Tuesday, June 26, 2012

THE GLOVES ARE OFF: How the police is raising a generation of not so nice kids

A year ago, the crowds filled the streets in Israel's cities. Week after week, tens and then hundreds of thousands marched and chanted "The People Demand Social Justice!". There had not been even a single violent incident. At the biggest demonstration, four hundred thousand people overflowed Hamedina Square in north Tel Aviv, demonstrating right in front of the most prestigious expensive shops in the State of Israel which only the most well-to-do can afford.

Commentators on the next day noted that in a European or American city, a social protest held in this kind of milieu would have inevitably ended with broken windows at the fancy stores and a tumultuous street battle between demonstrators and police. The commentators praised the Israeli protest movement for being so different, but amid the accolades one could also note an undertone of contempt for these "well-behaved kids".

Immediately after that great rally, the Social Protest Movement in Israel has taken a long break. The Rothschild Boulevard tent encampment was dismantled, and protesters waited to hear what would be the recommendations of the Trachtenberg Commission, appointed by the Prime Minister. And the commission sat and deliberated on the basis of very narrow and restrictive  terms of reference, and finally came up with very pale and limited recommendations.

The Netanyahu Government welcomed the Trachtenberg recommendations and proceeded to file most of them in the waste-paper basket. The government did not initiate any project to create affordable housing, nor did the situation in health and education change, or the stranglehold of a handfull of tycoons over the Israeli economy. When the social protesters returned to the streets last Saturday night, they had a good reason to chant "A year has passed, and nothing has changed!".

In fact, something definitely did change since last year. The police no longer stand smiling and friendly when the protesters pass through the streets. Already months in advance, the police made clear that they regard the possibility of renewed social protest as a threat, summoned organizers to  investigation and searched their apartments. And Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai is no longer a friend of the protest. Last year, town hall expressed its sympathy for the young protesters filling the city boulevards with lively tent camps, and hailed it as a tangible expression of social involvement and democracy from below. This year the answer is no, absolutely not on. Tents on Rothschild Boulevard are out of the question, strictly forbidden. His Highness the Mayor has decided, and from his decision there is no appeal.

So the municipal inspectors and the national police teamed up to make sure no tents will be set up on Rothschild Boulevard. To prevent it, no less than six policemen converged on protest organizer Daphni Leef , pushed her to the ground, broke her arm and dragged her and her friends off to detention.

And on the next night, when the protest march began, it was clear that it will end with conflict. One young woman took care to prepare in advance a placard reading "Dear police officer, please do not interfere with a citizen's performance of civic duty". But the police did not understand the subtleties and by the end of the evening this sign was lying torn to pieces on the sidewalk near the Rabin Square and the girl who wrote it was among eighty nine detainees taken off to spend unpleasant hours at the Glilot Junction Police Station. And it has finally come to pass: shop windows were broken at a social protest demonstration, also in Israel. To wit, the windows of three bank branches. The next morning, the banks hired African migrant workers to repair the windows, and journalists who never sympathized with the protest saw an opening to denounce the "violent demonstration" and claim that "The demonstrators had crossed all Red Lines ".

The reception by the police certainly did not break the 2012 social protest movement. On the contrary, it seems to have provided the spark lighting up the  protest and bringing the angry young people back into the streets. But most probably the demonstrators will have need, also next time, of a song,   originating with the Hasidic followers of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav which had become also the anthem of completely secular: "The whole entire world is / A very narrow bridge / A very narrow bridge / A very narrow bridge / And the most important thing / Have no fear / No fear / No fear at all! "

I am pleased to host in this blog the comments put down by Liron Achdut -  software engineer and math teacher involved in volunteer work helping drug addicts - as written and put online immediately after she was released on bail and charged with organizing an illegal demonstration and assaulting police officers:

I was surprised by yesterday's demonstration. I was surprised by the sheer number of people who went out, in a spontaneous protest.  I was surprised by the energies, by the true spirit of unity, solidarity and determination. We walked together, we chanted together. We split up, bypassing the police barriers and joining up again on the other side. For a moment we were free, we took back the public space. I felt the togetherness, as I did not feel it at any other moment of the past year.

I was happy to see that despite the violence which was unleashed against us, people still smiled and kept their sense of humor. When being assaulted, people put their bare hands up in the air, leaving no doubt that the violence was one-sided. I was surprised by the brutality of the police, their determination to hit and hit and hit again – extreme even by their own normal standards. They resorted to unrestrained violence, even when exposed to the public and the media cameras, and certainly when they thought no one was looking – like when they shut people into the Bank Leumi ATM machine room beat them up there, or when Tom Yisraeli was punched in the face inside City Hall. I feel that the police feel under pressure and don't know what to do next, so they try to resist, and they think they can stop it ... I wish somebody would give it a thought before the next demonstration, and understand that you can't stop an idea whose time has come...

And arrests were stupid. About 90 people were picked up, 90 "dangerous criminals" who dared to think that in this country they had a right to protest... People who were arrested because they photographed the police, because they shouted, because of standing on the road or just moving around ..

