Can The Mere Presence Of Police Be An Escalation?

Yes. Here is a familiar scenario: students at an American university call a meeting or an assembly. They congregate, and as they do so, a large contingent of security guards or police, sometimes armed with deadly weapons, sometimes not, show up, and form impressive-looking rings of security, setting up cordons and enclosures. The escalation has begun.

A little while later, one of two things surely will happen: either a student will note the presence of the police, and finding it bothersome and offensive (as it is), will address it in something he or she says. Perhaps something like “the police are watching us, they want to silence us,” which sets off other student responses of unease and discomfort (many, many students at urban campuses, especially students of color have already had unpleasant interactions with police in the past, and do not, frankly, find that having police or security guards around makes them feel any safer).

Or, the police will suddenly find some reason to enforce some notion of propriety on the student proceedings; this enforcement is almost invariably, carried out heavy-handedly, and violates the rights to free assembly of the students and anyone else present. The latter is what happened last week at Brooklyn College. This violation takes place because those in charge of law and order, always, somehow, are more disturbed and vexed by young folks talking loudly about politics than they are about the status quo – the din of the former is always greater.

One day, campus authorities will come to understand that when students congregate and gather to engage in political conversation, as they often seem to be doing these days (whether at UC Davis, UC Berkeley or Baruch College, CUNY), the only escalation that will take place is going to be due to the presence of campus police; their presence begins the escalation; it does not end it. It is a cause, not an effect.

Today, at Brooklyn College, the Wolfe Institute sponsors an event titled Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Everywhere? Whats Next?. Our biggest worry in organizing the event was the possibility that Brooklyn College administration would again send a large contingent of campus security guards to “oversee” the event, which would inevitably be seen as oppressive and problematic by the students. I’m glad to say, at this moment, a few hours before the event kicks off, that the college President Karen Gould, has agreed to reduce the security profile of the meeting and to let it in proceed in peace.

I will report back on how things went.

3 thoughts on “Can The Mere Presence Of Police Be An Escalation?

  1. Police presence and police posture are both important. The name of the game these days in policing is preemption and control. To accomplish that the police feel they need to have a heavy presence and aggressive posture to “head off” any potential illegal or even disruptive activities. In every day policing this takes the form of “stop and frisk” and “hot spot” policing. At demonstrations it comes across as robocops in lots of places and in New York City a massive infrastructure of total management I call “Command and Control” policing. College security forces (usually headed up by retired police commanders) are no different. All of this is a huge infringement on personal freedom and a real abridgement of the 1st Amendment’s right to assemble. And, as you point out, it is often counterproductive.

    1. Alex,

      Great to see you here. What I’m struck by, as I’m sure you have been for a very long time, is how militarized the police has become. And that kind of language can only lead to a further distance from the “community” to be policed!


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