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Why Authorities Use Excessive Force

The UC Davis police’s use of pepper spray a few days ago upon quietly sitting students (including holding students' mouths open and shooting the spray down their throats, producing repeated vomiting) is one of the latest examples of many of police use of excessive and unnecessary force against non-violent dissent from the Occupy movement. The Oakland, Seattle, and Berkeley police, NYPD, and so on, are part of this growing list, which includes the fracturing of Iraq Vet Scott Olsen’s skull by teargas canister in Oakland and the pepper spraying of an 84 year old woman, Dorli Rainey, in Seattle.

Some wonder why authorities and police are using such tactics.

Here is the problem that is being played out: when people, especially a lot of people, engage in direct action, which is the very essence of democracy (voting doesn’t even come close) and they demand answers and ask uncomfortable, embarrassing, and unanswerable questions of authority and institutions, these institutions and authorities have no real answers to offer.

Authorities cannot win through reason and cannot offer rational arguments to defend what they do and how the institutional processes routinely and by their very nature produce unjust outcomes. Authorities will initially try to dispel dissenters with false promises, failing that, insults, failing that, verbal and physical attacks, or some combination of all of the preceding.

To put this another way: when the ordinary channels that the system offers people for redress of grievances no longer either exist and/or the people come to believe that those channels are worthless and the system is rigged against them, then the people will, sooner or later, resort to taking things into their own hands and acting on the ground.

When the people do this, the system is in serious trouble because the system cannot avoid using excessive force. Why? First of all, the system itself is unjust and those who are its order enforcers – the police and other law enforcement – are not trained primarily to serve the public. They are trained to protect the 1%. That is their real job. That is how they are socialized and that is how they carry out their day-to-day duties. While there are a few individual police who are good people, their social role is to act on behalf of the 1%.

Second, when they are called upon to protect authorities (such as the Chancellor or the Mayor or some other grand pooh-bah), they don’t know how other than to use excessive force to subdue people and silence them. This is their job and they develop, nearly one and all of them (with a few exceptions), the mentality that goes along with that of contempt for the people. They can’t use force upon the people without an accompanying set of rationales to justify their use of force.

Therein lies the nub of the problem for authorities: they cannot help but make “mistakes” even when and if they’re trying to calibrate their responses, because they cannot hold onto their power simply through the force of reason and appeals to fairness. Their only real answer to people freely assembling and speaking out is coercion. And when they use excessive force, they radicalize more people who come to see that the system and its authorities are not what they thought they were, that the system is much, much uglier than they ever thought.

At least this is what those among the middle strata start to see. For those among the lower strata, they have never thought that the system was fair and they have only been kept in line by authorities’ routine use of heavy force and intimidation. So when a process begins of the people from the middle and lower strata acting in the streets and the system provides its only possible response, then begins the revolutionary dynamic.

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Coercion is the Protestors' Friend

Given what happened in NYC, after the early pepper sprayings there, you would think the police would have learned by now that the best way to incite more protests is to use excessive force. But I guess cops will just be cops, and express their contempt for betters with violence. That's the way it is with bullies. But I think the psychology behind it, for those who give the orders anyway, is just as you describe. I find the fight or flight syndrome gets activated readily when dealing with the implacable anger of my wife. 

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Why cops and authorities don't learn lessons

Good to hear from you Tim!

(So does your wife ask you questions you can't answer? LOL.)

It would be preferable, of course, if a social movement such as Occupy could achieve its aims without authorities using violence and the movement could be allowed to grow organically. But we are dealing with a system that exists upon the daily exploitation and suppression of people and that can only be sustained through violence, deception, and prevarication. So, yes, we can expect that they will, as all empires have, display hubris and use excessive violence. Excessive violence is actually usually chosen purposefully: it's supposed to get people to be afraid and to stop doing what they've been doing or to scare off people who've been on the sideline and considering participating from joining in. The problem with excessive violence is that it generally backfires, sometimes immediately, sometimes later on down the road. But it always backfires. They can't not do it, however, because there is a) a psychology behind it and because even more importantly, b) they are defenders, enablers and apologists for an unjust system.

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Protest and then...


I think your piece has given a broader perspective.

"Here is the problem that is being played out: when people, especially a lot of people, engage in direct action, which is the very essence of democracy (voting doesn’t even come close) and they demand answers and ask uncomfortable, embarrassing, and unanswerable questions of authority and institutions, these institutions and authorities have no real answers to offer."

This is the real problem.  The authorities are dealing with protest as they would a criminal activity. If we take the example of many countries in the Arab world during the ongoing crises, the protests are not taking the issue ahead. 

OWS might do so, but again we are talking about the middle-class vs. the rest. Thsi is a crucial difference that needs to be factored in. As an outsider, I see it in a slightly distanced manner, although these peaceful protests anywhere in the world mention Mahatma Gandhi - and I have reservations about his system, but that's another story.


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Protest as "criminal activity"

Yes, Farzana, you are so right that authorities are using anti-criminal methods to deal with a non-criminal activity. I talk in my new book about this momentous shift in the nature of governance where protest is considered a "low-level form of terrorism" and the people may not safely petition their government, with government becoming more and more insulated from the people. It's called public order policies.

When you say that the "protests are not taking the issue ahead" in the Arab world, could you clarify what you mean? Thank you!

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"When you say that the

"When you say that the "protests are not taking the issue ahead" in the Arab world, could you clarify what you mean?"


We are seeing the whole movement reduced, overtaken by the army or forces without any core. I had not anticipated the reaction to the OWS the way it has turned out. However, in the inital stages, the comparisons drawn by the movement in the US appeared disingenuous. I had written then:

>>It is irony that the protestors are using the Arab Spring as an example, when those nations have been left bereft of a leadership ostensibly due to the greed of its leaders, but it is way beyond that. 

  • "We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants."

What safety do those in Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya have? Does putting Hosni Mubarak in a cage, much like the torture of Saddam Hussein as a televised example, bring democracy to Egypt?<<

Hope that helps a bit! There are too many grey areas.  



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Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement

I just saw your reply to my question now so my apologies for not responding sooner.

You are correct that the people striving in the Arab world for their freedoms are not engaged in a non-violent struggle in the sense that some U.S. activists believe. I think that this is partly a result of mainstream media coverage of the Arab Spring which is misleading and partly due to the romanticism of at least many of the OM participants who dearly want to keep their struggle entirely non-violent.

State power as exercised by tyrants, whether those in the U.S. or those elsewhere, including in the Arab world, is coercive and at times exceedingly violent. In the U.S., because it is a First World country with the wealth of the empire it commands and because the legitimacy of those in power rests to a larger degree on the belief among the middle strata that those in power do so with the consent of the governed, govern in ways that necessitate that they not ride roughshod over the law quite so obviously and so regularly as those in power in the Arab world do. But as you point out, the violent evictions of the OWS and elsewhere make these struggles more obviously more similar.