On Tuesday, we argued that Occupy Wall Street movements could achieve their aims in better ways than through (often illegal) protests. After Monday night’s Occupy Boston demonstration, however, which saw 129 arrests in the early hours of Tuesday, much has been said about police brutality toward the protesters. The arrests, which involved both Harvard students and alumni, took place in Dewey Square, where the protesters did not have permission to assemble and after a standoff with Boston police. Although it is all too easy for observers to condemn the actions of the police in volatile situations, what may seem like so-called “brutality” on a camera does not mean we can or should judge the police’s behavior as wrong.
In many demonstrations where clashes between police and protesters take place, instances of inappropriate violence by a specific policeman often occur. However, the barrier between using acceptable force to make a justified arrest and police brutality is far less rigid than some would like us to think. And in any case, the potentially disproportionate actions of a single police officer cannot correspond to a wider designation of “police brutality” on the part of all officers. No evidence has been shown and little claims made of systemic beatings or other types of violence committed by a large portion of the police force.
In the end, the fact is that the protesters, whether they were young students or the anti-war Veterans for Peace group, refused to comply with fairly legitimate demands by city authorities and formed a human chain to stop officers breaking up the protest. Police using force never makes for pleasant viewing, especially when some of the protesters were older, but “police brutality” comes nowhere near to describing what might by most accounts actually characterized the Dewey Square arrests. Mentions of police brutality inevitably, and perhaps deliberately, allude to infamous cases such as the March 3, 1990 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, or responses to civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s. Clearly, nothing of this nature occurred Tuesday morning: Police used no tear gas, no pepper spray, and no dogs.
Unlike in reports of previous mass arrests over the past two weeks, local officials processed the arrests quickly this time in Boston. Protesters were released on bail a few hours later, in time to eat breakfast. This adds to the overall impression that Boston police overall reacted in as efficient and as measured a way as possible. Although the fact that the arrests took place suddenly and at night seems at first glance disturbing, it is difficult to fault the police for attempting to minimize the already considerable disturbance caused by an unsanctioned protest site and sit-in. Many protests get out of hand or pose a threat to the public precisely because they are either not contained or because clashes with police occur at a time when many other members of the public are in proximity. At 1:30 a.m., this threat is minimized.
Throughout the evening, Twitter and other social media outlets went ablaze with references to Occupy Boston and wild claims of police brutality. This helped circulate a much-believed myth that reporters were told to leave the scene, a point clarified in The Crimson’s own article on Tuesday. The capability of social media to facilitate the dissemination of information from a vast array of outlets and individuals is well-documented. On the whole, this is clearly a positive phenomenon, and much has been made by many in the past year over social media’s role in helping the organization of the revolutions in Arab Spring. At the same time, Twitter and other sites carry the clear potential to legitimize and spread like wildfire popular and frequently inaccurate rumors. During moments of heightened sensitivity, it becomes all the more important for the public and the traditional media to remain especially skeptical of things they read on Twitter.
In evaluating many of our fellow students’ role in Occupy Boston, Harvard’s campus should not let word of mouth color everyone’s own reasonable judgment. Boston’s police had and have a duty to uphold the law and maintain public order. In doing so early on Tuesday, they acted in the interest of our community as a whole. Evidential proof of “police brutality” is lacking; that police force was needed to make a lawful arrest is customary to demonstrations and legitimate police responses across the world. Whatever we think of the message behind Occupy Boston or however many friends we may count among the protesters, we should not rush to condemn the Boston police.