Handbags and Handguns: The Changed Role of Policing in 2016

Glenn Dungan

2016 was not a good year for our neighbors both local and country wide. Across the United States, 971 individuals have died from police brutality and aggression. These numbers are as equally alarming as they are unsurprising; the abuse of power by police and their tactics of authoritative intervention have long been supplemented by the insidious concept of Edward Said’s orientalism and the role of the “other” to propagate acts and divide the populace (8). Neither side of the perpetual strife possesses trust or faith to maintain order and self-regulate, causing both the police and the public to resort to a variety of tactics to claim the built environment. Applying this concept to more contemporary issues, it is evident that orientalism has moved inward; the “other” is now, in the perception of the people, the police and in their own perception, the people. The model is predictable. Just as how the students in psychologist Stanley Milgram’s controversial prison experiment adopted the role of abuser when given positions of power, so to have civilians lifted by those in power been consumed in broad strokes to transform society into a contrasting relationship where police become staples of fear and consequence instead of a dynamic built on trust and public duty. A conflict arises out of this strife in which innovative tactics to physically control the populace are resisted with strategies of their own. With the advent of digital innovation, the public strata possess more momentum to claim the streets from authoritative powers. As society evolves both the authoritative and public actors have become equipped with innovative strategies and technologies to police one another.

Historically the channel of policing was top-down. Those in power possessed the ethos which allowed them to squander the people it protected and the strategies of resistance were more difficult to achieve and mobilize. While this paradigm is still relevant, recent urban, socio-cultural, and technological developments synthesize to combat the prescriptive status quo. As the proletariat uses these devices and strategies as a form of resilience and resistance, their unification elevates their purpose while simultaneously strengthening the divide of the police and authority paradigm entirely, alienating not just individuals in an institution but the institution from the populace itself.

Per the United Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime’s police guide Handbook on Police Accountability, Oversight, and Integrity, the functions of police “as a minimum” are the “Prevention and detection of crime”, “Maintenance of public order”, and “Provision of assistance to the public” (15). Likewise, one of the staple characteristics of human rights, according to the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights’ handbook Human Rights and Law Enforcement, is to “…protect individuals and groups” (19). The ideology of their policing is best described in the United Nation’s own words:

In order to carry out these functions, the police have certain powers, namely the power to arrest and detain and the power to use force. It is precisely this monopoly on the use of force and the power to arrest and detain that place the police in a unique and sensitive position within the democratic State, so that adequate control mechanisms are required to ensure that these powers are consistently used in the public interest. Like any other public service, the police must operate with impartiality. (15)

It is evident the mantras of the policing and authoritative intervention are devised to maintain order and serve the public. The rhetoric exemplifies the cleft between public and the police and when parallel to the method of policing, provide insight on how specific individuals within the institution perceive “order” and “public”. This relates to how authoritative intervention manifests in society with tactics both archaic and more synchronized with the technological buffs such as surveillance and digital tracking to maintain public order and assist the populace.

The utilizing and legitimizing of space, both public and private, is not an unknown method of authoritative manipulation. Meant to function as catalysts for social interaction, exchange, and growth, public spaces such as parks and streets also offer platforms of unification and protest. They are conduits for the public to claim the city and utilize its features, yet under the guise of being a commodity for the citizens, authoritative powers claim invisible hold on the spaces and transform the channels of the public to one that can be manipulated and controlled (Harb 1–3). Exemplified by James C. Scott’s’s essay, Cities, People, and Language, the streets of Paris were retrofitted following the revolution to enable the police more seamless and effective transit throughout the avenues. The streets provided a dual purpose for the citizens who walked them and worked under the guise of allowing authoritative powers greater access for their own benefit of maintaining social equilibrium (4–6). Yet the reason was more insidious and covert: the police needed better methods of transit to quell potential riots and revolts and in doing so fitted the streets in what sociologist Stephen Graham would describe as a progression to a “revanchist city”. This is an ideology which purposes for the reclamation of streets by the political and socio-economic elite (Urban Militarism: Excluding the ‘disordered’, 2011). Another example takes from the archival history present in Paddy O’ Halloran’s 2015 article, “They Will Not Take the Street”: Ferguson and Colonial Histories, relaying the authoritative usage of space, such as the United States removal of designated “Indian” territory for the Cherokees in 1838 and the quelling of the “Bonus Army” protest sites — poor veterans demanding their grants be paid — outside of Washington D.C. in 1932. This is evident that, as Halloran states “…the idea of spaces of protest were subject to control and dispersal through massive violence is clear”.

