Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occupy Oakland, Policing, and Secondary Deviance

Angela Davis yesterday at Occupy Oakland.
Photo courtesy Joe Feria-Galicia, RP&E Journal 
This morning's Chronicle reports fierce encounters between  Occupy Oakland protesters and police. As was the case with the protests following Johannes Mehserle's verdict, protests in Oakland were peaceful until the evening, and then escalated into vandalism and violent clashes.

The Chron piece documents serious debates within the protesting community regarding violence, as well as about the appropriateness of police response. We have no data yet as to the identity of the arrestees, but if this is anything like the Oscar Grant protests of yesteryear, at least some of them might be out-of-towners taking advantage of the protest to engage in vandalism.

What is going on in Oakland? The ferocious animosity between communities of color and the city police force have been long noted in literature, the latest example being Victor Rios' recent book Punished. The book is an ethnography of Black and Latino youth in Oakland, documenting their constant criminalization by their surroundings, including police, the schools, and their own families. Rios argues that the pervasive perception that these young men are either actual or potential criminals, to be constantly monitored, addressed, and oppressed, provokes some of them to actually live up to the label and join street gangs. While Rios does not explicitly pay homage to labeling theory, his interviews and observations seem to support Edwin Lemert's theory of secondary deviance, according to which young people who are constantly labeled as deviants eventually internalize the label:

When a person begins to employ his deviant behavior or a role based upon it as a means of defense, attack, or adjustment to the overt and covert problems created by the consequent societal reaction to him, his deviation is secondary. Objective evidences of this change will be found in the symbolic appurtenances of the new role, in clothes, speech, posture, and mannerisms, which in some cases heighten social visibility, and which in some cases serve as symbolic cues to professionalization.(1951: 76)

Lemert's theory, and Rios' findings among Oakland youth, may go a long way toward explaining why protest events in Oakland have such potential to deteriorate, while similar events in San Francisco go by more peacefully. Encounters between police and community in San Francisco simply do not carry the same baggage that they do in Oakland. And, while it would be absurd to argue that vandalism does not really exist and is solely the product of a label, it is important to acknowledge the role of police and government expectations in encouraging/discouraging violence. In San Francisco, supervisors urged police to treat protesters peacefully. At our District Attorney debate at Hastings, all four candidates present vehemently stated that they would never treat Occupy protesters using violent means, nor would they seek charges against them. The role of environment and charged past encounters in generating violence cannot be ignored, and the Oakland police force, constantly sitting atop a keg of resentment on the part of racialized and criminalized communities, should not be surprised at its prophecies coming true.

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