It is depressing to watch history repeat itself: police killing people, police acquitted or never tried for those crimes, individuals within a movement frustrated by a lack of democratic process becoming more extreme. Parallels in history are all too apparent.
On June 2, 1967 students in West Berlin were protesting the reception of the Shah of Iran by their government. Some protesters threw paint balloons which fell far short of the Shah’s motorcade; but this was as disorderly as the crowd became. After the Shah had entered the Berlin Opera House, the protesters were dispersing.
“Then the police attacked, wielding their truncheons without giving the usual warning first…demonstrators collapsed, covered with blood…Detective Sergeant Karl-Heinz Kurras...of the Political Police…thought he spotted a ringleader…the police gave chase, reached him and showered blows on him. The student hung limp in their arms and slumped slowly to the ground. Karl-Heinz Kurras was among those on the spot at this moment, holding his 7.65-mm pistol with the safety catch off. The muzzle was less than half a metre away from the demonstrator’s head, or that was how it appeared to eye-witnesses. Suddenly a shot rang out. The bullet hit the man above the right ear, entered his brain and smashed the cranium…The dead man was Benno Ohnesorg, twenty-six years old, studying Romance languages and literature, a pacifist” (Aust, pp. 26-27).
Kurras was shortly acquitted in two trials and subsequently promoted. “In January 2012, an investigation carried out by federal prosecutors and Der Spiegel magazine ruled that the shooting of Ohnesorg was not in self-defence and was certainly premeditated” (Wikipedia/Der Spiegel citation below). Police violence against protesters, check. Police murder, check. Police acquittal, check.
The result of these murders, then as now, was increased radicalism and the perception that the offending officers represented a Police State rather than a Democratic Republic. On the same night of the police riot and Ohnesorg’s assassination, demonstrators met at the Berlin SDS centre. “A slim young woman with long blonde hair was weeping uncontrollably, crying, ‘This fascist state means to kill us all. We must organize resistance. Violence is the only way to answer violence” (Aust, p. 27). This once innocent, young woman was Gudrun Ensslin; a future leader in the Baader-Meinhof Group who was to commit deadly acts of terrorism in the coming years. Those who feel that this example applies only to Germany need only look to the Police Riot of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the rise of the Weather Underground for comparisons.
All parties must take responsibility: police and demonstrators; past and present. Yes, the individuals of the Baader-Meinhof Group were personally responsible for becoming terrorists; for carrying-out extreme measures in response to extreme repression. Many of their fellow students continued to protest against the Shah or the Vietnam War without resorting to violence. But we must recognize that without police violence, it is unlikely that these students would have turned to hatred, thought of the state as fascistic and assumed violent tactics.
In Brooklyn, a disturbed Ismaaiyl Brinsley has already murdered NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, claiming it as revenge for the police murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. This will not be the last extremist response. Demonstrators, motivated by Ferguson and other killings of non-white minorities, see that they are not being heard and are responding with increasingly radical acts. One, much milder but telling, example is the highway blockage of I-93 leading into Boston. It was peaceful, but was the impotent act of a frustrated protest movement that only served to anger commuters. No official response assuring justice for murdered African American males has resulted from this protest. As protesters continue to be unheard and injustice persists, their actions will become increasingly angry.
Authorities are acquitting murderers. More minority males are being murdered. There is a perception that the police receive special treatment when on trial for murder. The democratic process appears compromised. People see this across a political spectrum from uninvolved citizens to the demonstrators themselves. It is too reminiscent of the past.
The elected officials must now intervene, to both show the protesters (and the rest of us) that there is justice. They must enact that justice, before things go regrettably further. As exhibited by the example of western democracies during the late 1960s, failure to act will result in escalating discord. We elect the representatives of civic and national government. They hold the leash by which the police are restrained. If they do not act to restrain police violence and bring murdering officers to justice, they must be replaced. This is how a democratic republic works. Let us not repeat the errors of the 1960s.
Aust, Stefan. Baader-Meinhof. The Inside Story of the Red Army Faction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Wikipedia: "Police Covered Up Truth Behind Infamous Student Shooting". SPIEGEL ONLINE international. 2012-01-23. Retrieved 2012-02-25.