by Will Sweger
Restraint in power imbalances should be mandatory, not optional
Last summer I took an assignment covering a protest of Sharia Law. Right-wing groups from the Oathkeepers to the Proud Boys gathered on the flagstones in front of Seattle City Hall in their paramilitary finery. On the street below a mass of counter-protesters arrived carrying signs with slogans in solidarity with Muslims. The display shut down Fourth Avenue.
Speakers took turns highlighting the discrimination against women in many Muslim countries. Reporters, myself included, snapped pictures of the participants, almost outnumbering the protestors arrayed against the prospect of Sharia Law. In the crowd below, black-clad Antifa began to gather, their faces covered in black and red bandanas and the sign handles in their hands only a moment’s work away from transforming into clubs.
My appearance as a bald white guy encouraged more than one protestor in military-spec clothing holding in a bulging waist-line to approach me. In response, I kept my distance and let my camera dangle prominently around my neck. Still, I couldn’t escape the weird energy of the day swirling through the streets. Elderly counter-protesters strummed acoustic guitars as younger members on both sides prepared to meet in melee.
Waiting in a moat between the protesting groups stood members of the Seattle Police Department, complete with helmets, foldable face masks, and clubs of their own. On the wings, more police waited on bicycles, their black BMX helmets doubling as riding protection and a barrier against objects flung from the crowd. Dark blue uniforms ranged from short-sleeve shirts and shorts to outfits complete with external body armor and bandoliers of pistol ammunition. Even their bikes, sporting matte-black mudguards and blacked-out tube pouches, looked like they were purchased at the street combat section of REI.
I imagined each of the police officers at the station, carefully adjusting the hard plastic shin guards over their bare legs like ancient Greek hoplites preparing to go into battle. A certain transformation takes hold in the mind of a person solemnly preparing for a savage physical contest.
It’s a situation I’d been in before. Almost a decade earlier, I was serving as an infantry platoon leader in Iraq. Each instance of donning a camouflaged uniform and body armor before venturing outside of the protective lines of a base invites a moment for quiet contemplation. The repeated process of preparing oneself for undergoing or perpetuating violence is a ritual. It is precisely the type of thing that gets into your head with you and seeps into your dreams at night. The ritual is justified as self-defense. In the heat of contact with a hostile assailant, your life and those of your teammates may come down to which item you are able to produce from your harness at just the right time.
With dark sunglasses covering my eyes, and my face obscured by a Kevlar helmet, I was no longer an individual, I was a cog in a massive, wrathful machine of red, white, and blue sent to engage the enemies of my country. Looking into the side mirror of the armored truck I rode patrols in, I would witness myself transformed.
At 23, I was in charge of forty infantry soldiers. We arrived in six armored vehicles, each twelve feet tall, weighing around 15 tons each, and bearing a .50 caliber machine gun or an automatic grenade launcher in its turret. Above, linked to me via radio, a flight of two Apache attack helicopters circled, ready to fire rockets and machine guns on my command.
The power was intoxicating, and unbalanced. Visiting a village in our assigned patrol area, our arrival in the massive vehicles complicated tasks as simple as handing out candy to children. Throwing candy from the turrets encouraged children to dart into moving convoys to retrieve it, fighting with each other for pieces in the dust of the road.
In response, I ordered my platoon to line the children up against a wall in a village and walk the line, handing candy to each one. It looked like a parody of unemployment lines in the 1930s. Once we distributed the candy, we stood by helplessly, rifles slung across our chests while the larger boys beat up the others to take what we had just given them.
To their eyes, we must have seemed absurd. Plodding green giants weighed down with armor and weaponry who were only capable of full-earth shaking violence or impotence. There, in front of my eyes, was the limit of state violence. Despite my ability with a radio hand mic to call for flaming death to reign down on my enemies, I was unable to keep older boys from beating up small children. We stopped handing out candy.
