Friday, September 10, 2004

Police State continued
It was great fun at first. We marched down the main road leading from Givat Ram to the government buildings. Givat Ram is the part of the Hebrew University constructed during the years the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus was an inapproachable enclave surrounded by Jordanian occupation (this is an interesting story in itself). Thousands of other students, all marching peacefully together, chanting, some holding banners, surrounded me. It felt really good, really together, you know?

I was completely unaware, of course, of the disruption our procession must have been creating for people who needed to use that particular piece of road. Maybe they needed to make it on time for their shift at work, or to attend an important business meeting, or maybe they really needed to get to the kindergarten on time to pick up the kids, whatever. But I didn’t think about that, or about the aggravation they must have been feeling. It was early afternoon, the middle of a working day, but still it just didn’t cross my mind.

I’d been to political protest demonstrations before, mainly peace rallies, in Kikar Rabin, Kikar Malkhei Yisrael as it was still called back then, but this was the first time I had actually got on a bus to Jerusalem to demonstrate in front of the government buildings. It didn’t cross my mind to ask who had chartered the bus, who was footing the bill, or if maybe I was being manipulated by bigger forces. I just got on the bus.

The thing that got me on that bus, more than anything else, was guilt. Most of my friends were rushing from job to horrible job to pay for their tuition, cleaning houses, schlepping in supermarkets, doing the nightshifts. And, if they were lucky, they got to scramble for the meager scholarships given out by strange organizations like the Association of Tunisian Jews, or the Fund to Aid Students from Afula. Me? I got a monthly allowance from generous parents, just enough to get by, hardly enough to go wild, but quite enough for me to realize how very lucky I was.

And so – bus to Jerusalem to demonstrate for lower university fees. I wanted to do my bit for my friends.

It was when our procession arrived at its goal - the government building - that I started to realize that this was more than a nice big happy picnic. A row of about twenty or thirty border police, maybe more, were waiting for us in the street, there were more on the hill. They had on helmets with plastic covering their faces, they were holding big plastic shields, and each one of them had a big, black baton hanging down from the side of his body. On each side of the row of armored border police stood more policemen with gas masks on and what looked like guns for shooting tear gas. I was shocked.

‘What do they think we are going to do?’ I thought to myself in horror. This was scary. My heart was beating so hard that I thought I could actually hear it, over the chanting. ‘What sort of Police State is this?’

Then we took our places on the hill across from the government building, I’m not sure which it was. I’m not very familiar with that part of Jerusalem. I reckoned if we behaved ourselves, the police would leave us alone. They’d soon see that their estimations of our potential danger had been exaggerated, that we were all just well behaved students, exercising our freedom of speech in a cultured, orderly manner.

And then it started. First there was a halfhearted attempt to march down off the hill, towards the ministry. Then some young men from the crowd started baiting the police, yelling obscenities, throwing stones at them, just four or five young men, in different corners of the crowd. ‘Where did they come from?’ And in a second the mounted policemen were on the hill, all around us, galloping after the troublemakers, grabbing hold of them. I think I remember one of them getting a taste of a baton. Really scary.

Boy, was I naive. It seems obvious to me now, eighteen or nineteen years later, that the demonstrators had to create a provocation, they had to clash with the police, otherwise a demonstration of that size would have gone unnoticed and unmentioned. The more violence, the more blood, the more arrests, the better. The organizers knew it; the police knew it. The behavior of these youngsters wasn’t a spontaneous emotional eruption. It was planned.

I was the innocent, manipulated into experiencing what felt like disproportionate police aggression, manipulated into thinking ‘This is a Police State’, my normal youthful feelings of alienation exploited, ripened for recruitment into a certain way of thinking.

Luckily for me, this didn’t happen. Even though I didn’t understand what was going on, I just turned and walked away in disgust, and never came back, ever.

This is not to say that the police don’t go overboard sometimes, even in this case, or that there could be a better way of dealing with inciting elements in a large gathering of people than bashing them with batons or spraying them with tear gas, but this all happened quite a while ago. I have read that police forces around the world have come a long way in crowd control technology since then.

In New York, during the demonstrations against the RNC, as in all demonstrations, the police were perhaps the only thing really standing between the demonstrators and chaos, violent riots, maybe even, God forbid, lynching. This may sound ridiculous to some who were there, but we have to remember that, as in all demonstrations, not everyone was there for the same purpose.

For the quiet well-behaved, law-abiding demonstrator, police reaction to any minor disruption of the peace will always seem like overkill, like senseless brutality, but the sad truth is that the line separating between a peaceful demonstration and an angry, violent, uncontrollable mob is very thin and easily crossed, and some want nothing more than for this to happen. Preventing it is a grave responsibility facing any police force. A skillful, experienced force must be able to sense a warming up of the atmosphere, even before most of the demonstrators are aware of it, and stem it in the bud, or bud it in the stem, or whatever the d@%n expression is.

I take off my hat to the NYPD, which seems to have done an excellent job of keeping the peace. Maybe some people got arrested, but I haven’t heard much about people actually being physically harmed. The orange net idea sounds excellent, unpleasant perhaps for those caught by it, but you have to admit it saves the police from using those terrible batons.

* * * *

There is another thing that I don’t think the protesters in New York were aware of, and I pray they never will have to be, something that everyone who goes to a demonstration in Israel these days is aware of, I think, no matter what the matter at hand. A large demonstration in the streets is an excellent target for terrorists.

Imagine what a bomb, even a relatively small one, could do to a large crowd like that. The police were also there for the demonstrators’ own safety, yet another issue that they must have been very aware of, but the demonstrators could not see from where they were standing, yelling ‘pigs’.

[This post has been my reaction to a commenter here.]

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