot Cop Kid Team. I remember watching this with Gavin Grant, who expressed his trepidation at having his 4-year-old daughter witness this kind of fascist celebration. "How am I supposed to tell my daughter that cops are good, that she can always trust them to keep her safe?" he said to me. I didn't have an answer for him, but I feared for my own future as a parent.
Pair that with the knowledge that in Massachusetts, SWAT Teams function as private corporations and are immune to the open-record laws that police (no pun intended) standard public services and government organizations. Even in this state where I reside, a place that's generally seen as a bastion of progressivism, Riot Cops are legally in the pockets of the highest bidder. They have tanks and weapons and no one there to keep them clean from government corruption.
There is literally no one to protect us from the Riot Cops, from the fear-inducing violence of a militaristic police state that suppresses the insurrections of anyone who disagrees with them, and publicly paints them in the media as "mobs" and "violent dissenters" and bottle-throwing hippies."
Who watches the Watchmen, indeed.