Two years later I was in Afghanistan following an incident where American troops had opened fire on a bus carrying Afghan civilians near Kandahar in April 2010. In response, a British General named Nick Carter introduced the idea of awarding a medal for heroic restraint. With the new medal, commanders in Afghanistan could recognize soldiers who resisted the urge to fire on the populace in an effort to reduce civilian casualties.
American General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, was already looking for new ways to mitigate the effects of a heavily armed occupying army in the country. A year earlier he had released a memorandum saying, “I recognize that the carefully controlled and disciplined employment of force entails risks to our troops – and we must work to mitigate that risk wherever possible. But excessive use of force resulting in an alienated population will produce far greater risks. We must understand this reality at every level in our force.”
However, the heroic restraint medal didn’t get far. Commentators saw it as a reactionary measure and widely panned it arguing it would put troops in greater danger. General McChrystal’s consideration of the award ended in July when a Rolling Stone article led President Obama to relieve him.
The US-led occupation developed into a series of armored compounds, islands of sanctuary and a countryside full of people who couldn’t be trusted. As soldiers, we lived in a reverse prison designed to keep people out, but also functioning to keep us in. When we ventured into the World Outside, we did so in body armor and vehicles with V-shaped hulls designed to deflect the blast of explosives left buried in roads.
Years later the proposal for rewarding restraint came rushing back to me in the shadow of Seattle City Hall. The distance between the groups narrowed and their jeering escalated, daring the other side to take the first act of aggression. All it would take would be a thrown bottle for one side to make a wild rush at the other.
The police squads mounted on bikes cut through the crowd in single files following individuals plucky enough to lead the headlong dive into a hotspot between bare arms and black leather on one side and hoods and bandana-covered faces on the other. I noted the soft whir of the blacked-out mountain bikes as they sped past me towards hotspots in the crowd. The noise of their passage, and soon the individuals themselves disappeared into the chaos on the street.
To onlookers’ astonishment, the thin blue line worked, flexing, but remaining linked together. The squad members alternated facing either way, holding their bikes in front of them as a flimsy means to hold back the boiling energy (and any thrown items from the crowd).
Here was heroic restraint, playing out on a street in the United States instead of at war around the world. Seattle police were realizing the General Carter’s idea in keeping two groups composed mostly of white people from coming to blows.
The officers were using their own bodies to block two groups from attempting to kill or maim each other. What’s more, they were putting both hands on a wobbly piece of metal and rubber, something awkward to wield in a fight, when they could draw the firearms from the holsters at their sides. In essence, the uniformed force on the scene was doing its part to de-escalate the situation.
Yet, Seattle is no stranger to police violence. The most recent troubles in the city trace back to 2011 when the U.S. Justice Department investigated the Seattle Police Department for allegations of excessive force. Jenny Durkan, then serving as a U.S. Attorney, released a report claiming one in five uses of force by the police department in Seattle was unconstitutional. It also claimed Seattle police are more likely to direct violence towards people of color and to use force when interacting with people who were intoxicated or mentally ill.
Heroic restraint is possible, and is taking place right now. Yet it’s not spread evenly. Heroism comes from compassion for others. Until we reach a place in our society where we can give equal compassion to all people, the uneven application of violence and restraint will be with us.
The casual violence taking place in our streets is as overlooked on the daily news as the violence taking place overseas in our names. Nationally, police kill about a thousand people each year, far more than die in mass shootings. Whether you’re a soldier or a police officer, if you go out on patrol looking for a fight, you’re more likely to find one. Force used by our country is not a panacea for all of our problems. Its application can be unproductive, impotent, and mentally harmful to those involved, to speak nothing of the more direct physical implications.
We are locked in a perpetual cycle of state violence that both upholds our society and suppresses people around the world and on our streets. This unrestrained violence isn’t just happening in dusty villages in distant countries, it’s happening right now on the streets of the city we live in.
Will Sweger is a contributor at the South Seattle Emerald and a resident of Beacon Hill. His work has appeared in Seattle Weekly, Curbed Seattle, The Urbanist, and Borgen Magazine. Find him on Twitter @willsweger
Featured image by Will Sweger