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Monday, August 27, 2012

Protest Observers

There has been a serious uptick in protests over the past year in Chile, most notably in Santiago.  Almost every country goes through phases where the government oversteps their bounds or doesn't do enough and as a result, people gather together to protest the actions or non-actions.  Similarly, as in most countries, police have a tendency to overstep their bounds from time to time and go a little overboard.   Just look at the protest on a college campus in California last year where a police officer was photographed spraying a group of students, sitting in a circle, with pepper spray.  It doesn't matter where one lives, being a police officer comes with a sense of power, and as we all know, power can be addictive and destructive.  So what is different about Chile?   Well, it seems that Chile's police force has gone a little too far overboard.  As a result, regular citizens have taken it upon themselves to monitor the police during any protest staged now.  They wear safety helmets, vests, and identification.  Their sole purpose during protests is to watch the police, take down officers names, plate numbers off of cars, and take pictures, videos, and notes.  All that information is utilized to ensure that protesters are not treated unfairly and that if they are, they actually have legal backing to rectify any situation.  In some cases, the police have seriously crossed the line and entered into the realm considered torture.  These observers serve a vital role in protecting their fellow citizens and to me, it sounds like a fantastic idea.  What better way to hold the police accountable than to have observers watch their every move. 

These observers are neutral when it comes to the protests.  They take no action against the police and in turn, do not help the protesters either.  They are simply there to watch.  Imagine if we had observers here in the United States that went to all protests and watched the actions of police?  Perhaps there wouldn't have been as many counts of alleged abuse by the police in Zucotti Park or in the surrounding areas during the Occupy Movement.  Perhaps those students in California wouldn't have been sprayed if there were official observers there watching every move the police made.  Obviously we will never know if it would have made a difference in past protests, but I have the feeling it could definitely make a difference in future protests.  The only issue I envision there being is the lack of volunteers to take on the role of observer at protests.  Unlike in Chile where it seems there is a greater bond amongst the citizens, we have a general apathy when it comes to volunteering.  There are a good number of people who I feel would be willing to take on the role, but would it be enough?  I think it might be as one wouldn't need an excessive amount of observers for a protest.  The only other issue I see being a problem is keeping the observers neutral.  In most cases, people in this country either side with the protesters or the police, rarely in the middle where they would need to be in order to observe.  It wouldn't even necessarily mean finding the people that are neutral on an issue, but have the capacity of putting aside their beliefs in order to protect the rights of their fellow citizens. 

Perhaps the part that ensures the success of the observers in Chile is that they make themselves known to the police.  They approach them before the protest begins and tell them specifically what they are there to do (watch the police) and what they are not there to do (get involved in the protest).   While it wouldn't be guaranteed to take hold and actually make a difference in the United States, the potential is there.  I could see this kind of observation working in almost any democratic country with a legitimate and fair justice system.  I obviously have serious reservations about this kind of observation ever working in a country like Iran, Syria, or China.  In those countries, and others that are similar in nature, the observers would probably be arrested and detained along with the rest of the protesters.  In any case, it is something that is worth looking into in the United States.  Before I get lambasted for comparing our country to Chile, let me just say that our police seem to be much better than those in Chile.  That being said, we do have our issues and we have all heard the news accounts of police overstepping their bounds in the United States.  Maybe the time has come to start our our protest observer groups to keep tabs on the police.  I can almost promise you that the police wouldn't really like it, but hey, it isn't for them to decide.  If they kept their actions within the confines of the law at all times, then I probably wouldn't be writing this now.  Maybe its time to ensure the safety of all our own citizens during protests and keep the police in check.  Then again, maybe no one will pay heed and things will continue as they have.  In any case, I like the idea and could definitely see it working as it has in Chile.