American Police Are Acting Like Military Occupiers
Cops may have sexually assaulted protesters in Washington, D.C.
Four people arrested at an inauguration protest in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20, 2017 are suing the city’s Metropolitan Police Department for using rape and molestation as a form of punishment.
Photojournalist Shay Horse, volunteer legal-observer Judah Ariel and protesters Elizabeth Lagesse and Milo Gonzalez allege they were assaulted by police after they and others were “kettled” — indiscriminately rounded-up — during the protest.
“It felt like they were trying to break me and the others, break us so that even if the charges didn’t stick, that night would be our punishment,” Horse said.
This kind of abuse is both a major violation of the rights of the alleged victims and, potentially, a preview of increasingly aggressive police tactics for dissuading protest. Ideologically, sexual assault by police dovetails with the escalating militarization of law-enforcement across the United States.
Officials have cited the wars on drugs and terror to justify the transfer of more and more surplus military equipment to domestic police forces, with the result that the officers patrolling our streets increasingly look like an occupying military force.
The inverse of that — they can see themselves as warriors on the front line in a hostile territory.
There has long been a link in Western culture between masculinity and participation in uniformed, armed service of some sort. And those have also historically been linked to citizenship. The men who take up arms to defend a country are widely considered the most entitled to fully participate in the country’s public and political affairs.
Just as soldiers are seen as the protectors of the state abroad and along its borders, police are perceived as its domestic enforcers, ensuring order and preserving the institutions of power. This divide between the public and the police is growing more explicit as the one between police and the military … grows blurrier.
Part of this process is the warrior-cop symbolically becoming the paragon of both citizenship and masculinity, with those two concepts becoming indelibly intertwined. An outgrowth of that process is that protesters — and those merely perceived as being protesters, even if they’re actually journalists or legal observers — are increasingly seen as an enemy, a legitimate target for violence and degradation.
Sexual assault in particular is a way of reinforcing this divide — it emasculates male survivors, further denigrates female ones and ties both of those effects to a weakening of citizenship rights. You aren’t entitled to protest unmolested, because you don’t represent the legitimate qualities and values of real Americans.
U.S. Air Force airmen and police watch over protesters at the inauguration in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20, 2017. Air Force photo
In military occupations, bodies represent the most intimate of contested territory. The individual act of dominance over one person’s bodily autonomy is also symbolic of the more complete domination of the occupier’s group over the occupied. In this case, it establishes the supremacy of American police over the people they supposedly swore to protect.
This is again connected to the presentation of the warrior-cop as the ultimate citizen. The valorization of cops and their courage and supposed virtue has an almost paradoxical effect. We believe in their courage because they’ve willingly taken on an admittedly dangerous job. Yet because of that, we find it appropriate for them to take disproportionate measures to protect their own lives.
We believe their work is necessary to protect civilians from violence. Yet we allow them to unleash incredible violence on civilians at the slightest provocation, whether real or imagined. Their use of force is supposed to be predicated on their willingness to take greater risks than the rest of us do, yet we excuse their use of force in purported defense of themselves.
This leads to the situation we’re currently in, where police enjoy greater rights than non-police do. They can dominate the public space because they can dominate our bodies — without accountability.
The fact that this domination was not just violent but also sexual highlights the ways that power is gendered. Sexual assault in general is about control and domination more than it is sexual desire, and assaults like those that allegedly took place in Washington, D.C. are meant to humiliate and demean the victim.
When that victim is female, it’s an assertion that the aggressor has the right to her body because she’s less powerful and less worthy of power than he is. When that victim is male, the assault is meant to convince him that he isn’t a “real” man, as he was incapable of defending himself.
In a military occupation, sexual assault is a tactic for demoralizing the occupied population. Every rape is portrayed as a failure of the occupied group’s armed forces to adequately protect their people. In that way, fighters for the occupied land are emasculated and made lesser citizens of their own country.
In the case of police assaults on protesters, the rape is an assertion that your body isn’t truly yours, and neither is your country. Both belong to the occupying force, the police officers who represent the violent coercive power of the state. Even when they engage in activity that is technically against the law, they do it as representatives of the state and as symbolic defenders of its legitimacy.
The more we portray police as warriors or allow them to portray themselves as such, the more brazenly they will bring to bear this kind of violence on our populace. Enhancing their rights to endanger our own.
At the same time, our valorization of military values has out-sized effects on civilians around the world. When we consider all soldiers to be heroes — without considering either their individual conduct in cases of abuse or questioning the missions for which they deploy — we undermine the rights and safety of people around the world.