In the indictment filed against me this morning, it is argued by Commissioner  Yoram Ohayon of the Tel Aviv Police that I had pushed a megaphone into his face and wounded him. Interestingly, when he appeared on TV a few hours later there was not a scratch on his face. In addition he asserts that while being  arrested I had wildly kicked
him. The video showing my arrest tells a different story:


But the most severe in my eyes - and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough – is that my father was arrested when he arrived in court. When he arrived he was detained by police under false and foolish pretexts, handcuffed, locked in a room, terrorized by the police and then released. They are crazy!

Another account – by Oren Matar, 24-year old Animal Rights activist who  until this evening never had any direct dealings with the police:

Bank Leumi ATM machine room had become a makeshift detention cell. A small room, about four meters long and three wide, without windows. The walls are made of glass, so we can see the police dragging a lot of other demonstrators into the room. In our limited space there are already 20 protesters squeezed in, but who cares? It is hot and humid, no air so that we start feeling sick. Trying to hold to the gaps between the glass walls, to get some air to breathe. The heat starts to be really painful.

"We have no air!", "Bring water!", "This is completely crazy! There are old people here! What do you know about medical problems they have?! Somebody is going to pass out". Some people cry, most of them had not been  arrested before and do not understand the process, do not know what their rights are. "We demand to know why we're under arrest! This is unwarranted imprisonment, you cannot keep us here!" Those who still get enough air go on breathing regularly. The officers look through the glass and smile - we got our punishment.

I film the police beating up and ragging other protesters to join us, and correspond with my brother outside. I tell him we have no air, and that the police is violent. He says lawyers have asked to go in and see us – the police laugh when I tell them that.

Someone who can not stand any more lies down on the floor, only half conscious, barely responding. That's the sign for the cops - it's time to give us water and begin to get us out of there.

There we sit in the park under guard, gulping the free air. The worst part of the night is over, now we are going into custody.

The police had made a record number of arrests and had to send for two buses to take us all to the police station. This is an opportunity for me to begin to get to know the people with whom I would spend the next hours. One says he is living nearby, that he went into the street with beer in his hand, saw people being detained and approached, whereupon a policeman threw away his beer and told him he was under arrest on charges of drinking beer.

Two girls say they had been standing to the back, on a traffic island, until some Riot Police grabbed one of them and started to strangle her, and threw her into  our airless cage. When the second began to ask what happens to her friend, she received similar treatment, as the blue marks testify.

Most people, apparently, did even less than I did. I had been at the forefront of the demonstration, but have broken no windows, nor did I shout abuse or  assault police officers.

Among the dozens of detainees was a handful of activists, experienced with police violence and arrests, who knew their rights. But the great majority were in shock at the disregard of their rights. In the early part of the long evening, some fantasized about filing complaints, enjoying their imaginary revenge. It did not take them long to understand how the police work and that the chances of Commissioner Ohayon being "charged for what I saw him do" (as one of the detainees put it) were quite dim.

When we got to the police station we were herded into the station conference room and given water. That is all we got for six hours. The lawyers who came to the station were not allowed to see us, we did not get food, nor were given any explanation of the grounds for our arrest. No phone call to notify the family (unlike me, most did not understand what was happening quick enough to use their mobile phones before they were taken away). Requests for medical treatment to the guy with internal bleeding in his eye were answered with laughter. Also the minor who was arrested with us got the same treatment.

After six hours they took me for interrogation and read to me the charges. illegal gathering, obstructing a police officer in doing his job, assaulting a police officer, property damage, and many other charges. I think the attack  on the World Trade Center was also pushed in.

Whoever was through interrogation was moved to another part of the station. Luckily there was one Riot Policeman who did respect our rights. We got cold water, tea, and rolls. Slowly was also something done about medical care, also for the diabetic girl.

After a few hours, charges were filed against 15 detainees who were sent off to court (where the judges reprimanded the police for the detentions, and saw no reason to remand anybody in custody). Those who remained at the station, me among them, were released after a few hours.

One should have been there to see the violence, the arbitrariness of detentions and the complete disregard of our rights, especially in the initial cage. It had to be experienced to be believed. But the ending could have been written before the demonstration. Every demo now ends with detentions, and almost invariably the detentions end with release, either at the police station or at a court hearing when the police asks for remanding in custody. Israeli courts still respect the right to demonstrate, and always emphasize to the police that  protests are not grounds for detentions.

So, why were detained? In theory, the police should investigate whether a criminal offence was committed, press charges and leave it to the courts to  punish those who broke the law. But that is not the idea with detentions where the court's opinion is known in advance. The idea is intimidation. These twelve hours, and especially the early part, were a quite unpleasant experience. Now we know it's not fun to be arrested, and we also know how easily you can be arrested without doing anything. As we waited I heard some detainees doubtful whether they would participate in another demonstration. Simply, they were  afraid.
When people can't go to a demonstration to express their opinions, because they're simply afraid, this is not just a red light. In what is supposed to be a democratic country, this is a giant red projector.