Illustration by Sadler0 via flickr.com
When photographs of Police Lieutenant John Pike pepper-spraying peaceful college students emerged, many people were outraged. But, Atlantic Monthly writer Alexis Madrigral takes a sociological lens by reminding readers that people always act within the confines of structure.
Structures, in the sociological sense, constrain human agency. And for that reason, I see John Pike as a casualty of the system, too. Our police forces have enshrined a paradigm of protest policing that turns local cops into paramilitary forces. Let’s not pretend that Pike is an independent bad actor. Too many incidents around the country attest to the widespread deployment of these tactics. If we vilify Pike, we let the institutions off way too easy.
Many sociologists, such as Patrick Gillham, have documented these changes in our police forces. Looking at the 1960s, Gillham notes that police used “escalated force,” which involved mass arrest and indiscriminate use of force.
But by the 1970s, that version of crowd control had given rise to all sorts of problems and various departments went in “search for an alternative approach.” What they landed on was a paradigm called “negotiated management.” Police forces, by and large, cooperated with protesters who were willing to give major concessions on when and where they’d march or demonstrate. “Police used as little force as necessary to protect people and property and used arrests only symbolically at the request of activists or as a last resort and only against those breaking the law,” Gillham writes.
Yet by the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, negotiated management was seen as a failure.
9/11 put the final nail in the coffin of the previous protest-control regime. By the time of the Free Trade of the Americas anti-globalization protests in Miami broke out eight years ago this week, an entirely new model of taking on protests had emerged. People called it the Miami model. It was heavily militarized and very forceful.
Looking at these changes, Brooklyn College Sociologist Alex Vitalle explains that the “broken windows” theory has also had a major impact on policing. Broken windows policing doesn’t fight crime directly but rather fights the sense that a street is disorderly.
As Vitale would put it, the theory “created a kind of moral imperative for the police to restore middle class values to the city’s public spaces.” When applied to protesters, the strategy has meant that any break with the NYPD’s behavioral preferences could be grounds for swift arrest and/or physical violence. Vitale described how the theory has been applied to Occupy Wall Street: Consider what has precipitated the vast majority of the disorderly conduct arrests in this movement: using a megaphone, writing on the sidewalk with chalk, marching in the street (and Brooklyn Bridge), standing in line at a bank to close an account (a financial boycott, in essence) and occupying a park after its closing. These are all peaceful forms of political expression. To the police, however, they are all disorderly conduct.
Combine these and other changes, and you have a completely different type of policing than was seen in previous eras. Scholars are already studying it, but in the meantime, Alexis’s article is a reminder that while John Pike was the one spraying the pepper spray, a complex system put him in the position to do it.