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“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historical facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
You have probably heard that saying, with everything before the colon boiled down to “history repeats itself,” before — though you may not have known that its author was Karl Marx. In any event, the past two Julys in north-central Orange County have reversed Marx’s dictum. The earlier killing of Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, while tragic, played out as a farce.
“Farcical” doesn’t necessarily mean funny — and in this case it wasn’t at all. It means ludicrous, ridiculously clumsy, absurd. (The rein of Louis Napoleon, to which Marx referred as a farce, was not exactly bloodless.) What farce lacks is gravitas, weighty characters making momentous decisions towards an eventual war.
In a farce, crazy results are set in motion by often-grotesque characters that lead to coincidences and bizarrely interacting effects. Consider: the phone call from the Slidebar; the odd meeting between Officers Ramos and Wolfe with Thomas, who (having some mental issues) was not perfectly following their instructions; Ramos’s ceremonial putting on of gloves to threaten Thomas if he didn’t cooperate; Thomas slipping away while Wolfe and Ramos flailed at him with batons; his capture and prolonged being sat-upon while the police tried to get him in a perfectly safe (for them) and handcuffed position; the apparently refusal to accept that when Thomas said that he couldn’t breathe it may have been because he couldn’t breathe; the arrival of Barney-Fife-like Jay Ciccinelli on the scene; his decision to tase Thomas and then — incredibly – to beat in his face; a cop (wasn’t this Cicinelli too?) pushing his back against that of one of the cops holding down Thomas to increase the force holding him down; the mournful last vocalizations of Thomas (not funny at all, but instead underlining the tragedy behind the manic Keystone-Kops-adapted-by-Stephen-King aspect of much of what had been gone before); then, of course, the failure of the bumbling City Council leadership to react with human emotion and decency — and a year of Kelly’s Army ripping that Council to ragged threads at every opportunity.
You could hardly script something this sloppy and bad — something in which everyone involved that dark day (except maybe Ciccinelli) would probably have immediately hit “rewind” and played it out again differently, if they could, had they seen how it would play out.
It’s easy to script Anaheim, though. We know how it’s going to play out; people have had plenty of time to plan their moves and strategies. The characters are not grotesques, but archetypes; even with foreknowledge of how it may end, it seems unlikely that the major characters would try to turn back time now. That’s the hallmark of tragedy — its seeming inevitability. And now the dismally farcical events of Fullerton are repeating themselves in Anaheim as tragedy.
The Homeless versus Gangs
The analogy binding these July 2011 and July 2012 goes like this:
Fullerton : Homeless :: Anaheim : Gangs
(For those of you who never took college tests, that mean “Fullerton is to the Homeless as Anaheim is to Gangs.”)
Homeless people out in public spaces are not, by and large, dangerous. Other residents view them less with fear for personal safety than with disgust. Where fear comes into play, it’s usually something like a fear of hurting business based on others’ expected disgust at the presence of the homeless.
Gangs are a whole different matter. Gangs induce fear of personal safety, fear of community dissolution; fear of social discord. Both homelessness and gangs are signs of weakness of civilization in a locality, but different sorts of signs. The homeless are perceived as weak, gangs as strong. Barring a truly crackpot cop, official killing of the homeless happens through accident or negligence. Official killing of gang members is usually intentional. (And, of course, not everyone described as being a “gang member” will be active in the activities that the term suggests. The term almost invariably gets stuck on a shooting victim in a gang area.)
That’s what I think has struck most of us about the violence from police (and at least last Tuesday the property destruction of protesters): its intentionality. This is not a scrum in which someone unexpectedly gets killed. This is a conflict in which police apparently decided that someone had to die, then that the people protesting that death had to shut up. This is a conflict in which some protesters — a distinct minority of them — decided that the best response to excessive use of force by the police was to exact a price, somewhat randomly, from the community, in the form of smashing windows at local businesses — and more directly attacking police by ineffectually throwing rubber traffic cones at police cars. It is a conflict in which some protesters counsel non-violence and others confrontation; some preach that they don’t hate the police and some call them pigs; some leave (as I did) at the end of the scheduled rally and others stay around, either seeking or inviting confrontation. It is a conflict where the police, after waiting through a peaceful rally, are apparently more than willing to oblige them.
Intentionality of injury makes things much worse. (Oddly, that the theme of one of the hit songs of the year, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” a broken-heart song that takes pained affront not so much at the end of a relationship but at how intentionally hurtful it was; the insult is in some respects worse than the injury.) People follow a norm in which we play by the rules. Disproportionate response, summary execution, firing at women and children (no matter if the ammunition is “less than lethal” — or more properly “less lethal,” as it sometimes does kill) from close range — these give the sense that the police are intentionally trying to cow the populace, which leads some to feel the need to rise up.
What is the plan here? For protesters, the plan is to raise the heat of the community with statements of grievance and calls for justice, to the point where this tourist city has no choice but to make a deal to follow basic rules of policing and treat people with respect. For police, I’m afraid that the plan is to cow the community into submission, as it generally was before Saturday July 21 despite a raft of recent police killings.
I hope that they realize that it’s not going to work.
If this were Fullerton or San Clemente, perhaps they could ratchet up the repression so that the public would give up. But this is Anaheim — a city that few outside the area think of as filled with barrios, a city that makes the news with Disneyland and the Angels and the Ducks and its conventions. If people don’t want to travel there, out of exaggerated concern over personal safety, the golden goose gets wounded or killed. Will the poor suffer? Sure — but they’re suffering anyway. They have less to lose.
What happened today
I was at the protest rally today at the Anaheim Police Department, the setting of which I described last evening. I arrived at about 12:15, taking time to introduce myself to police (and one federal government official) as a legal observer. (They had plenty of protesters there; they didn’t have plenty of lawyers.) I informed some people I knew from the crowd to contact me if there was trouble. And, for the most part, there wasn’t. People said some rude things to the police, as is their right, and pushed some extreme causes from communism to reconquista. (Some people are put off by that; I don’t worry about it because neither is of imminent or even longer-term concern. The fact that these people are showing up to protest, though, and more of us mainstream political types are not, should raise the question of why this is a radical rather than a mainstream cause.
I left at about 1:50, grabbing a ride home (having walked there from a Democratic Party meeting at the Sheraton) — and while things were raucous and sometimes impolite, there wasn’t a hint that protesters were going to do anything to provoke a violent police response. The police (including sheriffs, etc.) were all over the place, some on horses, some on the roof of the police station and nearby buildings, others (which I noted only when driving north on Harbor) massed at shopping centers up to a few miles away.
Sometime around 2:30, apparently everything went to hell.
I’m getting much of my breaking news on Anaheim these days from Amber Stephens’s Twitter feed (and you should too.) A march proceeded down the street, of which she posted a pic at 2:18, with a group that had been chanting “the whole system is guilty!” accompanied by mounted police. By 2:31, the march toward Disneyland was stopped at Harbor and Ball by riot police with weapons out. Her next tweet said “Shit is getting intense,” then she reports a large group of protesters springing down Cambridge. She emphasizes that she has to that point seen no violence. She walked back northward to the police station, parallel to a path other protesters were taking on Lemon. Gustavo Arellano noted reports that a woman was arrested for trying to leave a locked am/pm store, which is either wrong or suggests that the police expected not just possible violence, but actual violence — perhaps a plan to move in on protesters. Sam Aresheh (one of the original Occupiers in the county) says in his tweet that “EVERYONE arrested in
#Anaheim facing felony charges for ‘assaulting’ police animals,” which he reasonably calls “ridiculous!”
The best report on the actual conflict I’ve seen came from the Weekly‘s R. Scott Moxley, who gives a flavor of the level of hostility present on the day. He asks whether there would be more hostilities later; Amber’s feed confirms that there was. This seems like what Sundays will be like for a while, at least after the standard protests at the Police Station end at 2:00. It may be what the rest of the week comes to look like as well — especially as protesters are released after the charges against many of them are found to be trumped up or made up, as reports suggest is likely.
Repressing protest is not going to work. Pressure has been building for so long; the grievances are too many and more are being piled on. It may, though, transmogrify public anger into something even worse than protest. What will that do to Anaheim — and to Orange County? If Disney decides that its bottom line may suffer, what reins may it pull on its Council vassals — and, if too much community anger has been stirred up before then, with what effect?