“The arrogant army will lose the battle for sure.” —Chinese proverb
When it comes to police clashes with demonstrators, there is likely no more reflective a former police chief than Norm Stamper.
Now known more for his transition to successful author and unapologetic critic of the war on drugs, Stamper understands that his legacy from 34 years in law enforcement—28 of those in San Diego—boils down to decisions he made as police chief during the violent, chaotic World Trade Organization protests that engulfed Seattle 12 years ago this month.
Spin Cycle sought out Stamper for his take on the present-day Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that have swept the nation and what lessons he would offer to both law enforcement and demonstrators.
The word “would” is important here because, as Stamper said with a chuckle of resignation, “I'd be the last person that police executives would turn to for advice on something that we mostly see as a failure.”
Not surprising perhaps, too, given the title of Stamper's 2005 tell-all book, Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing.
Recently in New York to catch some theater and meet with his literary agent, who's shopping around Stamper's first cop-thriller novel (the start of a trilogy with San Diego and Seattle connections, he noted), the former chief said he visited Zuccotti Park to see the birthplace of the Occupy Wall Street movement first-hand.
“Unfortunately, I caught it on a day when large contingents of protesters went to both Brooklyn and Harlem, leaving essentially the homeless and vendors,” Stamper lamented. He said a small group of demonstrators remained and seemed most interested in talking about police misconduct.
It's on this topic that the frustration wells up in Stamper's voice. He's learned the hard way that large-scale demonstrations inevitably devolve into debates about police tactics, likely much to the glee of the bankers and politicians who initially are the focus.
“Divide and conquer,” Stamper said. “It's as old as we are as people.”
First lesson: Use of chemical agents—tear gas, pepper spray, etc.—against non-violent demonstrators is fundamentally wrong.
“Use tear gas and you're going to make far more militant those demonstrators whose tactics have otherwise been nonviolent,” Stamper said. “It doesn't mean they're necessarily going to throw rocks, but they're going to join scores, if not hundreds or thousands, of others who are turning their focus from the economy and jobs and corporate greed and irresponsible regulation of businesses to the police.”
When that happens, he said, law enforcement loses credibility and reputations are tainted. Demonstrators, meanwhile, turn their attention to police, playing into the hands of those who prefer to focus on protest-quelling tactics.
“And that does distract—if not subtract—from the central message of the Occupy Wall Street movement,” Stamper argued.
Twelve years ago, at least 50,000 demonstrators converged on Seattle. While a city like New York has the resources to handle such an influx, most do not. Such was the case with Seattle, despite months of preparation and assistance from neighboring law-enforcement agencies.
“To put it mildly, we were completely overwhelmed,” Stamper recalled. In Breaking Rank, he devotes a chapter to the 1999 Seattle riots, known in some circles as the “Battle of Seattle.” The internet was replacing leafleting and posters as the means of organizing such protests, and anti-globalization sentiment was in its early stages.
“In fact, my understanding of globalization was extremely limited back then,” Stamper said. Hundreds were arrested and dozens injured in the Seattle protest that led to curfews and Stamper stepping down as police chief.
At the end of the chapter on the Seattle riots, Stamper offers a prediction (again, this is 2005): “With the reelection of George W. Bush and the continuation of his foreign policies, America's cities will experience wave after wave of street protests, with demonstrations that could rival or exceed the scope and intensity of the antiwar movement of the sixties and seventies.”
Of course, the focus now is on the economy, but Stamper's words of six years ago ring prophetic. He says he's not obsessively following the Occupy Wall Street movement, but Stamper said such violent police crackdowns in cities like Oakland demonstrate that there are cities “that clearly did not learn from my mistakes in Seattle.”
He talks about those days like it was yesterday, recalling the huge throngs of demonstrators who occupied street intersections that police attempted to clear for emergency vehicles, first through verbal commands, then tear gas. But he also remembers the cop who got out of hand when he approached a car with two women inside who were filming the demonstration.
“He told the women to roll their window down,” Stamper said, “and when they did, he filled the car with pepper spray, telling them, ‘Up yours. Film this!'” The cop, he said, was eventually fired.
The best thing police and city officials can do is give demonstrators space to protest, Stamper said, adding, “These are American citizens who are exercising their First Amendment rights, and as long as there is no violence and no property damage, we should accommodate it, tolerate it or celebrate it, depending on your perspective.”
Meanwhile, police should understand, Stamper said, that today's demonstrators are “speaking to the whole country. These are people who come from every conceivable walk of life who find that this demonstration resonates with them. And that's long overdue.”
As to what these demonstrations eventually lead to, Stamper is hopeful there's a realization that “working cops have exactly the same issues, whether they know it or not, as the demonstrators.”
Demonstrators, he said, treating police “like human beings” could create “the kind of relationship and environment in which the police genuinely protect their interests as American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Added Stamper: “Culturally, police have always been here to protect the status quo. It's an extremely tough job that requires the emotional resilience to act with maturity and self-discipline. But too often it becomes an us-versus-them situation. And that detracts from the demonstrators' central message.”
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