What George Orwell Can Teach Us About OWS and Police Brutality

Reflecting on his own time as an officer, he described how authority figures often act just to avoid being laughed at

Why did police use baton strikes and pepper spray against nonviolent protesters on University of California campuses? Some say they're brutes. My colleague Alexis Madrigal argues their behavior is the logical result of aggressive police tactics adopted in the wake of the 1999 WTO protests. Peter Moskos posits that they're victims of wrongheaded officer training. Without discounting these theories, or minimizing the brutality involved, I'd like to offer a complementary explanation. It involves George Orwell and the length authority figures will go to avoid derisive laughter.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

A bit of background first. 

On the U.C. campuses where I've spent time, there's always been a fraught relationship between students and campus police. For the officers, the job entails endless encounters with the minority of frequently drunk undergrads who get into fights, pull fire alarms, break windows, vomit, litter, blare music at 3 a.m., drive around at unsafe speeds, or even steal livestock. Especially for a working class cop who never went to college, it's easy to start seeing all students as entitled, self-absorbed brats, especially the openly disrespectful element.

The student perspective? Most are well-behaved, aren't particularly aware that a small minority of their classmates treat campus police with open disdain, and wouldn't do so themselves. At the same time, they can't help but see campus police as slightly ridiculous figures. They dress like real police and carry weapons, but aren't they mostly dealing with students vomiting in the bushes? What's the deal with the ones who tazed that kid in the UCLA library? Or the time they tried to charge a student with grand theft auto for driving a maintenance golf cart across campus?

Over the years, I've heard a fair number of slurs shouted at campus cops. Seldom were they "pig" or "fascist." Far more often, they diminished the power of the officer, using words like "fake cop" or "rent-a-cop".

This is where the power and class dynamics get tricky.

They are real cops. Employed by California, they are agents of the state. They've got weapons. And the pay is not bad at all.

On the other hand, campus police at U.C. Berkeley, and to a lesser extent at U.C. Davis, patrol kids who'd call themselves failures if they grew up to be cops; kids who have more opportunities than the children of the campus cops; kids who will mostly be more successful than campus cops; kids who even enjoy the ultimate loyalty of U.C. faculty and most administrators. Just look at what happened after U.C. Berkeley administrators sent in cops with batons, and U.C. Davis administrators sent in cops with pepper spray. Predictable altercations occurred. Batons and pepper spray were used. Images leaked. And suddenly the administrators were launching investigations! And issuing statements about how deeply they cared for the students! Did they fail to anticipate that the weapons would be turned on passive protesters?

They'd do well to read "Shooting an Elephant," George Orwell's reflection on his time as a British imperial police officer in Burma, if so. To be clear, I don't think imperialism is an apt analogy when police forcibly remove Occupy Cal or Davis protesters. But I do think Orwell helps us understand why officers who aren't monsters might use wildly excessive force.

In Burma, Orwell remembers, every British police officer was a target of constant ridicule. "When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter," he writes. "This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves." The next passage captures what it is like to be a man trapped in a system you wouldn't have chosen and don't particularly like:

I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically - and secretly, of course - I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos - all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East...

All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

Perhaps you know the rest of the story. Orwell gets a call about a mad elephant stampeding through the village. It killed one man. Being the officer in charge, he is expected to do something.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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