Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Cult of Compliance: Occupy NYC and the Trials

Note: Below is a picture of Cecily McMillan in her bra, showing the bruise on her breast. This is a picture she made public but it's possibly NSFW depending on your workplace.

Across the internet, yesterday, you might have read any number of progressive voices talking about Cecily McMillan.Cecily McMillan was part of Occupy NYC and may go to jail for 7 years for allegedly elbowing a police office in the eye. She's been found guilty. She's been remanded even though she poses no flight risk. She'll be sentenced in a few weeks.

I want to think about this story through the lens of the cult of compliance - the idea that our culture venerates compliance itself.

There are, of course, more important stories here - the imprisonment of a woman, the attack on progressive values, even room for a nuanced debate on the nature of policing in moments of civil disobedience. These things matter. You should follow the link below and read more, call whoever you can who might be in power here, and advocate. Still, I think it's indicative of a much bigger problem, not just the elements of a police state that do infuse our society, but something deeper, cultural, nearly religious. Compliance is one of our idols.

Molly Knefel in The Guardian writes:
When the police moved in to the park that night, in formation and with batons, to arrest a massive number of nonviolent protesters, the chaos was terrifying. Bovell claimed that McMillan elbowed him in the face as he attempted to arrest her, and McMillan and her defense team claim that Bovell grabbed her right breast from behind, causing her to instinctively react.
But the jury didn't hear anything about the police violence that took place in Zuccotti Park that night. They didn't hear about what happened there on November 15, 2011, when the park was first cleared. The violence experienced by Occupy protesters throughout its entirety was excluded from the courtroom. The narrative that the jury did hear was tightly controlled by what the judge allowed – and Judge Ronald Zweibel consistently ruled that any larger context of what was happening around McMillan at the time of the arrest (let alone Bovell's own history of violence) was irrelevant to the scope of the trial.
The real problem here is the judge. The judge has consistently ruled that no one gets to say anything that doesn't serve the police narrative. The cop may have been elbowed, but has consistently identified THE WRONG EYE when telling the jury where he was hurt.  The cop has a history of violence - not relevant. McMillan has a hand-shaped bruise on her breast [the picture below is one she tweeted out] - not relevant.


The judge gets to decide what story it is even possible to tell, and in this case has worked to limit the scope of the trial to did McMillan hit Bovell in the eye or did she not. Although a pacifist, she probably did elbow out (in panic at being grabbed by the breast), the jury decided, and convicted her.

In this context, not only do the police feel they have complete authority to act against non-compliant individuals as they see fit, but the justice system conforms to make sure that that no counter narrative is even offered to a jury. That, to me, is the gravest offense here. She's not being allowed to defend herself, she's not allowed to offer her own story, and in silence, she is convicted.

McMillan is being sacrificed to the idol of compliance.

2 comments:

Andrew Keir said...

When the judges start believing everything the police say, because the police said it...
... when evidence is "inadmissible" because the judge's mind is already made up...
... when the police are permitted to parade suspects for public viewing, as if their guilt was already decided...
... when the police are permitted to get together to decide on their evidence, and re-write their pocket-book notes ...
... then we're no longer citizens, we are peasants and they are our lords.
We've had some of this in the UK - organised police lying at and after the Hillsborough disaster, and when one of our politicos wanted to take his bike through a security check at 10 Downing Street are only two of the cases we know about. Thank heavens for YouTube, (moderately) free press, and CCTV operators who don't 'lose' tapes that are embarrassing to those in power.
The price of liberty does, indeed, turn out to be eternal vigilance - and the balls to make a major fuss if/when arrogant jacks-in-office get above themselves. It's nothing new - our parents and grandparents had to put up with "Don't you know there's a war on?", the "Breach of the Peace" provisions, "Defence of the Realm" Act, and other vaguely-worded laws giving sweeping powers to the UK's finest - and the rest of the police force.
In day-to-day interactions, we have to remember -
- they *are* frightened of what we might do - coppers have been killed on duty and they all know that;
- fast movements scare them, and they might stay scared for a while after;
- they have the right to use force first (but are, in most cases, accountable for their actions).
They have to remember -
- we might be disabled, emotional, ill or under the influence of some (possibly legal) drug;
- they are not Clarke Kent;
- they are, indeed, accountable for their actions (or damn well should be - if you find yourself in an area where police actions are not monitored, then leave);
Politeness (both ways) usually eases interactions between citizens - and both we and the police are citizens (again, where this is not true, leave immediately). Slow, quiet words calm most situations down; a moderate show of respect (again, both ways) helps, but (personal opinion) you don't call them "sir" or "ma'am", they are not your boss. (/personal opinion).
Finally, *always* lodge a protest, through channels, if an officer's conduct fails the test of reasonableness. You probably won't get a result on your watch, but these things build up in any moderately well-ordered force, and officers with a history of public complaints don't get promoted much. And they know it.
In summary, three words - slow, quiet, persistence. I believe that MLK and Gandhi would approve.

David Perry said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment.