I don’t blog much about urine and feces, but I do blog about politics and activism. In this case, these topics overlap, so here we are.
Today in Ferguson a Missouri police officer was suspended indefinitely for pointing a rifle at protesters and journalists last night, and saying, "I will fucking kill you. Get back." When asked for his name, the officer replied, "Go fuck yourself." On the internet and twitter, some seemingly Right-leaning folks were justifying the aggressive police response in general, and the officer’s actions in particular, by citing reports that police, and this officer specifically, were ‘hit with urine.’ Exactly what this might mean is unclear, which is to say, there’s a difference between being splashed with urine, and being near a contained plastic bottle with a lid that has urine in it.
Today CNN is reporting that, "Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is in charge of security, later told reporters someone threw urine on police." This report has been picked up by other news media, including the UK’s Daily Mail, and gleefully turned into headlines by Right-wing bloggers.
It is unclear if this alleged bottle of urine is thought to be the same or different from the one ‘thrown water bottle’ being used to justify last night’s police aggression. CBS 6, from Richmond, VA, writes on their website, "Later, the situation deteriorated when someone threw a water bottle at police." And indeed, this video from KMOV 4 news seems to show a bottle (presumably plastic?) coming in, though it also shows police macing demonstrators prior to that.
First off, I have no idea if someone threw urine on or at police last night or not. I don’t know if that’s been confirmed or not. But I do know that police often embellish the truth to justify repression. I think it’s important to point out two things that are true regardless of what happened last night:
1. Police lie fairly often.
2. More than you might think, police lie specifically about protestors throwing urine and / or feces.
Again, I don’t know, and can’t find any conclusive documentation, about whether or not a bottle of urine was thrown last night. This transcript from Drew Pinsky’s show on CNN seems to have a video clip in which an "unidentified male" says, "They began throwing at bottles. They threw urine at police."
The point I’m trying to make is larger than the veracity of any particular instance. The question is, why do police and media keep invoking this meme, and is there sufficient evidence to support these claims? If not, the media should be more circumspect before presenting them as fact.
Regardless of any specific example, as an observer of, and participant in, protests for a long time, I’ve followed police claims and media reports closely for years. And I have to tell you, I’ve been amazed at how often this pee-and-poop motif comes up. Honestly, I think it’s mostly a trope with more basis in PR than in fact.
While this may seem gross and trivial, American history requires that we take seriously all official attempts to undermine activists and disrupt movements for justice with falsehoods.
Ever since I participated in my first mass direct-action protest 15 years ago, when we peacefully shut down the WTO meetings in Seattle in 1999, and many times since, I’ve been shocked and saddened to see the lengths to which police and media will go to distort, vilify, and misrepresent protesters on the political Left building movements for justice.
In case you haven’t noticed, this does not happen with nearly the same frequency and intensity to protesters on the political Right. An oft-cited example is the relatively mild police and media reaction to the recent Cliven Bundy supporter who, for hours, in plain view, had an assault rifle trained on law enforcement officers. It is instructive to reflect on how mild the response would be to an "occupy," immigrants’ rights, or racial justice activist taking up a similar position. Our peaceful protests are treated like armed insurrections. Their armed insurrections are treated like protests.
It doesn’t take much study to recognize that the lazy myth of "The Liberal Media" (which as Bob Somerby notes, is the most successful Right-wing talking point of recent decades, skewing the entire discussion on a range of issues), is demonstrably false.
In fact, the media are more than willing to pass along almost any assertion from police as long as it makes progressive or radical Left protesters look like jerks and imbeciles.
And here’s where pee and poop come in.
As I said above, one thing I’ve noticed with interest watching coverage of protests over the years, is how often, in the aftermath of a police riot, the claim will be made that "protesters threw bags of urine" or "protesters threw bags of feces" at officers. Seriously, it’s like fucking clockwork.
Now, I’m not saying that this has never happened. To be clear, every decent-sized group of humans has a few knuckleheads. But I think it happens much, much less frequently than police and media claim. These reports, which go out to millions, and impact how protesters, their message, and movements are perceived and supported, are often unconfirmed, often without evidence beyond the police saying ‘trust us.’
It is apparently the case that some doofus shit on a cop car during Occupy demonstrations in New York, and unfortunately I did see a picture of that. But that’s really the exception that makes my point. There didn’t seem to be any compunction about sharing that image far and wide, so where are the other photos of this apparent epidemic of scatological dissent?
A close read of history shows that we should be extremely skeptical of unsubstantiated police claims, especially when such claims consistently paint demonstrators in the most repulsive, juvenile, unattractive, and disrespectful light possible. Make no mistake; there’s a reason cops go straight to tales of piss and shit. Who wouldn’t side with police against such ‘cretins’? Who would want to support or join a movement with folks like that?
Again, I’m sure this flinging of bodily fluids has happened at some point, and perhaps even last night, but I’ve never seen it, and I’ve been at a lot of protests (admittedly an unscientific measure).
I’ve never once been at an organizing meeting and heard someone say, "We have a great action planned. We have beautiful artwork. We have clear messaging, but I just can’t shake the feeling that bringing a bag of poop would really help bring down the State and help build a mass movement." For all of the frequency with which police claim this happens, it seems surprising that I’ve never once heard that.
Regardless of whether or not there are confirmed examples, in general, I think we need to be much more skeptical than to simply accept these claims at face value every time they’re invoked. If there’s evidence or video, that’s one thing, though we can never discount the real possibility of undercover police acting as agent provocateurs. It is well documented that police sometimes use undercover agents to instigate chaos and provoke a crackdown.
Whether it’s urine, or just a small plastic water bottle, we cannot discount the possibility of a plainclothes officer amid a huge crowd, with a radio in his ear, receiving an order along the lines of, ‘We’re ready to move in. Throw the water bottle.’
But the archetypal power of invoking urine or feces resonates beyond simple expedience on the day of a protest. This is about winning the long-term cultural story. Like spitting on someone, throwing piss or shit at someone is an Ultimate Symbol of Disrespect. It’s hard think of a much more potent meme for anyone with incentive to try to turn the hearts and minds of middle Americans against joining or supporting movements for justice.
Because of the symbolic and emotional power of this charge, and especially because police are notorious for just-making-stuff-up, the only reasonable standard at this point has to be ‘Pics or it didn’t happen.’ Like the kid who cried ‘wolf,’ the cops have brought this upon themselves. Because of their chronic and well-documented mendacity, the burden of proof must be on them.
The democratic freedom to peaceably assemble and to build movements for justice and redress of grievances is too important and fundamental to let police and media spread untruths about activists and their tactics.
When your friend lies to you, it sucks. When the State lies to you, democracy dies.
And when police lie, systemic oppression, institutional racism, and the worst aspects of our history are made new and sustained in the present, like a malevolent sunrise.
When police lie, it is not only democracy that dies, but also our children, especially our youth of color. When police make up stories of "he went for my gun," the most basic rights, to life and liberty, evaporate.
Compared to that somber and intolerable fact, police stories of protesters throwing urine are trivial. But the lies of police about protesters disrupt democratic movements and crush momentum, stealing the hope of generations.
When can’t let that happen. The future cannot be built on police corruption and sabotage. It has to be built on the truth.