This illustrates what Lepecki, in his 2013 essay Choreopolice and Choreopolitics illustrates as “choreopolicing” in which “… on our way to freedom, we must first of all tackle that which blocks, directs, diverts, and (pre)conditions our movements…” (2). In this effect, the body — analogous with one’s essence of being or their identity — is an object to be manipulated by the dominating societal constructs. Restriction over movement such as ropes shutting down pathways to the more restricting police barriers and zones outside of authoritative hubs cements the reminder that one’s body is not of singular ownership, rather it is a token to be manipulated. In 1988, authorities established “free speech zones”, in which the government may regulate the time, place, and manner of expression for those wishing to protest or revolt. While the initial purpose is the organizing of potential urban chaos, it is an example of cultural hegemony in which the higher caste (such as the political elites who are of the revanchist city mantra) establishes “legitimate” forms of suppression to those who would be considered socially unruly. The act of retrofitting an inert right of citizenship to prevent upheaval synchronizes with revamping Paris’s avenues and the transporting of bodies along specific roads. Choreopolicing is an unspoken method of policing what the authorities view as an disordered people not deserving of equal claim to the city, a reminder that the streets and avenues in which citizen’s traverse is not their own but merely a commodity to manipulate access to.

The most common form of reclaiming public space for the citizens who utilize it is protest, marches, and sit ins, with most recent examples to the ubiquitous negative response of a certain President Elect. Unifying and reclaiming the streets illustrates a resistance to choreopolicing as well as utilizing the avenues in which authorities police the citizens, illustrating the reversal of power to bottom-up. As stated in the 1970 article, The City is the Black Man’s Land, a revolution involves the conquest of state power by oppressed strata of the population. It begins to loom upon the horizon when the oppressed-who perceive those in power as exclusive or alien, furthering Said’s underlying theme of orientalism-begin to challenge this authority (James & Grace Lee Boggs). While the crux of Bogg’s essay was the dynamic struggle between African-American and White suppression (and in many cases the strife continues), in the context of authority versus the public strata it is evident the “alienation” applies to the those who police and those who experience the consequences of it.

Revisiting the prolific picture of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, in which a dancer pirouettes atop the symbolic bull of wall street (pictured above), is a form of free expression which functions ultimately as a resistance to the restricting powers of choreopolicing. The action of her standing atop claimed public space is strengthened by her mode of resistance, claiming that her freedom of movement is her will and want, her ideologies tethered to anti-conformity from oppressing powers.

In the age of technology, there is no argument the world has been divided into two spheres; the physical and digital. Described by social theorist Manuel Castells, the “Network Society” is an overlaying, digital platform which allows simultaneous existence and manipulation of the physical and non-physical environment in tandem (18) With this evolving paradigm, so too has the strategies of policing begun to adapt. Surveillance and online tracking have become a normality mirroring dystopian tropes from the likes of 1984 and Brave New World. Using the modes of policing from the Handbook on Police Accountability, Oversight, and Integrity illustrated prior, one mantra of police intervention is the “detection and preventing of crime”, which when accompanied with advances in technology, lead to novel authoritative measures. Yet amidst the momentum obtained by policing powers there is a digital paradigm progressing along the currents of the public strata which equips them with more innovative, effective strategies of unifying, reacting, and resisting, allowing them to “reclaim the streets” using a digital catalyst.

Just as how protests, marches, and sit-ins are a manifestation of public discontent and resistance in the physical world, so too has the platform of the Internet formulated innovative platforms of digital protests. In an effort of reversing the role of authoritative intervention from police-to-public to public-to-police, mediums such as social media and online forums create a platform to allow for swift and mass unification, activism, and mobilization. An exemplary model of mobilization through media and digital communication to combat a dominating regiment was the Arab Spring in which the populace who was physically suppressed ventured through a digital avenue to unite, resist, and revolt. This event marked one of the first times the efficiency of the digital platform can be utilized, setting a precedent for the dual nature of technological innovation (Bayat 1–8). Similar strategies have been utilized elsewhere; in 2012 a group of students at the Univsersidad Liberamerica challenged a corruptive police institution, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, for social reform and to cure the political platform of the country of corruptive actors. Establishing the mark #YoSoy132 on social media, the students unified through a digital conduit, allowing a caliber of outreach maximized by the machinations of social media and the digital sphere (Greeley 18–31). Another example is the ubiquitous #blacklivesmatter movement. This started in 2016 with the unfortunate and controversial death of Trayvon Martin. There is a parallel between #YoSoy132 and #blacklivematter in which the effectiveness and efficiency of the unification was significantly bolstered by the public’s manipulation of the very digital instruments accessible to police powers. This phenomenon describes what Castells would illustrate as the “space of flows” (Castells 407–417). While human’s exist simultaneously in parallel spheres-both physical and digital-the digital platform progresses at a speed far faster than any physical action could thus promoting the effectiveness of the digital era as an instrument for counter-policing and social change. Within this digital realm, social media has far greater reach with swifter results than word-of-mouth or physical interaction. In this space of flows the dimensions of time are distorted, allowing an oppressed populace to spread information faster and in such mass that an authoritative power would be faced with difficult means of intervention.

