Views of Venezuelan Protests, Pt. 3: Who is Policing the Protests? A Perspective from Venezuela’s National Bolivarian Police

The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome a special guest post, the third in a series from Rebecca Hanson on recent political developments in Venezuela. 

“It is better to think of the police as providing support to the National Guard in the protests [as opposed to the other way around].  The National Guard has more experience and more training…and they aren’t restricted [in their use of force] like us…We can’t even defend ourselves.”  –National Police officer-in-training

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Policing an Occupied Legislature, Part Three: Throwing Police Under the Bus.

[Updated 2014/03/25]

Propaganda from a Taiwanese protest camp

Fig. 1. Propaganda from the protest camp regarding last night’s police action: “You go to sleep. When you awake, Taiwan is not the same”

“Police friends,” said the student with a microphone, speaking over the heads of people facing him to the riot troops massing in the street behind them, “We have a chance to make history tonight! Join with us! Show the autocratic Ma government that the people and police are united!”

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Commentary & Forums

Reflections on Police Violence at Berkeley

I’ve been meaning to provoke a bit more discussion regarding the confrontation between police and protesters at UC Berkeley a couple of weeks ago (although I did post something on the matter before the Nov 20th occupation), but the demands of teaching and preparing for AAA’s have been forestalling my best intentions.  On top of that, to be honest, i’m not sure what I think about it.  I’m left, mostly, with a bunch of half-articulated questions.  Aaron Bady, a graduate student in English at Berkeley has some reflections along that line over at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Some sort of administration response to the occupation was inevitable, of course. But why was it necessary to direct police violence against the students outside Wheeler Hall? (In fact, the university has called for an independent investigation of police actions and the university’s own decisions that resulted in the police being called onto the campus.) The more the riot police surrounded Wheeler, the more students came out to watch. But the police treated that assembly of peaceful spectators like a clear and present danger, pushing and shoving back students whose crime seemed to be their very presence on their own campus. I cannot overstate how pointless and stupid it was. The police had marked off a perimeter around the building with crime-scene tape, and I have yet to hear the allegation that a single student ever tried to cross it. But when the police began to set up metal barricades, they ordered students to move back as they smashed the barricades into the front row of students. Students who didn’t respond instantly were beaten with batons; students who touched the barricades had their hands pounded with force enough to break bones.

via Making Sense of Senseless Violence at Berkeley – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In response to these questions Bady makes some gestures towards both Althusser and Weber and, while I think both are important routes to traverse, I think the tone in the passage above is probably the most appropriate–simultaneously critical and perplexed.  How can we proceed and maintain its tenor?

Commentary & Forums

Control as Explanation and as Topic to be Explained

Peter Moskos wrote a great editorial, “The Cop’s Eye View” in the Baltimore Sun in which he discusses a number of issues related to the Gates arrest. He describes the well known tactics for making someone arrestable by convincing them to step outside of their house in to the public space. But more importantly he describes the salience of control to himself and other police officers.  I think it is worth quoting Moskos in extenso:

“As police are almost always outnumbered, personal safety depends on a little bravado and a little bit of bluff. When I was a police officer in Baltimore, and somebody hanging out on the corner mumbled he was going to “get me,” he had to be confronted with swift, certain and appropriate deterrence. If there was a threat to my face, jail was automatic. If somebody said he was going to kick my ass, he probably could.

Police have a strong, justifiable need to control the situation. I didn’t want to be loved. I didn’t mind being feared. Respected was OK. But all that really mattered was to be obeyed. To have authority, police need a legal, all-purpose charge to arrest people when nothing else will do. In Baltimore, it was loitering. In New York (and, I suspect, Cambridge), it’s disorderly conduct. Police also need smart officers to not abuse their discretion.”

Often discussions of police conduct forget that police officers are social beings who play social games delimited by a peculiar set of spatial and temporal realties.  Policing is an “on the field” gig. Cops are engaged in face to face interactions in which there is little or no “time out” to reflect, deliberate, or work by committee. Temporal restraints come in the form of high call volume (the need to rapidly complete one situation so that a officer can move to the next); the fact that there is enormous uncertainty in how others will engage with the officer  means that officer do not have a stable set of temporal expectations for how any given encounter will unfold; and the strip of behavior (sequential exchange) that makes up any given police-citizen encounter tends to occur on the plane of micro-interactions in which gestures and movements are the fabric of reality and are themselves unfolding rapidly. The fact that cops work with citizens and suspects in close physical proximity also means that there is little time to act and react. Hence police officers have cultivated a set of situational perceptions and practices for managing their temporal reality; they call it “control.”

In this setting “control” is not about an authoritarian personality,  motives, intentions, or a psychological need for dominion and respect. Rather, control and its attendant categories like obeying and authority are, from the cops point of view, methods of stabilizing interactions and creating order. The lessons of social psychology and ethnomethodology is that social order, i.e. stable predictable interactions, are an ongoing and highly contingent accomplishment of active social agents. “Control” is very much about creating some kind of stable footing in a unstable social encounter in which there is not time to build mutual understandings of the situation.  Seeing “control” as a folk method having everything to do with social stability and mutual understanding may not be popular but may be sociologically necessary to understanding police behavior. In other words, what Peter sees as the procedural “working acts” of navigating a situation, bystanders see as a quality of the actor.

