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.

So he sends for a rifle and tracks the elephant to a nearby field:

As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant - it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery - and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of "must" was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.

But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd - seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing - no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

Again, I am not claiming any direct analogy here. My point is this: At Occupy Berkeley and Davis, you have a bunch of skinny, hyper-earnest teenagers with high SAT scores. The vast majority have never even been in a fight. One day, they all lock arms on the quad, so administrators call in U.C. police officers, guys who are routinely ridiculed for not being real cops, and sometimes get ribbed by their colleagues in Oakland for having a laughably easy beat.

But that isn't all.

The U.C. police officers are dressed in riot gear. They're given guns, batons, body armor, face shields, and spray canisters of pepper spray. And they're sent out in force. If they were in a video game they'd be ready to face off against some bad-ass foe with machine guns and assault rifles. We're used to seeing officers like that in pitched battles on the street, or about to rush into a house filled with drug dealers. These guys are facing teenagers blocking a sidewalk.

But once they're out there -- people all around, photographs being snapped, video cameras rolling -- it's the cops who feel powerless. The kids won't listen. Nobody wants to be the one to say, "Um, should we retreat?" Had they left, the crowd would've burst into cheers at their expense. No one wants to make the first move either. Some of them seethe. Others feel embarrassed, like the macho high school wrestler forced to square off against a girl in practice. If he goes too hard he'll feel bad. If he goes too easy and loses he'll be humiliated and ridiculed.

He goes too hard.

Look at this video from U.C. Davis, that starts a bit earlier than most others, and pay attention to the student at the very beginning:

That's a kid who is aware of how absurd the escalation and excessive response is making the police look. They couldn't shoot the kid in the back with a paint ball gun, but neither could they bring themselves to let him win. What I see, when the now infamous cop pepper sprays the line of kids, isn't the cowardice of that malicious New York City cop who tried to surreptitiously pepper spray a group of women. I see a guy masking all his emotions because he doesn't particularly want to spray the kids in the face -- he doesn't seem to enjoy it -- but neither does he want to let them win, or admit to his fellow officers or his superiors that they'd been beat. As Orwell put it, "I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool."

Personally, I don't think that's any kind of defense. A man who can so casually pepper spray peaceful protesters has no place as a police officer on a college campus. I'd fire him immediately. But if I'm right about the situation (obviously I could be wrong) he isn't a monster. He's a guy who did the wrong thing after administrators forced he and his colleagues out among the students, equipped in such a way that they'd either end up looking like brutes or fools. Put a group of officers in that position and at least one of them will usually act like a brute, figuring it's better than being laughed at and looking powerless. As a municipal police officer once told me after he'd handcuffed and later released a smart-ass teenager for blowing bubbles at him, "If I let them show me up, how could I ever go back on patrol and be taken seriously?"

It's no good excuse.

Some police officers just think that way.