First of all, I'd like to say I'm not going to blame individual police officers; I don't think violent police response to crowds is the result of a few bad apples among the police. I think the difference in response comes from institutional attitudes and police training. So what are my recent examples?
- At Penn State, a terrible story came out of a football coach who was seen raping a child under his care. The witness did nothing to stop the rape, instead reporting it to one of the coach's superiors. The incident was reported up the chain, and the decision was to do nothing and remain silent. The coach went on to rape more children. Recently this whole disgusting affair became public knowledge, and several of the superiors were forced to step down from their positions. In response, students at Penn State rioted in support of the superiors (and, I suppose, the right of football coaches to rape children without interference). These riots were violent; there is video of rioters flipping a news van. Police suppression was the minimum needed to clear the streets, and no arrests were made.
- The same evening, a line of Occupy protestors standing peacefully in a line were beaten with nightsticks by police. Many arrests were made. A few days later, a row of seated, nonviolent Occupy protestors were quite casually pepper sprayed by a police officer. In another incident, a peaceful octogenarian Occupy protestor was pepper-sprayed (she's fine, thankfully).
- This Friday was "Black Friday", where it is traditional for American big box stores to lower their prices and for people to camp out overnight and fight and trample each other in a rush to buy discounted items. This year I haven't seen any reports of people being trampled to death, although shoppers do appear to have pepper-sprayed, fought, and shot each other, leaving at least one grandfather bloodied and unconscious. Police did nothing about the encampment, and do not appear to have taken overly violent measures to shut down the violence.
- Earlier this week, the New York City police descended on Zucotti park in a midnight raid. They ejected the people of Occupy Wall Street, shredded their tents, and confiscated their belongings. They also confiscated and destroyed several thousand books from the Occupy Wall Street library (they did not actually burn the books, perhaps not wanting the parallels to be too obvious). Thankfully, they seem not to have applied too much violence, though there were many arrests.
I put it that way — the seriousness with which they take crowd suppression — rather than violence because I can accept that if you want to disperse a crowd of uncooperative people, you have to use a certain amount of force. Whether it's tear gas, pepper spray, beating with nightsticks, manhandling, or arrest, if you ask the police to get rid of a crowd, those are the tactics that they are going to need to use. So how important is it to us — to the society that grants the police a monopoly on the domestic use of force — that the police get rid of these various crowds?
It seems to me that the pattern is: some crowds do not threaten the social order. If sports fans go berserk, flip police cars, and loot shops, well, that's just how sports fans behave, so you try to limit the damage but don't otherwise worry too much. If sports fans flip a news van and smash things in support of the right of their heroes to turn a blind eye to rape, well again, that's just how sports fans behave. If shoppers are shooting each other and beating grandfathers unconscious, well, that's just how Black Friday works, and they're buying lots of goods, so again, just try to limit the damage.
On the other hand, nonviolent protesters who loudly criticize the growing social and economic inequality, who draw attention to corporate power over government, well, that threatens the established social order. (And yes, they genuinely do threaten it, as the successful nonviolent movements of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated.) So the social order tells the police, use force as needed to disperse these protestors. If it takes pepper spray, beatings, and arrests, so be it. If your shooting of peaceful protestors with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters puts an Iraq war veteran or two in critical condition, well, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.