Stop the Violence Now

After the dignity and inspiration of the Arab Spring, what we are now witnessing in the United States has been an inspiration to millions of people who long to have a voice in their society. Yet some city governments are ordering the use of paramilitary assault tactics against unarmed civilians engaged in constitutionally protected peaceful assembly and free expression. In Oakland, we have now seen two displays of overwhelming, deliberate, combat-style police actions against unarmed civilians exercising their basic rights.

Video has emerged clearly confirming eyewitness reports that Oakland police fired directly into crowds of unarmed demonstrators with tear gas and flash-bang grenades. Scott Olsen, now famous the world over, was shot in the face when police fired “non-lethal” rubber bullets directly at protesters’ heads, at close range.  Video shows a combination flash-bang/teargas grenade being fired directly into the middle of a crowd of people attempting to tend to him as he lay bleeding on the ground.

When several thousand people gathered to march in solidarity with Olsen, they were again attacked. But Oakland is not alone. The violence in Chicago has marred the legacy of Mayor Emanuel, possibly irreparably. In New York City, the authorities’ refusal to learn from past mistakes is making once lauded mayor Mike Bloomberg into a remote, enigmatic and shame-laden figure to many citizens. In Denver, the latest confrontation in which police used unnecessary force against peaceful protesters has now occurred.

In New York City, when thousands gathered to march in solidarity with the people of Oakland, with Scott Olsen and with the Occupy Oakland movement, an ugly skirmish ensued, in which throngs of uniformed NYPD officers were caught on video grabbing civilians from sidewalks, throwing them to the pavement, in some cases beating them furiously even as they lay with hands bound, face pressed into the pavement.

The level of violence is extreme, and authorities have refused to apologize, to take serious legal action to stop it or to punish those responsible. In New York, when a senior police officer used pepper spray—a chemical weapon—against four women already (illegally?) held in a makeshift pen, he was given desk duty as a punishment, and faced no prosecution for excessive force, abuse of power, or aggravated assault. Video showed the officer not only red-faced and raging, but later rampaging along the sidewalk spraying other bystanders.

The apparent official indifference to this rash of police brutality against unarmed civilians is demonstrating how rapidly those elected to serve the people can abandon their oath, leave reason and sound moral judgment behind, and resort to animal monstrosities that have no place in any decent or civilized society, much less in a free and open democracy.

Every person has a right to be on the street, to use public space, to speak freely and to protest unaccountable acts by government or by other powerful elites. This is the foundation of our society, and must be honored and respected by all who choose to serve in public office, at any level, even when it is difficult or uncomfortable. It is an absolute moral necessity that no agent of official power ever feel free, in any case, to use even moderate force against any unarmed, unthreatening civilian, for any reason.

The bottom line is: There is NEVER any just cause, under any circumstances—no matter how clever the justification concocted to make the unconscionable appear necessary—for the use of physical force against unarmed civilians. Democracy exists specifically to enforce this principle and to regulate the actions of the powerful, so that they are no longer capable of atrocities against common sense or dignified human conscience.

One of the reasons former US Marines and other service personnel are getting involved in the protests is because they are outraged, in ways they can hardly express, at the sight of American police forces using paramilitary assault tactics to deny unarmed, nonviolent civilians their basic civil liberties. I have heard this precise sentiment expressed by a former US Marine who traveled from Tennessee to New York City, to support the protests, live and work at Zuccotti Park, provide security to the Occupiers, and demand an end to all forms of violence against civilians.

He said, specifically, that he did not fight in combat so that American civilians could be attacked in the streets by those sworn to protect and serve them. Similar sentiments have been heard across the country, especially since the wanton shooting of Scott Olsen and the escalating violence some now blame on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his surprise, midnight paramilitary raid on peaceful demonstrators using public space.

There is no place for government violence against civilians in a free democracy. There is no place for violence against any unarmed, non-threatening person anywhere, at anyone’s hands. We all have a moral obligation to stand up and to demand an immediate ban on all forms of police violence against peaceful demonstrators.

It is all of our responsibility, as citizens of a free society, to demand dignified humane treatment of all people everywhere. To fail do so, at any moment, is moral laziness, and gives comfort to all of those who use any form of brutality. The Occupy Wall Street movement wants the right to participation to be respected, wants the marginalized to have a voice, wants the respect and dignity of full citizenship for all people.

The American people are waking up to the fact that we can no longer accept a regime of public servants who do not live up to that demand.

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Originally published October 30, 2011, at

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