Saturday, November 26, 2011

UC Davis Incident: A Technical Critique

I suppose everyone has seen this video by now.

I’ll start off by saying that from a big picture point of view, I don’t know much about this incident. I don’t know much about Occupy Wall Street, I don’t know what (if any) goals they have. I don’t know what these students were trying to accomplish, or whether they knew what they were trying to accomplish, or how legal their protest was. I also don’t know much about the overall decisions from the cops’ point of view. Whether it was necessary to move the protestors or not, whether it was necessary to intervene at all, I can’t say. My issue with this is from a much more technical point of view. That’s not how you run a revolution, and it’s not how you deal with one. Both sides seemed amateurish to me.

First, from the cops point of view: Let’s bypass the question of the legality of breaking up the protest, and the decision to make the arrests and skip straight to how that decision was executed. Cops on UC Davis campus: automatically in hostile territory. They can start by knowing that 1: they are not welcome; 2: they are already assumed guilty until proven innocent; 3: they are surrounded by cameras, which is essentially a hostile PR campaign already under weigh. Thanks to this attitude, combined with the ubiquity of I-Phones and youtube, police ought to know that even before they get on the ground they are already the target of choice for a decentralized mechanism of propaganda gathering and distribution.

This situation is the truth on the ground. Lack of situational awareness of this strategic concern is the root issue behind the mistakes made.

If you watch the video carefully you’ll notice that the only voices you can hear are the voices of protesters. They are not especially unified, not especially controlled, but they have one advantage: they are loud. By contrast the cops are absolutely silent. They aren’t yelling and screaming, only a few of them are doing the talking and they appear to be the command and control (C&C) element for the riot control unit. This is good unit discipline, but bad PR. It means that the only point of view that is going to be heard is the protesters. Anything the cops say afterwards is automatically damage control at best, which leads me to my first critique: where was the megaphone? If you are a riot control unit, your megaphone is your primary weapon. If you don’t have one, you’re wrong. You can’t shout down the protestors, but you can at the least make sure that you are providing a step by step narration of what you are doing, which is then an intrinsic part of any audio record of the event.

Next step, the decision to arrest was made. Already their actions are crippled because they don’t have the shouting power to issue clear instructions or ultimatums. All we see is one muttered contact in the first ten seconds, and then two minutes of the cops standing around, silent and indecisive. I know what they are doing. They are pulling security, while the C&C element makes up their minds what to do. Bravo on maintaining good discipline, but in the long run it makes them look like idiots. At 2:12 you can see one officer make one half-hearted attempt to pull one of the protesters out of their formation. Everyone knows what’s coming, but the cops are not visibly trying to resolve the situation without escalating to the use of chemicals. So I have to ask, what is their protocol? Given a decision to arrest, it might be argued that it’s safer to break up the formation with pepper spray than with batons. I would whole heartedly agree with that. However, there has to be an escalation of force protocol. Warnings (mostly inaudible apparently) notwithstanding, I would question the wisdom of going directly from verbal warning to pepper spray. There has to be an intermediate level of force.

Starting at 2:05 you can hear a female voice yelling “Protect yourselves, cover your eyes.” Why shouldn’t that warning have come from the cops? Nothing enhances your image like visibly and obviously seeking to limit damage to your opponents.

The actual spraying, from 2:25 on is obviously visually disturbing to civilians. It looks so wanton, so cold-blooded, so cruel. He’s spraying it right in their faces and they aren’t violent, aren’t visibly resisting. It screams “Police Brutality.” From a tactical point of view I can understand it, though. Once the decision is made to move them, and the tool chosen is pepper spray, it makes no sense to delay or be half-hearted about it. Either do it or don’t do it, but don’t half do it. It does no one any favors to draw it out. One quick pass across their faces is not going to damage them seriously, and from then on out, it’s all business. Break up the formation, pair up on the protestors, cuff them and move them out. I would have had my paddy wagon closer, but other than that it was tactically pretty good. They don’t lose security either. The perimeter gets pretty thin at one point, but by 4:30 all the moving pieces are resolved. The perimeter is full and solid, and it needs to be. They are surrounded by a crowd, and maybe the crowd was initially spectators, but now they are clearly shifting into protester mode. Anyone who was not involved before is involved now. A solid perimeter is a must.

