22 November 2011

Everything is everything

I realize I haven't been very sympathetic to the complaints of these Occupy protesters. I share some of the diagnosis (crony capitalism is a real problem), but I disagree much on the potential solutions they offer (regulatory capture and public choice theory suggest that simply passing more rules in order to do something is stupid and bound to produce more problems than it would solve). For example, a protest in DC seized an abandoned school in the misguided notion that selling the school property to a private developer who wants to build a luxury hotel on the grounds would be less beneficial than building a homeless shelter on the same grounds. This would be true only if the city could not benefit from additional tax revenues from tourists and hotel fees (plus the cost of buying or leasing the property from the city) and use them to park a homeless shelter somewhere else (somewhere a private developer doesn't wish to buy the valuable land for hotel use). Or from the potential jobs created when the hotel opens meaning that there could be fewer homeless people in the first place. And so on. It can be an effective use of citizens to register and complain about developments in their neighbourhoods and cities, though I'd say we have much bigger fish to fry than the state selling off unused property and land to private owners (for instance eminent domain cases where the state SEIZES private property and then provides it to new private owners, as in Kelo or Brooklyn most famously).

All that said, this business has repeatedly cropped back up over and over in my attention and indeed the general public's not necessarily because they have a catchy message applicable to the nation or society as a whole, but because the authorities keep sending in the dogs. Keep sending in force to clear away peaceful demonstrations. They have some justification for wishing to clear these occupations and protests out because of time, place, and manner restrictions on the first amendment, so that's fine. But how is important. And so they keep trying to keep out the cameras when they do it. Precisely because they know very well what is liable to be on those cameras doesn't look very good and justified (pepper spray and tear gas on people sitting down).

This force has highlighted something which is tangentially related to the occupation's general complaints. Namely, the lack of accountability for authorities, especially on the issues relating to the use of force, and especially on the use of "non-lethal" force (tasers, pepper spray, tear gas, flashbang grenades, sound cannons etc). To date, the use of these has largely come up in dispersing more riotous crowds (at the WTO riots in Seattle or Pittsburgh, there was at least some violent demonstrators to justify use of force to disperse and arrest such) and more commonly in small organised raids on private property, usually against suspected drug dealers, or against single individuals, such as for non-compliance at traffic stops. Sometimes these make news. Tasing a grandmother isn't exactly the intended likely best use of a taser. Most of the time these incidents are explained away much as the statement after the now infamous UC-Davis scenario was. Police explain that they "feared for their safety", code words for "violent force was thereby justified", whether or not it actually was. For most people, these sorts of statements are sufficient justification without any further investigation warranted. I'd say that whenever the state and its agents decide to apply force against citizens, it should be clearly warranted. And when it is not, someone should pay an actual consequence (loss of job, arrest and criminal penalties, civil lawsuits, etc). Sometimes these uses of force do have legitimate causes and sometimes the legitimate purposes are less clear and the use of force justifications more vague. Some amount of leeway is appropriate because it can be difficult to assess complex situations in seconds as police often must. But the petty examples of casual puppycides, or even shootings of people during drug raids suggest that we've allowed a great deal of both militarization and callousness to infect the way we are policing entire neighbourhoods or for specific purposes. That these events are generally happening in tech-savvy student areas like campuses is really the only difference from what has happened for years in many neglected urban areas. We should be more than willing to ask why that is tolerated. Why if we appoint agents to use force on our behalf, for public safety or order, that we don't check up on how they're doing with that force and whether the public safety or order is being improved or endangered by these agents.
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