Cops and the 99%, Part I: Who do you serve? Who do you protect?

Jesse Goldsteinby Jesse Goldstein, City University of New York

Last night I went to a meeting at the Occupied Office, which is on the 12th floor of a union owned building in the financial district. At the door, which has been pasted over with images from the Occupied Wall Street Journal’s poster issue, a young man stood behind a small table.
“Are you here for accounting?”
“No, I’m here for a meeting.”
“Well the office is closed today, except for accounting. I’m really sorry about that.”
As I turned to leave, two more occupiers arrived, gave the man at the door a warm embrace, and walked right in.
I guess they’re with accounting.

I left, walking briskly up Broadway, passing by Zuccotti Park on the way to our backup destination. The park was enclosed by two lines of doubled up metal police barriers, just inside of which stood half a dozen security officers, exhaling deeply into their hands as they idled through the first painfully cold night of winter. A few cops also milled about, along with a single protester who had braced a smartphone enveloped in clear plastic a few inches from his face, the words “USTREAM RECAI ISKENDER” written in black marker on the plastic, his hands free to remain deep inside his jacket pockets.*

The Lone Protester (photograph by Jesse Goldstein)

Behind this gaggle of freezing men, Zuccotti Park was vacant, quiet, and very well lit by rectangular yellowish lights embedded in the pavement, evenly distributed throughout the park. There was no litter, no traces of life, nothing. Just 12 cold men, occupying a park, one of them because it’s his political prerogative, 11 of them because it’s their job.

These men, all but the lone protester, are being paid to occupy Zuccotti park.

My meeting (which was about those poster images pasted on the door of the Occupied Office) and accounting (or the-group-formerly-known-as-finance) are both stories themselves, but I’ll save these for future posts. For now I want to reflect on the cops, public and private alike, who’ve been stationed in Zuccotti ever since the park was raided and cleared.

Here’s why I’m interested: The connection between the police and the 99% has been a contentious issue around OWS. For every protester hurling expletives at the cops, there is another attempting to reason with them, to turn them back to their ‘real’ allegiance, the people. One example of this sort of entreaty came the morning after Zuccotti had first been cleared. In a mad scramble, lawyers working with OWS had been able to get a judge to issue a restraining order against the cops – a legal victory, or so it appeared. At the park, just outside of the metal barricades that now encircled the park, a few individuals from the National Lawyers Guild were handing out copies of the ruling, with the sentence about a restraining order circled. Protestors – not all, but many – feverishly grabbed for these sheets, enthralled with the idea that they were arming themselves with the latest, strongest anti-cop kryptonite available. They thrust these papers into the faces of motionless cops standing guard around the park.
“You’re breaking the law!”
“Don’t you see, you’re breaking the law, you have to let us in!”
With images of cops arresting themselves dancing in their collective imaginary, they circumnavigated the ring of cops surrounded the park, telling each and every one of them that they were not in fact enforcing the law, but were actually breaking it.

As you might imagine, this wasn’t a compelling argument. The cops stood pat, waiting for further orders, and by late afternoon Bloomberg found a new judge who would lift the restraining order. So that was that.

A Sheet of Kryptonite (photograph by Jesse Goldstein)A relatively common chant directed at the cops has been the pointed question: “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” Chanted aggressively, as a rhetorical question, it’s becoming clear to me that there are two different diametrically opposed ‘rhetorics’ posing this question, and therefore two very different answers laying just beneath the surface of our movement.

On the one hand, the police are ‘supposed’ to serve the people. This means that they are potentially good public servants that have been temporarily led astray by the bad motives of Bloomberg, Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, or whoever is imagined to be playing the role of puppetmaster. For this portion of the movement, police officers are seen as hard working public employees, whose incomes place them squarely within the 99%. They suffer the same ill fates of climate change, of eroded public infrastructure, and of a lack of civil liberties as the rest of us. They eat the same food, root for the same sports teams. Their nights are filled with the same must-see TV as our nights. Their children face the same terrible prospects as our children. Hence, on this basic human level, it follows, they are part of the 99%.

