As if the violent police raid of Occupy Oakland on October 25 wasn’t disturbing enough, California has seen yet another incident of unwarranted police brutality at its UC Davis campus, where a police officer was filmed pepper-spraying a line of completely nonviolent, seated students.
In New York City, the immense success of N17 was somewhat overshadowed by a growing antagonism between the New York Police Department and the protesters – and by a massive police force throughout the day, who arrested hundreds of people that morning, and later, forcefully pushed student marchers out of the streets and attempted to blockade thousands of them. While the police had never exactly been friendly toward the occupiers in Liberty Square, Monday night’s eviction demonstrated just how much power the NYPD can wield. They carried out their raid under the cover of night, letting no journalists near enough to witness. Occupiers who chose to stay in the park were pepper-sprayed and arrested.
One former police captain from Philadelphia, Ray Lewis, was so disgusted by the images of police brutality he was seeing on the news that he traveled to New York City to show his solidarity. He got there right after the eviction occurred; a few days later, on N17, he found himself standing alongside protesters who were trying to shut down the New York Stock Exchange. While wearing his uniform, he refused to budge from the entrance to the NYSE, and was arrested.
On Sunday night, November 20th, a group called the Think Tank gathered in Liberty Park to debate the relationship between police and the Occupy movement. Captain Lewis participated in the discussion, and also shared with me some insight into the lives of police officers that provides clarity on the abuses of power we are seeing now.
Rachel Signer: What made you come here to support Occupy?
Ray Lewis: I have tremendous empathy for anything that suffers, and I saw a lot of suffering going on here with the Occupiers. Their conviction to stay here, in those conditions, inspired me. I couldn’t remain in my cozy environment.
It seems that one of the reasons the police are so aggressive toward protesters is that there are class differences. Police officers tend to be from the working-class, but many of these protesters are middle-class and educated.
When I first joined the police force, I wouldn’t let anybody know I had a college degree. Then one day the Lieutenant found out. He said, ‘So, you’re a college boy; we’ll see how long you last.’ Now, more new cops are coming in with college degrees because unemployment is so high, they can’t get other kinds of jobs.
What do you think about the idea that the police are part of the 99 percent and should be sympathetic to Occupy?
A lot of them are sympathetic. The police are protectors of the 1 percent but they do not feel secure in that role. New hires on the force have their pensions cut to about fifty percent of what they used to be. Their health care is being taken away. The force is understaffed, so officers have double workloads. It used to be you’d have a job, then you’d patrol, then you’d have a job, then you’d patrol; now you just go from job to job to job. They are being run ragged. Also, the police force chooses people who are less sensitive to human suffering. They issue a personality test, called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, and they don’t hire officers who rate as too sensitive; they need people who are hardened to guts, gore, and depressing scenes. And those individuals are also more likely to become violent.
What was it like to get arrested for protesting?
I am retired and no longer associated with the Philadelphia Police Department. I was in jail for ten, eleven hours. I was in uniform. And the reason for that was that I realized I could be very effective. I was tired of corporate media stigmatizing and marginalizing this group as people who mainstream America could not relate to – pink hair, piercings, tattoos. So I said, let them try to marginalize me, and show that these are not just weirdos that Americans cannot relate to. I thought my uniform would be very effective.
What do you think about the behavior of the police toward the Occupy movement?
The police are only supposed to use force to prevent bodily injury or death. The idea is to use the minimum force necessary to accomplish the task. That pepper-spray incident [at UC Davis] blew my mind. When I was young we only had the mainstream, corporate press, but now everyone has cameras and we can all show mainstream America that police are beating passive people who are nonviolent. That’s what we need in this movement: to get more of mainstream America to join us.