Evidently the strategies of policing have changed with the advent of a technological world. While the display of power is still present, the consciousness of a populace under siege by the omniscient synoptic regime has been pushed back via digital instrumentalism. This allows for more representations of resistance in addition to protests, sit-ins, and other forms of activism. Utilizing what Marshal McLuhan describes as “an extension of the senses” in which, through avenues such as camera recorders one’s cardinal senses are transported to the experience of the source (McLuhan 32–60). As the availability of camera recorders and other means of visual capture have increased, the role of the public regulating not only themselves but potential police intervention has elevated in tandem. In this manner, all cameras owned by the individual in a public are also potentially the eyes of the collective public. Additionally, a recent development in police strategy requires some authoritative agents to wear cameras on their uniform, suggesting the institution is not only self-aware of its public opinion but also wishes to close the cleft between the public and themselves through means of projected accountability. Synthesizing both McLuhan and Castell’s theories of the growing digital age allows for public cameras to be the direct combat of surveillance technologies that are present in the changing, divided societies. It can be claimed that society has experienced a paradigmatic shift from the panoptic into synoptic. This allows the public to adopt a maxim of self-regulation and accountability to the authoritative powers, refurbishing the “maintenance of public order” as a collective unspoken mantra for their own.

This picture (taken by the author outside of the PATH station at 14th street) is a frequent sight in the New York City subway transit. Showing a police officer and “Darleen”, this interaction represents the societal progression of shared accountability. Reminiscent of the camera recorders on police officers and McLuhan’s “extension” of senses, this picture creates a relationship of the public policing themselves via her cell phone’s camera function and suggests that both the police officer and “Darleen” are of equal policing ability.

As the various methods of resisting oppression by police powers evolve into innovative avenues of discourse, the question inevitably returns to whom claims the streets. Along the physical sphere, methods such as the subjective “maintenance of public order” lead to choreopolicing, manipulating the urban environment to better accommodate oppressing powers, and the reliance of subjectivity to the divided streets as Graham and Scott previously mentioned. The reaction of these physical measures allow for the reclamation of the streets via riots, marches, and sit-ins seen throughout the course of conflictual history as well as the creation of organizations such as “cop watch” , an organization dedicated to informing those oppressed by police intervention (with focus on low income neighborhoods) about their rights when engaged with the police as well support for those who were victim to brutality or undue consequence. When considered without the variable of technology, the populace is still disadvantaged in their defense against potential police dominance and manipulation. Ultimately the streets are within the inherent claim of the police or powers that be, with their claim to armaments, “ability to use necessary force” and mantras pre-established by an institution designed to dominate and conform a potential unruly populace. The advent of the technological era permits a paradigmatic shift which creates a more complex situation to the divide between police and public strata. In Castell’s “network society” the platforms of resistance and suppression have developed in tandem. While the police possess the resources for surveillance technologies, the public has access to the unifying social media, utilizing the folding of time and space as well as common identifiers such as the “hashtag” to quickly spread word of events from first hand individuals before mainstream filters channel the information differently. Thus creates the unification of the senses in which each display of technological instrumentation affects not just the one but the public collective.

It is evident the role of policing has changed with the transition into a digital age of shared media, information, and accountability. From panoptic to synoptic, the public sphere has never been so equipped to resist against authoritative intervention and progress. The synthesizing of technology and the strategies of intervention have created a new arena of contest for those who police and are policed leading to a society which allows all strata to utilize the built environment to unify and resist one another. Yet the innovation of the public evolves as technology advances, allowing the populace new platforms to police the institution themselves in a recent developmental reversal of power.

Works Cited

Asef Bayat, “Plebeians of the Arab Spring,” Current Anthropology 56, no. S11 (October 2015): S33-S43.

Boggs, James, & Grace Lee Boggs. “The City Is the Black Man’s Land.” Monthly Review [Online], 17.11 (1966): 35–46. Web. 12 Dec. 2016

Castells, Manuel. Space of Flows. N.p.: n.p., 2000. Print.

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000. Print.

Greeley, Robin Adele. “THE PERFORMATIVE POLITICIZATION OF PUBLIC SPACE: MEXICO 1968–2008–2012.” Http://web.mit.edu/. N.p., Mar.-Apr. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Halloran, Paddy O’ ““They Will Not Take the Street”: Ferguson and Colonial Histories.” Counterpunch.org. N.p., 20 Aug. 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Handbook on Police Accountability, Oversight and Integrity. New York: United Nations, 2011. Print.

Harb, Mona. “Public Spaces and Spatial Practices: Claims from Beirut.” Jadaliyya. N.p., 25 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Human Rights and Law Enforcement: A Trainer’s Guide on Human Rights for the Police. New York: United Nations, 2002. Print.

Lepecki, A. “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics: or, the task of the dancer.” TDR: The Drama Review, vol. 57 no. 4, 2013, pp. 13–27. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/526055.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Print.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.

Scott, James C. Cities, People, Language. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

“Urban Militarism: Excluding the ‘disordered’” OpenDemocracy. N.p., 13 Sept. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Suggested Readings:

1) Manuel Castells, Network Society

2) Manuel Castells, Space of Flows

3) Marshal McLuhan, Extension of Man’

4) Edward Said, Orientalism