Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Human Rights in New York

There is a disturbing report by the anthropologist David Graeber on the New York Police apparently using sexual assault against Occupy Wall Street protesters. He ties this to the city elite's ties to banking, especially to Mayor Bloomberg's statement that the police is his personal army. Bloomberg is, of course, number 20 on the Forbes Billionaires List (11th in the US), so has a vested interest in protecting the current financial system. Graeber also notes that Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly is the former director of global security of the Wall Street firm Bear Stearns, so has also revolved between banking and policing. Is there any difference in Kelly's mind between protecting Bear Stearns and protecting "the people of New York," or does protecting the banks loom large in his image of his duty to "New York"?

Americans are uncomfortable about this type of story on two levels: first, sexual assaults are easily believed when they happen in Egypt, but people have trouble believing they would happen in the US. Second, the idea that the rich use force (including police violence and "the law" as a form of terror) to protect their interests is something we learned in history books about the Gilded Era (see Haymarket "Riot"), not something we imagine happening today. I note that despite Graeber's links and fairly good sources, my search of the NY Times showed not a single story mentioning groping or sexual assault of protesters.  What I find interesting about this case is how it is not visible to most Americans.  Many Chinese wish their country were more democratic, and complain about the government, but they basically think things are going in the right direction, and they take some level of authoritarianism for granted (especially if they are among the privileged). Stories like this make the US look uncomfortably like the Chinese case, with Americans making excuses (it must be rogue officers, it must be exaggerations, it cannot be policy) and not seeing how their own democracy is constrained by the rich and powerful. Graeber's story, plus the recent revelations of NYPD spying on ordinary citizens simply because they are Muslim (see Fresh Air story here)--and the fact that many New Yorkers think there is no problem with this--make one worry about the future of American democracy and freedom.

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