What Makes Police Brutality Possible?

What should a large group of bystanders do if they see a handful of attackers unjustly assaulting and tormenting an unarmed individual?

The answer seems obvious: come to the victim’s aid by disarming and overpowering the attackers.

But on November 14, when UCLA student Mostafa Tabatabainejad was assaulted in the university library, about fifty shocked and angry students stood by, protesting and shouting but not intervening, though the assailants were much fewer in number and were armed only with nonlethal weapons.

Why didn’t the students intervene? Because the assailants were campus police.

When Tabatabainejad, unable to produce his student ID, was asked by a security guard to leave, he initially refused. The guard then contacted campus police. Here accounts diverge: the police say Tabatabainejad went limp and refused to leave, while most eyewitnesses agree with Tabatabainejad’s claim that he was leaving peacefully but protested when police tried to grab his arm as he did so.

In any case, the police then tasered Tabatabainejad repeatedly as he writhed screaming on the ground, in an incident captured on a bystander’s cellphone camera. When horrified students in the vicinity protested the brutal treatment and demanded the police officers’ badge numbers, the officers reportedly threatened to taser these peaceful bystanders as well. “Tabatabainejad encouraged library patrons to join his resistance,” one officer blandly explained.

Were campus police within their rights to demand that Tabatabainejad leave the library? Was he a victim of racial profiling? Did he go limp before or after being tasered? These questions, however important, are secondary. Whatever the answers, the fact remains that the officers’ brutal and repeated use of a dangerous weapon against someone who had neither used nor threatened violence is grossly disproportionate to whatever offense he allegedly committed.

“Stop fighting us!” the officers can be heard yelling on the recording. But by the police’s own account, the most that Tabatabainejad did by way of resistance was to “go limp.”

Whether he went limp deliberately or as an involuntary result of being tasered, in either case going limp is not “fighting” and does not constitute a threat to which tasering could be a legitimate self-defense response, especially given the disparity in numbers.

Being asked for one’s badge number, I need hardly add, is a lawful request and so likewise not an action to which a threat of tasering is a legitimate response.

In short, a group of armed assailants, refusing to identify themselves to bystanders, repeatedly inflicted violent and painful attacks on an unarmed library patron who had neither used nor threatened violence. Ordinarily anyone would think that in such a case the bystanders would have been within their rights to intervene forcibly to protect the victim. And ordinarily, I wager, these bystanders would have done precisely that.

But when the assailants are wearing police uniforms, they somehow become immune from the ordinary rules that apply to the rest of us. Did some bystanders refrain from intervening because they were afraid? Probably. But most of them, I suspect, never even considered forcibly intervening; the assailants’ uniforms prevented that ordinarily natural thought from so much as occurring.

There was a time when those in positions of legal authority were literally regarded as beings of an inherently superior order, entitled to a special status exempt from ordinary moral rules. That doctrine was known as the divine right of kings. Nowadays we profess to have given up that doctrine; the Declaration of Independence boldly declares that “all men are created equal.” But we are still all too quick to treat the bearers of official power as a breed apart.

Such inequality is arguably inherent in the institution of government itself. All governments, even purportedly democratic ones, reserve to their agents certain rights denied to the rest of the populace. And it is our acquiescence in government that lets us view police, even campus police, not as our equals but as our masters — which enables them to get away with abuses like this one.

Let’s pierce the veil of mystification and see this case as what it is: a small group of ordinary people attacking another ordinary person while a much larger group of ordinary people stands “helplessly” by. The profession of the attackers is irrelevant; providers of police services don’t need to be organised as an agency with superior authority — a “government” — in order to do their jobs. We don’t believe in kings and emperors any more. Isn’t it time to outgrow the idea of government as such?

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