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Police vs. the Occupy Movement

Are the Police Serving the 99%
Or Are They a Praetorian Guard for the 1%?

Under Ancient Rome before the Christian Era, if you were a general in the field, building on the conquests that became the Roman Empire, you surrounded yourself with hand-picked soldiers – the best of the best, an elite gathered to protect an elite. As a cohort for your personal protection, this was the first praetorian guard, or cohors praetorian. This praetorian guard was found so useful that Roman emperors used one, beginning with Julius Caesar and continuing on through Mark Antony and Augustus (Octavian) and beyond.

As with any elite class, when they felt threatened, their elite bodyguards could become a personal hit squad – and so developed the use of the praetorian guard by the later emperors as a political force. The praetorians were not themselves wealthy, but they were employed by the wealthy. In all this, the people of Rome, and those of the provinces, were taxed or paid tribute to the elites to finance these elite bodyguards.

Knowing their rule to be illegitimate, Rome’s undemocratic leaders had real reason to fear that the people, with no voice in their own affairs, save an effete and ineffectual Senate, might justifiably rise in frustration and indignation against their rulers. Therefore, the guard could at any time be used by the emperors against the people of Rome.

This is not just historical trivia: as we have seen across the United States, in clashes between the police and the “Occupy” protesters, especially in New York, Philadelphia, and Oakland, CA, the police – paid for by the people – are being used by the elites as their own praetorian guard. With military arms, barricades and billy clubs, the police have been used to crush peaceful, democratic dissent. They have met nonviolence with violence, they have met passive resistance with force.

Costs to strapped city budgets of over-reacting to these “Occupy” protests are diverting limited city resources away from social programs and policing that should benefit the 99%. The costs for protecting the 1% are being paid by the 99%.

But are the police serving the 99% – or are they serving as a praetorian guard for the 1%?

Police officers are paid by the people they are sworn to protect. Most are unionized. Demographically, police officers should be standing with the 99%! But, from the police perspective, they have a job to do, they’ve been coached to see even an unarmed and passively resistant mob as an unruly threat to public health and safety. Being fired for insubordination is a real fear. All this is understandable.

What is not understandable is the enthusiasm with which some police officers do the bidding of their elite bosses – from pepper spray applied to seated, immobile students, or to kettled and subdued women – to tear gas canisters shot at the head of an Iraq war veteran – to blanket violations of civil rights, not to mention the constitutional right to free speech and free assembly. These rights are specifically enumerated in the constitution, for exactly the reasons the “Occupy Movement” is using them: for redress of grievances. The police are following orders that are at least unconstitutional; carrying out the orders may also be immoral. But do the police carry any responsibility for acting morally regarding the “Occupy Movement”?

I am reminded of an incident in Southeast Asia on 16 March 1968. On that date, US soldiers were responsible for a massacre of up to 504 unarmed civilians in the hamlets of Mỹ Lai and My Khe in South Vietnam. The soldiers responsible, most infamously Second Lieutenant William Calley of Charlie Company, were just following orders. And that is not unlike the police ordered to clear out, arrest and often commit violence on the nonviolent “Occupy” protesters.

History repeats itself: Knowing their rule to be illegitimate, America’s leaders, because they represent the 1% rather than the 99%, have real reason to fear that the people, with no voice in their own affairs, save an effete and ineffectual Congress, might justifiably rise in frustration and indignation against their misrulers. Therefore, the police are used by their masters against the people of America.

Not surprisingly, given their power and their proximity to power, the praetorian guard of Ancient Rome developed a political agenda of their own: they not only protected emperors, like Tiberius, they could topple emperors, like Caligula, and install emperors, like Claudius. I’m not saying the police should subvert their masters. What I am saying is that the police might think about getting on the right side of history: the Roman praetorian guard devolved from a source of social stability into a force of thuggish mob control. Then the empire fell: with no masters to pay them, so fell the praetorian guard.

It’s time the 99% took ownership of the police we pay for. It’s time the police start serving the 99% – rather than serving as a praetorian guard for the 1%.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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