Say what you will, from the point of view of the cops it is a tactical success. They moved into a hostile crowd, arrested the focal point of that crowd and moved out in less than ten minutes with no injuries on either side. No one broke ranks, no one went crazy, the objective was met and the withdrawal was planned and disciplined. The problem is, no one is ever going to see it from their point of view except those who already know it.

Now, let’s move to the protestor side of the house: Overall I am left with an impression of simple, mass hysteria. They did a lot of things right. There were clearly movers and shakers within the crowd who were periodically able to start a mass chant, aided by the fact that it’s friendly territory for them. Those most involved have at least passive support of everyone around them, and moral support from a majority of potential youtube viewers. They can move with ease, their risk is minimal due to the cops’ rules of engagement, and their payoff is potentially high. The big questions I have really come down to, What’s it all about? Who organized the protest? Who decided to occupy that particular piece of ground, and why? Was pepper spray anticipated? Apparently not, but an intelligent organizer might have anticipated it, and planned a ready-made PR campaign for it. Overall, though, my impression is of hot-headed, young, amateurish disorganization. I would bet most of the people there could not have told you why they were protesting or what their goals were in any coherent form that would hold water for more than a minute. They didn’t need to. Whoever organized it doesn’t need intelligent disciples to provide rational argument on a popular level. He needs bodies to fill space, and vocal cords to fill the air with noise.

The exploitation of the incident was ad hoc, and hot-headed. At 8:56 you can see that the crowd is getting riled up, and is starting to press the cop’s withdrawal. A cop flashes a tear gas canister and a student yells “They’re spraying again.” The crowd backs off a little and at 9:05 you hear a voice start rising out of the chaos. Again, it is not the cops, it is a protestor. He essentially leads the crowd in proclaiming that they are going to give them a moment of peace so that the cops can leave. By 9:33 they are cheering and shouting as if they drove out the invader, when that is simply not what happened. It was a spur of the moment thing, and it was hot-headed. Taunting edgy, adrenalized cops in a situation like that is far from a smart move, tactically. Strategically it makes all the sense in the world because any reaction on their part is more fuel for your fire later on, but the fact remains that it was only the fact that those police officers were disciplined and did not rise to the taunts that saved those kids from a serious hurting. Their restraint was the protestors’ only guarantee of safety. The taunting was a juvenile attempt to appear in control of the situation, when that was far from the truth, but once again, the truth matters very little to America. The cops won the battle, but they lost the war.

The protestors were a little lacking in follow-up, though. This is a golden opportunity to get the message out but there seems to be an issue: There is no message. There are only pity-parties, such as this first class example of incident exploitation. No manifestos. No pithy statements of objectives. There aren’t even any demands. I still have no idea what they were protesting. There should be a website with clearly defined problems to be addressed and solutions to those problems proposed. But I haven’t seen it. Nothing.

This leads me to my biggest issue with the protestors. In the Army we have a saying: “If you don’t have a solution, don’t point out the problem.” Apparently these kids see a problem. Whether it is a legitimate problem or not I don’t know, but all they are doing is criticizing. As far as I can tell there is no effort to come up with a solution. That’s the government’s job, apparently. There is no coordination, no planning, no foresight. They seem to be flying on the seat of their pants, letting an agenda emerge haphazardly as they go along. As someone with some degree of specialized knowledge on this subject, that’s no way to run a revolution, unless your goal is simply mass hysteria. I can think of several scenarios that would fit that picture.

I do not take sides on this issue. I neither condone the use of tear gas, nor do I agree with the protestor’s allegations of police misconduct. If I have put a little more time into showing what I perceive to be the cops’ point of view it is because no one else seems to. I am trying to avoid Monday morning quarterbacking. Instead I am trying to provide an honest and objective assessment of both sides. I have no illusions that either side will read it, but it might just help a few spectators find a more balanced and hopefully charitable view.

1 comment:

  1. A well-thought out perspective. I am intrigued to hear the opinion of a soldier on these sorts of events.

    I think you're correct: there is definitely a two0sided problem going on here. Police need a new awareness of the people's perception of them and how to beef up their image. The protesters need (besides baths) a clearer focus and objective and have a reason why occupying anything will accomplish something other than frustration and violence.