On the other hand, the police are ‘supposed’ to serve the bearers of wealth and power. In this case, the chant is not meant to shame the cops for doing their job improperly, but to shame them for consenting to do their job properly. They are paid to protect the interests of the rich from popular dissent, and this is what they are doing. While the people wearing police uniforms may be part of a shared humanity that is suffering at the hands of the 1%, when these people are wearing their uniforms they are taking orders directly from that same 1%, and providing the muscle to insure that people far richer than they ever will be are able to safely maintain their privilege. Hence, by the powers of Lockean transitivity** the cops are a mere appendage of the ruling class, and decidedly not part of the 99%.

So which is it? I really want to hear from readers how they make sense of this issue. I’ve got my own opinion – but I’ll save it for a follow-up post – and who knows, maybe my opinion will change once I hear from all of you?

*         *         *

* The protestor’s name is Recai Iskender. He spends between six and eight hours at the park daily and is very friendly and approachable – if you’re near the park and see him, say hello! You can watch his live stream at:

** I’m referring to the Second Treatise, where Locke defends the colonial expropriation of North America through the divine right to work land – or pay to have it worked – and as such consider it one’s own private property: “Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut…become my property…The labour that was mine…hath fixed my property in them.”


  1. Asher Dupuy-Spencer

    Great post. I would add one detail to the pro-cop argument and one important detail to the anti-cop argument. First, I think that considering the fact that police officers (in blue not white) are subject the discipline and power of managers it is important when considering how to understand their class position and thus the potential to draw to the side of the 99%. This is important if we as a movement were ever to think strategically about how to create a narrative that could potentially create conflict within the force. The second addition I wanted to make was to the anti-cop argument. Beyond being defenders of wealth and economic privilege, the police are also the defenders of structural racism. Through systematic harassment, intimidation, and violence in communities of color the actions of police are fundamentally incompatible with the ethics and values of the movement. Taking this into account, how can we as movement seek to integrate the police? Is it possible that the acceptance of the police into the 99% is almost tantamount to ignoring the systematic and racist violence they are responsible for and obligated to carry out? What kind of message does this send to the communities who suffer disproportionately from police violence and intimidation?
    This is a conversation that we need to have. We need this conversation as individuals and as a movement. But really we need to get our strategic ducks in order.
    Thank you Jesse for getting this started.

  2. zachary

    Jess… Very well written. In my opinion you built a very balanced case on the NYP and how they are serving NYC’s/and one of the worlds most powerful industry, finance, and treating OWS.
    Your ending though leaves me thinking, what would you like to see the NYP (cops) do. They are earning a living, (agree they are not in the 1% range nor ever will be in their chosen profession, as are with many other noble and chosen professions). What can they do, turn in their badges by not following orders from Bloomberg, they have families, mortgages and families to feed. I can’t believe they take pleasure in displacing or harassing those in Zucatti Park by choice, but are placed between a rock and a hard place. While our society and most of the developed countries embrace capitalism as an engine for advancing the quality of life of all, albeit disproportionally and for the most part without regard for the environment or the future of the planet, we live in a society where their is the ability to raise individual financial stature. Yes… some are born with legs up on others, that has been the case since the beginning of civilization, Darwin, in the early days might won out (the genetics of individuals physical prowess). Today native intelligence certainly helps, family resources, connections… all what we both know that has created advantages that are different from the earlier centuries.
    Today EU countries with strong social support systems, pensions, health systems, with limited industries or natural resources where sooo many work in government jobs or tourism, are now finding themselves vulnerable to shifting global economic downturns?
    I truly recognize that we need to bridge the financial gaps between the 1%ers and the 99%ers… But truly as we both know it is easier pointing out the problem, and much harder to come up with solutions.
    I would truly be interested in some ideas you have as to how to affect change that will work towards the goal, while building this under a capitalist infrastructure, as we must face the reality that capitalism was always and will always be the normal.
    We all look at our own experience, for me growing up the son of a butcher, in a middle class community, with racial tensions as middle class students in a high school conflicting with communities of lesser means. The tension was not between the upper class (there was none), but with the discrepancies between middle and lower middle class.
    To me my whole life the economic discrepancies were always there even when no one had the gaps that existed today. Is this just human nature? Can we change that? How?
    Zachary… in the one percent.

  3. Recai Iskender

    Hi, I am occupying everyday fulltime at zuccotti park occupy wall street and livestreaming the occupation for documentary. Please juat look up and last name to watch and recorded channel.Sometimes I am the only occupier and 24 signed police vehicles full of police are waiting for the occupation. They are protecting their bosses in the wall street from the occupation.