In the past few weeks, the reaction to reports of police brutality against USyd students has been depressingly predictable. Socialists have analogised police officers to farm animals. Right-wing bullies have had their fun blaming victims for what was done to them. And, in the meantime, everyone else has gone about their daily business. Somehow, they’re just not interested.
There was a momentary groundswell of concern about police violence after the events of last year’s Mardi Gras. Since then, though, everyone appears to have sunk back into the old, comfortable assumptions. Police brutality is something that happens in countries where elections are rigged and Twitter is banned. In Australia, training, protocols and ombudsmen shield citizens against the caprices of rogue police officers. The odd broken leg or concussion is the unfortunate side effect of a service to the greater social good.
People who challenge these assumptions often end up getting lumped into the same category as those who think putting fluoride in the water supply is a government conspiracy to control our minds. And, as infuriating as admitting this may be, it’s not all that difficult to see why. If you’re a citizen of middle Australia, you’ve probably had virtually no exposure to police operations. In fact, it’s likely that the most contact you’ve ever had with the police was from the sheltered comfort of your car seat, when an RBT officer politely enquired if you’d had anything to drink that evening. It’s also likely that pretty much the only other time you see the police in action is when they make it into the news for investigating murders or arresting key figures in gangland warfare. There’s nothing in your personal experience to suggest that police exert force excessively or arbitrarily. You’ve never been given a reason to question how they treat those who are abrasive but not unlawful, vigorous but not vicious. You accept that “police brutality” is a bad thing, but you’re not convinced that violence at student protests “really counts”.
After all, impassioned student protestors don’t always look like stereotypical victims of police brutality. Many protestors are proudly antagonistic towards the police they encounter: they jeer, they swear, they call them pigs. They’re often seeking to overwhelm or impede a police presence, which guarantees physical contact between protestors and police. It’s not unheard of for someone to swing a punch at an officer.
Although we all learnt in primary school that two wrongs don’t make a right, people often assume that any kind of aggression from students towards police automatically delegitimises their claims to having been subjected to brutality. They don’t stop to question if “total lack of provocation” should be the only criteria used to determine if a police response was disproportionate or not. They don’t ask if saying “fuck” should seriously be treated as an offence warranting arrest. They don’t wonder if a fully-armed, muscular police officer really needs to pin a student to the ground to get them to move aside.
For now, no one but the victims of police brutality or their sympathisers are pushing to question this. Typical mainstream media reports of “violent clashes between police and students” do little to challenge the assumption that police merely exert force in order to subdue wild, unruly protestors. In fact, such reporting probably makes the problem worse, suggesting fundamentally false power equivalencies between police and protestors. And, issues of accountability aside, official police complaints systems are only set up to deal with standalone grievances against individual officers. There are no mechanisms in place that empower people to challenge their cultural norms and practices, to ask the big questions.
These are questions that need to be asked, but, because they don’t pertain to middle Australian’s interactions with the police force, no one’s asking them. People are happy to raise their eyebrows sceptically at reports of police brutality. This scepticism, though, tends to come from a place of assumption, rather than experience. And uninformed assumption about issues as serious as this just isn’t good enough.