My Journey from Iraq to Working on Wall Street to Occupying Wall Street
Continued from previous page
At the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway were two young women holding signs above their heads, mostly topless, totally harmless, obstructing neither sidewalk nor street. Yet they were forcibly removed by a swarm of police officers. A melee broke out; people shoved and hollered, the media tried to get pictures, passers-by were caught in the middle, protesters ended up cuffed on the ground and a policeman had an unknown substance thrown at his face. No one asked why the women should be denied the right to free speech.
Further down the street, a line of cops fidgeted in riot gear. They looked uncomfortable, tugging at straps and twisting about. I knew how they felt. I was trained in nonlethal riot control. It's dreadful. Hours of choreography, getting the steps right—you have to move as one to keep gaps from opening. I learned to throw stun grenades, how to restrain and zip-tie troublemakers. I practiced using fire extinguisher–sized canisters of pepper spray—and was pepper-sprayed myself. (It's important to appreciate the effects of such weapons, lest one be tempted to deploy them casually. I ran a good way through an obstacle course thinking pepper spray isn't so bad, then pow!: a dozen elves were ripping the freckles off my face with belt sanders.)
I remembered trying to control a mob in Nasiriya, Iraq. After the invasion, the United States had foolishly dismantled the Iraqi army, promising to pay soldiers a severance if they brought their papers to designated locations. For days, hundreds of former military lined up at the local bank, waited all day and eventually left, with just a dozen or so people getting paid. A rumor spread that the bankers were keeping the money for themselves, and the crowd surged forth to take their payments. I might have done the same.
But when you're part of a unit sent to "restore order," whether you're facing former soldiers throwing bricks or university students publicly expressing an opinion, you go in with one mentality: crush the other side. At no point are you considering whether you are on the right side. Empathy has no place. If your boss ordered you to clear pregnant diabetic women from outside the grand opening of a new InsulinMart, for reasons that are hard to explain, you go in angry. That's why putting people in riot gear where there is no riot is reckless and provocative.
Of course, if my goal was to crush free speech, I might use a little misdirection too. As in any war, I would dehumanize the enemy: make sure the protesters aren't perceived as ordinary people with legitimate concerns but rather as hippies and anarchists who force police to work overtime on the taxpayer dime. Then I would send far more police than necessary, pre-emptively ordering some troops into riot gear, to stir tension and make escalation inevitable. The singular focus thus becomes the "clashes": police and protesters absorb one another's frustrations, and I've successfully contained the problem by pitting the 99 percent against itself, while eclipsing the issues that led to the protests in the first place.
Leaving behind the tackled women and the giddy police, I headed down Broadway, passing the bull, which was now in a pickle similar to the one confronting folks up at Zuccotti Park: penned in with those ubiquitous cattle barriers. Around the bull was a ring of police; they seemed to have the situation contained. I caught a glimpse of Battery Park.
How did I get here? Ten years ago I was standing in military fatigues checking IDs, and now I was walking around with a legion of malcontents carrying signs with messages like Police—I Forgive You. I had gone down to Zuccotti to call for Wall Street to be reformed and held accountable, but the more I listened to protesters discussing other issues, the more my skepticism gave way to an impulse to go home and do my own research. I realized that much of what they said was true. Corporations are legally people? Does anybody know about this? I thought naïvely. We imprison people at twelve times the rate of Japan? And none of the people who defrauded the country and caused this crisis are in prison? Why isn't anybody saying anything?