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Shot to Death by Police for Betting on a Football Game? The Rise of Paramilitary Force in America

Heavily armed SWAT teams are increasingly used for such small tasks as raiding poker games and trying to stop underage drinking. How did we get here?

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As the summit went on, Twitter feeds and uploaded photos and videos claimed (and sometimes provided some evidence to prove) that police fired tear-gas canisters into dorm rooms, used sound cannons, and fired bean bags and rubber bullets. One man was arrested for posting the locations of riot police to his Twitter feed. The charges were later dropped.

Emily Tanner, a grad student at the University of Pittsburgh who described herself as a “capitalist” who didn’t agree with the general philosophy of the antiglobalization protesters, covered the summit, the protests, and the fallout on her blog. The most egregious police actions seemed to take place on the Friday evening before the summit, around the university, when police began ordering students who were in public spaces to disperse, despite the fact that they had broken no laws. Students who moved too slowly were arrested, as were students who were standing in front of the dormitories where they lived.

A University of Pittsburgh spokesman later said that the tactic was to break up crowds that “had the potential of disrupting normal activities, traffic flow, egress and the like. . . . Much of the arrests last night had to do with failure to disperse when ordered.” Note that no one needed to have broken any actual laws to get arrested. The potential to break a law was more than enough. That standard was essentially a license for the police to arrest anyone, anywhere in the city, at any time, for any reason.

Pennsylvania ACLU legal director Vic Walczak said the problem was that police didn’t bother to attempt to manage the protests. They simply suppressed them. In the process, they rounded up not only innocent protesters but innocent students who had nothing to do with the protests at all. In all, 190 people were arrested. One of the arrestees was a reporter from the left-leaning organization Indy-Media. When they apprehended her, the police took her camera. When they returned her camera, it was broken, and the police had deleted her photos and videos of the protests and police reaction. The police presence “seemed to focus almost exclusively on peaceful demonstrators,” Walczak said. “On [Friday] night they didn’t even have the excuse of property damage going on or any illegal activity. It’s really inexplicable.”

Inexcusable perhaps, but not inexplicable. Since Seattle, this had become the template. At the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, police conducted peremptory raids on the homes of protesters before the convention had even started. Police broke into the homes of people known to be activist rabble-rousers before they had any evidence of any actual crime. Journalists who inquired about the legitimacy of the raids and arrests made during the convention were also arrested. In all, 672 people were put in handcuffs. The arrest of Democracy Now journalist Amy Goodman was captured on a widely viewed video. She was charged with “conspiracy to riot.” That charge against Goodman was later dropped. So were the charges against most of the others arrested. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported the following February that charges were dropped or dismissed for 442 of the 672 people arrested.

There were similar problems at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Police in Denver showed up for the protests decked out in full riot gear. One particularly striking photo from Denver showed a sea of cops in shiny black armor, batons in hand, surrounding a small, vastly outnumbered group of protesters. The most volatile night of the convention featured one incident in which Jefferson County, Colorado, deputies unknowingly clashed with and then pepper-sprayed undercover Denver cops posing as violent protesters. The city later paid out $200,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that a Denver SWAT team was making indiscriminate arrests, rounding up protesters and bystanders alike.

 
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