In the age of YouTube, the various images of Olsen’s injury were quickly exploited by protest organizers, as should be expected and is entirely fair. All demonstrations and protests are ultimately about public relations: if the protesters manage to be viewed more sympathetically than the group they are protesting against, then they attract sympathy and support. They win. If the protesters become unsympathetic, then they lose. All intense demonstrations eventually become a game of chicken between demonstrators and the government’s law enforcement force, be it police or National Guard. The demonstrators refuse to clear out of an area where they do not have a right to be, either because of the lack of a permit, or because they are disrupting the public peace, safety and welfare. They will try to provoke police without appearing so violent, unruly or scary that they lose public support. The police (or National Guard) have a job to do—they also have their own physical safety to protect—and yet they have to avoid making martyrs out of the demonstrators by appearing too militaristic, and also to make sure that their efforts don’t evoke images of police state oppression.
Despite the superior fire power of the police and that fact that they have the law on their side, this game always favors the demonstrators. The public and media instinctively regard any exercise of police power as excessive, whether it is or not: this is why felons can now disobey a police command to stop without getting shot. “These are kids, for God’s sake! (though often they are not) These aren’t criminals! (though technically they are). They mean no harm! (but often they do).”
But it mainly favors the demonstrators because they want to get handled roughly, clubbed, hurt, or abused—not too seriously, just enough to turn the public against the police, who are stand-ins for whatever is being protested against, even though they are usually neutral referees, juts trying to keep order. The demonstrators usually get their wish, too. The police are subjected to epithets, insults, rocks and thrown bottles (as in Oakland.) The demonstrators often outnumber the police by a lot. There are usually some green recruits who have never been under similar pressure, and it only takes one who cracks to create a martyr, a cause, and a rallying cry. The Boston Massacre. Kent State. Selma. The many, many, non-lethal clashes, as I saw on my own college campus in 1968 that produced photographs of bloodied young women, or films of helmeted police clubbing kneeling demonstrators.
Scott Olsen was the perfect casualty for Occupy Oakland, so he is now ripe for debunking. The Right is pointing out that he may be a veteran, but he is also the Founder of IHateTheMarineCorps.com. Well, so what? He had his head fractured because a trooper lost his cool and broke protocol. The fact that Olsen may not be G.I. Joe doesn’t mean that his injury is more justifiable.
Still, the ethics of these confrontations are complex. Remember “Casey the Punisher”-–the big, fat kid who was being hit and teased by a pint-sized bully and finally snapped, picking up the kid and slamming him to the ground? The police in these situations are lot like him. The demonstrators will literally not stop until someone snaps, or at least until there is an ugly confrontation.
Why do we still fall for this tactic, and have such sympathy for demonstrators when they push and push until someone is hurt? This is a key part of their strategy, and we should know it by now. We are Americans, however, and we will always tend to favor the underdog and little guy, even when he’s acting like a jerk, and always be uncomfortable siding with the power-wielders. That is still, I think, a good thing. Yes, the method of Occupy Oakland is right out of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” but it has also been used on behalf of important and virtuous causes, from labor to civil rights to American independence. It is classic utilitarianism….when the cause is just.
Since I still don’t know what Occupy Oakland or any of its brethren really want, the tactic fails the test of utilitarianism in this instance. Thus it was unethical to put the police in the classic demonstration bind, and the demonstrators, and Olsen himself, are substantially culpable for his injury, because they provoked it, and wanted to provoke it. Nobody should have added sympathy or support for the Occupy movement, whatever it is, as a result, any more than anyone had much sympathy for the mean kid that Casey body-slammed.
And the police officer who shot the canister into the crowd? Don’t sympathize with him, either. He is a trained professional, and he’s not allowed to get frightened, angry or violent. Find him, arrest him, and put him on trial.
Unfortunately, John Adams isn’t around to defend him.
[Much thanks to Jeff Hibbert for the video and the suggestion.]