There's an 8-minute video making the rounds of the left corner of social media networks, and even seeping into the mainstream. The popular version of it is titled "Police Pepper Spray Peaceful UC Davis Students". As advertised, the first few minutes show a remarkably gratuitous (and severe) pepper spraying of students who are passively sitting on the ground, followed by their arrests. It's a particularly brutal incident, but nothing we haven't seen before, really. Cops do bad things to peaceful protesters. If you didn't know that, here's more proof.
The first five or ten times I saw this video posted by friends on Facebook and Google+ pages, I didn't even bother looking. As a street medic with tons of hours logged watching police brutalize nonviolent demonstrators, this kind of protest porn doesn't even arouse my interest. I'm sick of watching "our side" get its collective ass kicked over and over.
Finally, I saw a version of the video posted that noted something special happens at the end, so I watched the whole clip. By minute six, my jaw was on the ground. And not because of how bad the pepper spraying was. I almost don't want to spoil this for you, so if you want to watch the video now, here it is; check it out then scroll down.
After the police carry off the handful of protesters who endured this horrific pepper spraying, something very typical starts happening. The rest of the protesters begin to chant "Shame on you!" at police. I've heard this chant, or its shorter version, "Shame! Shame! Shame!", more times than you can imagine. What I've never quite seen is it evolving the way it did in this incident. On the UC Davis campus two days ago, the egregious treatment of fellow student activists turned the observing audience into a hive-minded, nonviolent mob. Without any apparent coordination or instruction, what appears to be a crowd of a couple hundred slowly envelopes on three sides a squad of police brandishing pepper-ball guns and more capsicum canisters. At a tortoise's pace, the concerted crowd pushes the entire gaggle of cops off campus. Then the protesters celebrate, deservedly.
We should all be celebrating. This is a truly awesome event. Having spent 20 years attending demonstrations, including as a street medic at some of the most drastic clashes and standoffs between police and protesters in the days of global justice movement, I can attest that this is a highly unusual occurrence in North America. It reminded me of the tactic Zapatistas used to use to drive the Mexican army out of the autonomous communities, or even to occupy military bases! (That's from back when occupy meant you actually took over something of value to your opponent.)
Further, it is a testament to the power of nonviolent counter-aggression. I choose that term carefully. The action of the protesters in the video is clearly aggressive — they push the cops backward by advancing against them – but it is a response to an initial aggression. It's not pacifism in the fundamentalist sense, but it is nonviolent, it is intuitively democratic, and it is awesome. Pacifists and nonviolence fetishists often claim it's "authoritarian" to force one's will on another, even if it's a collective will. But they'd be hard-pressed, I imagine, to make a case that what happened in this scenario is wrong, even though it's just as coercive in this sense as had the act been carried out violently.
At the same time, I defy any Black Bloc participant to show me a better example of routing police violently. Now, I've seen violent dispersal of cops by protesters before, and I've even celebrated it in the right circumstances, such as when it opens a passage for nonviolent activists to access a target, or when it protects vulnerable or wounded fellow activists from police violence or arrest. But at least as often as not, routing attempts fail, leading to ugly clashes that give the cops and their corporate media stenographers an allegedly plausible excuse for the crackdown.
The optimal street tactic — when we need to be in the streets, which I think is far rarer than most protest-oriented activists want to admit — is aggressive or counter-aggressive nonviolence. We need a movement made up of people willing to face off police in overwhelming numbers without raising so much as a fist against them, using intimidation and mass shaming to push them onto their heels.
But what will it take to get activists to stop spectacularizing defeat by posting such videos on the Internet with complaints about how badly the cops treat us? When will we stop sniveling about and focusing on an initial defeat in the shadow of victory? Publicizing that police treat protesters badly has a purpose, but it's pretty marginal at this point. It's not news to the kind of people our movements really need to attract: not sheltered students and yuppie food-coop shoppers but working class and poor folks who are no more shocked by video of police violence than I am.
Showing the world that nonviolent direct action can address the matter better than civil suits, petitions, molotov cocktails, and YouTube exposures is so valuable to promoting the cause, only the Left could fuck it up when handed the perfect propaganda piece. Here we have on display an amazing tactic — one that can and should be repeated nationwide even before the chemical weapons and batons get used! — but what gets focused on is the initial defeat.
Shame! Shame! Shame! indeed.
Update: This story only gets better. Look at how the students forced their chancellor to leave campus in shame! (Scroll down to second video.)