I took a free tour of Buenos Aires on my vacation the other day, and at one point the woman leading the tour said, “Argentina has been free of military rule for 28 years. Our democracy is like a teenager–confused, in love and unstable.” Buenos Aires has 3-5 political marches a day, and the woman explained that no matter what the marchers do, the police stand to the side and say nothing. If they try to engage unruly strikers, they will be roundly abused, and if they arrest them, huge demonstrations will ensue. Why? Because that´s what happened during the military regime, explained the tour guide. If the police take away protesters, then what kind of political system are we living under, the people want to know.
I took this tour on the night the police in Oakland were asked to go in and destroy the Occupy Oakland camp (again). Several of my friends and colleagues who are religious leaders in Oakland stayed and got arrested as a form of protest against shutting down the camp.
I found myself struck by the parallels between Buenos Aires and Oakland (although I´m truly grateful to live in a country I feel confident will never reach the level of violent and prolonged oppression the Argentinians felt in the mid-70s to mid-80s).
I recently heard a political leader say (and I´m paraphrasing,) “This is no longer the era of the black panthers–the cops are not the enemy.” But the Panthers didn´t appear in a vaccuum. They became a movement because police at that time would not go into certain areas that needed protection, and because they would arrest people arbitrarily, and because they used unnecessary force on innocent people. And leadership turned a blind eye.
So when people in Oakland experience their voices being shut down, their needs not being met, and police using unnecessary force, of course they react with anger and with distrust. Especially when many of them continue to experience on a daily basis the fear of being harrassed for no crime other than being the wrong color.
The guide in Buenos Aires said the police are treated with little to no respect, and the people serving as police are generally people who needed a better opportunity’–often people from poverty.
And I find myself thinking of Oakland, where I have met many good cops who want to make Oakland a better city, who are treated (in former police chief Anthony Batts´words) as “a necessary evil.”
So in Buenos Aires, I see a city of opposing forces made up of people who probably want the same things. Protesters want living wages, better schools, health care. So, I suspect, do the police.But the enmity between the two groups means they cannot work together for the good. The history of violent oppression is so recent and so deep and so broad (the Mothers of the Disappeared continue to march in May Square every Thursday afternoon) that I don´t know how they will bridge that gap.
In Oakland, I don´t know how we can live with ourselves if we don´t bridge that same gap.