The images come from opposite sides of the globe: one set from UC Davis, a college campus in the United States of America; another selection originating in Cairo, Egypt’s Tahrir Square. The videos, both shot this past Saturday, are eerie in their similarity. One was captured in a de facto military dictatorship plagued by generational corruption and poverty; the other is a view from the world’s most prosperous democracy.
The action is by no means interchangeable, but it is too similar for comfort.
In Egypt, if we believe the official line of our government and aligned media, many of the protesters that amassed to oust President Hosni Mubarak, and are now returning to badger an interim military regime, have firsthand or hearsay experience of police brutality meted out to punish simple acts of nonviolent dissent.
On the other hand, even the lowliest citizens of America, and certainly its privileged scholar class, are presumably served by a police force that is answerable to the public it protects. The United States Constitution, every high school graduate was once taught, tells us so.
A few generalizations may apply to Saturday’s assembly of UC Davis students. They were predominantly white and presumably from the upper end of the middle-class spectrum. Several dozen of them gathered in the California sunlight to express solidarity with the nation’s Occupy movement. It’s reasonable to assume that, as a whole, they had little or no experiential knowledge of being jobless for a year or more as heads of households. It is reasonable to assume they had little experiential knowledge of living without health care at or below the poverty line. It’s reasonable to assume that, as of Saturday morning, they had little or no experiential—or hearsay—knowledge of a police force as a pack of bullies that reacts to the mildest dissent with severe and disproportionate force. For the most part, presumably, they were in for a surprise, a rude wake-up call that may turn out to be a lasting call to action.
The differences between Egypt’s uprising and America’s unrest are obvious and not to be minimized. By some reports, a dozen protesters were killed over the past weekend in Cairo. The death toll for the entire course of Occupy Wall Street is at seven, with some deaths disputed, and no slayings directly at the hands of the police. At UC Davis, a peaceful crowd, weaponized with nothing more than chants, is seen to drive an armored mob of police officers from a contested quad. It’s hard to picture the baton-swinging, rifle-toting security forces of Tahrir Square retreating from an advance of 100 or so kids waving cell phones and iPads while rhythmically intoning, “Shame on you. Shame on you.”
It’s also hard to picture the revolutionary social entrepreneurs who drafted the United States Bill of Rights in 1789 imagining a future America in which the citizenry fails to demand accountability and change when portions of its free and democratic populace are attacked, in repeated scenarios across the nation, by a police force that is mandated to be at its service.