The need for the police to bluff, bluster, and beat their chests is not something to be denigrated. Peter is absoultey right about how much officer safety depends on the ability to project not simply an authoritative presence but one that must be taken “seriously.” When out numbered no single officer can physically control a group. But the performance of being able to “do what it takes” to maintain “control” is a strategic presentation of self that is often necessary. It is no different than the need of gang leaders or “bad asses” described by Jack Katz in The Seductions of Crime to present a front of danger and unpredictability that will keep dangers opponents and underlings at bay.

According to Katz, the “bad ass” has to be willing to “go all the way” and must occasionally engage in frenzied violence so that violence is not situationally necessary the majority of the time. What bad asses or gang leaders do is similar to cops “controlling” gang members or generating fear on the street (for example see Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street). Respect is a fragile thin on  the streets and to the extent that face must be guarded and continually restituted, violence becomes the “bangers” answer to slight. Without respect bangers loose standing and their power. Sadly for cops this is often the world they are operating in. Officers don’t get to define “the street,” they are visitors who learn to operate according to similar principles, i.e.  routine grounds of interaction.  Similarly, cops need the ability to make an arrest when challenged in doing their job. Cops can’t “thump” people for disrespecting them, challenging their legitimacy, or threatening them. It is not about control for controls sake. It is about quilting together a patchwork of interactive strategies that are, like it or not, are the fabric of face-to-face interactions on the street.

All of this is necessary, as Peter indicates, because officers need to be able to enter and exit situations swiftly and safely. There can’t be debate each time about the definition of the situation or the relevant systems of classification that are going to be deployed in each encounter (this is the conflict that Jonathan Wender describes eloquently in  Policing as Poetry). We may not like police “control” at a visceral level. But before we judge it it is worth understanding how police use “control” as a folk methodology for negotiating order and maintaining their safety at the micro level.

To see “control” sociologically is not to look down on social action, but to see the complicating position of the method of actors. “Control” thus has to be understood as belonging to the realm of practical activity. When cops talk of control they do so within a realm of action different than the world of activity in which outside spectators use it. Control can exist in different  language games, so to speak, and it is critical that outside commentators beware of the dual existence of “controls” use in speech. We can judge it at a distance but before ridiculing it we must also make some attempt to understand the officers practical relationship to the concept and practice of control and see what it does for the office in situ. This is what seeing policing sociologically must mean.


Tasers, tasers and more tasers: this time at an Oakland A’s game

It’s becoming clear that “the taser” will have to be one of the things we think through…  Another incident, this time right here in the East Bay:

According to Oakland Police spokesman Jeff Thomason, the unidentified man was allegedly drunk and yelling profanities, prompting A’s security to ask the cops to have him removed. Police say he appeared to be intoxicated, refused to leave and took a swipe at one of the cops. “Given his size and his condition the officer thought it appropriate to taser him,” Thomason said. The tased fan was hospitalized and held on a “5150″ crazy hold.

via Matier And Ross : Taserball.

What’s more, the tasing officer has himself been the object of much scrutiny over the last several months, including some of the corollary incidents that occurred in the wake of the Oscar Grant shooting.

Now, I don’t think it’s very helpful if this blog serves just to document the many tasing incidents that occur–as our own socdeputy points out, by many important measures the use of these non-lethal implements is rather paltry.  On the other hand, and I think Brian would agree with me here as well, the fact that these incidents captures the public imagination is inself something that we probably need to reflect on.

Now, some of you may have read an article that I’ve been preparing (and finally submitted!) which argues that paying attention to the figure of the taser in the French banlieue riots of 2005 and 2007 offers insights into the very form of political action at stake in France today.  I call this emergent space, briefly, the “problem of a post-social police”– a pervasive set of open questions (ethical, social, political, technical) that are being negotiated around the goals, orientations and forms of legitimacy associated with the police once one of its founding objects, The Social, has lost its sway.

Now, from that perspective, one of the interesting aspects of the video (which can be seen below, after the break) is the way that, even as the incident is unfolding, there is a high degree of quite public negotiation of the scene: you can hear people off-camera debating the police action (“i can’t believe you guys tased him!”  “He was being belligerent!”); some people move away, while one man tried to move forward, causing a minor incident of its own; and, if I’m not mistaken, you can see some uncertainty among the police themselves as to how to move forward–after the man is (literally) done thumbing his nose at the cops, he appears to actually be putting out his hands to be cuffed.  One of the officers in physical contact with the man actually jumps back, apparently surprised by the second “tase”.  To add to everything a foul ball happens to be hit right into the middle of the fracas.

