Blessed are the peace makers! I am totally in awe of Reverend Rich Lang and the scene I witnessed yesterday at the Occupy Seattle press conference calling for police accountability following Tuesday night’s pepper spraying of Reverend Lang, 84-year-old Dorli Rainey, a young pregnant woman who had to go to the hospital and many others. Following his testimony, and after we heard from Dorli and the young woman, Reverend Lang asked us all to form a circle of protection around the police officers. He proceeded to talk with the officers, and a captain responded, about seeing each other as human beings, not using excessive force and the problems militarization of the police have caused, and how the issues we’re protesting with Occupy Seattle affect them and their families as well.
The stories we heard first were serious and reports were made to the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability and no doubt lawsuits will be filed. This kind of police abuse has to change and coming together and seeing each other as human is one step in the right direction. Police training, policy and accountability have to change as well, though. Sadly, this is all seeming too familiar, thinking back to WTO and the protests of that era and a series of police shootings in the African-American community around the same time.
Dorli Rainey spoke first, and it was awesome to be part of her mic check. Dorli is an inspiration, taking her assault by pepper spray with a sense of humor, and using it to bring forward the issues. It’s still very disturbing that members of the police department pepper sprayed an 84-year-old woman directly, which is a new low (as was a police spokesperson afterwards saying pepper spray is okay for all ages).
We had a lot of media coverage for Dorli; but most of them were gone before we heard from the young woman, Reverend Lang and others. The young woman’s story was even more disturbing. In addition to being pepper sprayed, she was pushed by an officer with a bike and punched in the stomach. All after telling them she was pregnant, and, when she confronted one of the officers when she saw him later, he said she deserved it. Even more disturbing, now that I think about it, this is not new. We had several incidents of officers getting really abusive of young women protesters in the demonstrations immediately following WTO. Not much has been said in the mainstream media about what happened to her case.
Reverend Lang spoke briefly to the crowd about his pepper spraying before suggesting we form a protective circle around the officers and starting a dialogue with him. Six officers sprayed him directly in the face Tuesday night, in spite of his clerical garments. Reverend Lang talked to the officers about how much we have in common with them. He spoke about how they were there to protect us and the militarization of the police was the wrong path. He talked about the way society is heading with the increasing gap between the rich and the rest of us. That the police are affected by the same issues and his concern for the younger generation, which is feeling the brunt of this; and that it affects the officers’ children as well. He talked about seeing those of us in the Occupy movement as individuals and that we are not the enemy. You could tell that the officers and Occupy Seattle people alike were really moved by what the Reverend said.
The police captain spoke next and acknowledged our commonalities and asked us to view them as individuals and not brand them all on the actions of a few. A fair point, and I am glad Reverend Lang created a space for us to see each other as people. Which isn’t to say the issues of police accountability and policy don’t still need to be addressed.
Then a young man spoke who had talked earlier about having been pepper sprayed at Tuesday’s demonstration and one earlier that he had filed a report on. He wanted to know if he had been targeted for reporting the previous incident. He found this particularly upsetting because he had been “raised by the cops,” in his words. It turned out he knew many of the Seattle Police officers from years of participating in the Special Olympics and volunteering for their events. That human to human connection evidently lost for the moment Tuesday night and in the other incident.
Then a woman who described herself as the “other clergy member” pepper sprayed Tuesday night spoke about the need for redemption. She talked accountability and a change in the way police are viewing groups of people, not only the members of Occupy Seattle (particularly the ones camping out), but driving while black and also treatment of those homeless or drunk. One important accountability issue she asked for was that records of correspondence and the orders given to the police in handling the Occupy movement be made public. I’m wondering not only about SPD, but orders from further away, as it has already came out that Homeland Security is involved in coordinating raids on Occupy encampments nationwide. The use of pepper spray against peaceful demonstrators is an ongoing theme. Is it just bad policing in so many cities and campuses, or are orders coming from further up?
A member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship led us in a round of Keep Your Eyes on the Prize to close out the press conference. I saw many conversations starting between demonstrators and officers. It turned out one of the officers was in the awkward position of having the same last name as one of the officers accused of punching the pregnant woman in the stomach and pepper spraying her. This was not entirely coincidental, as the two officers were related, perhaps a reminder not to judge people on the actions of their family members as well, and he hugged the woman.
It was an incredible moment to have witnessed and I think there needs to be more dialogues of peace like this opened up nationwide.