At the very least, I would hope that an anthropology of policing would be able to account for the complex levels at which incidents like this occur…

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Commentary & Forums

The Political Framing of Tasers

To contribute to the discussion on Taser’s and other “less lethal” or “less than lethal” weaponry, I wanted to contribute a letter I sent to the NY Times back in July 2007, regarding an editorial

“Last weeks editorial on Tasers (6/



24/08) is problematic. Citing Amnesty International’s report, it asserts that 300 people have died around the world from the use of the Taser. But what is the statistical significance of this number? Citing the number “300” does little to inform the reader of the relative risk of death or injury from the Taser since we don’t know how many people have been Tasered, under what conditions, and with what consequences. It may well be that more have died from batons, police officers using there hands and feet, or the “dog pilling” that used to restrain violent persons. Any risk analysis of the Taser must situate the Taser within the universe of force options available to the police and the risk of any police-citizen encounter. We also need to know whether injuries and deaths, over all, are increased or reduced by the introduction of Taser. More to the point, Amnesty’s report does not represent a consensus within the scientific, medical or law enforcement community.

Scientific debates aside, it is worth reflecting on the representation of what is normal police work for police in the editorial. The Author writes, “[Tasers] might make sense as a last-resort alternative to lethal force, but it would be folly to allow them to be used in more routine situations like crowd control or policing political demonstrations” (italics mine). It is common knowledge to law enforcement, sociologists and criminologists who study the police, that “crowd control or political demonstrations” are not part of routine police work. They are rare exceptions and typically limited to large urban departments. As such articulating Taser debates in terms of political demonstrations and crowd control is not useful.

It is worth inquiring why the Taser has so captured the imagination of the public and the media. Ultimately it has become a fetishized object for debating the very legitimacy of the police. As the epitome of rationalized and technological state control of the unruly, it is a powerful metaphor for the left to think the police within the neoliberal age. But metaphors also can limit our understandings. The fact is police are primarily negotiators, beings who talk their way through conflicts rather then resorting to violence. This has been substantiated by 30 years of sociological research, which time and time show that police ultimately are best understood as supervisors of “volatile working groups.”

Yet misperceptions of what is “normal” police behaviors fetshizes the Taser at the expense of a cogent examination of routine police behaviors that do endanger the public. For example, recently within the law enforcement community there has been introspection regarding pursuit and emergency driving. Routine police driving behaviors put citizen’s lives and property in danger on a scale greater than that posed by the Taser. According to NHTSA, in 2006 alone, there were 404 pursuit related fatalities, 133 (33%) were innocent bystanders. Between 1983 and 2006 there were at total of 8139 fatalities.  I cite these statistics to put the danger presented by the Taser into perspective.

The attention attracted by the Taser also distracts from the social contexts that incubate situations in which police officers typically use Tasers.  Officers tend to use force on people who are under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or experiencing mental health crises. These persons typically are more resistant to negotiation and verbal commands, behave erratically, and don’t respond to hands-on police tactics. These are also disproportionally the economically and socially dispossessed. Police are called in as a last resort when individuals and groups have exhausted their local resources. Unfortunately the vertiginous withdrawal of government from providing basic social, health, and mental health services and under funding of drug and alcohol treatment programs, means that police officers respond only after problems have been left to fester . By the time police become involved the situation has deteriorated to the point  that force is likely needed to resolve a situation through arrest.

If we want to reduce deaths in situations involving Tasers we would do better to eliminate causes of poverty, help raise the standards of living of vulnerable populations, and cease using the police as an answer to the decline of welfare institutions.”


Anthropoliteia Around the Web 7/16/09

Bits and pieces from around the web:

“I’m not using excessive force, you’re excessively excited!”

This is a bit old, but NPR has an interesting series of reports on tasers and “death by excited delirium,” which is not a medically recognized condition.  You can listen to them here and here.

(thanks to Peter Moskos’ blog Cop In the Hood, and to Meg for pointing out how “dope” the site is)

“It’s not a deadly weapon, you’re just using it wrong… and by ‘you’ I mean lots of you, again and again, in  a systematic manner”

Speaking of the use of non-lethal force, there’s been another in a series of  incidents concerning the improper use of the French non-lethal police tool called the Flash-ball, this time in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil. Francophones can read a commentary by Georges Moréas, who thinks the problem is not with the arm but with the rules for its utilization,  at the Le Monde-affiliated blog “Police et cetera” here.   It’s worth looking at, if only for the cool impact photos of the various types of ammunition which, Moréas reminds us, has the stopping power of a .38 Special (the weapon, not the Southern rock band).

Training is mostly B.S.

Also from Cop in the Hood, Moskos comments on a piece in The Oregonian which details changes in the amount of time, and schedule for, police recruits spending time in the field during their training. “Of my six months in the academy. I’d say that one month was wasted by sitting in an empty room or getting yelled at. Another 2 months were all but wasted with B.S. “classes” where nothing was really learned. That leaves three months of training that was actually productive. And I think I’m being generous,” estimates Moskos.