Saturday, November 17, 2007

"The Prisoner's Dilemma" and Civil Disobediance

I was at the farmers market in Olympia, WA last weekend where I had the opportunity to witness a stand off between the (presumably local) police department and a bunch of anti-war protesters. Some branch of the military, probably the army given the proximity of McChored AFB, was trying to bring in equipment from Iraq using the Port of Olympia; the demonstrators were intending to blockade the road to prevent trucks from entering and leaving. As near as I can tell the protest rapidly degenerated into lots of standing around interrupted by occasional bouts of tear gas.

As a casual bystander what really struck me about the tableau was that everyone looked like they were braced for conflict. The police were wearing riot gear and the protesters had tear gas countermeasures (goggles and masks for the most part). Which got me to wondering as to how much of what followed was self-fulfilling prophecy: people expected trouble and so trouble they got.

I realized that I was viewing a real-life version of The Prisoner's Dilemma. Both the protesters and the police would probably benefit from de-escalation; if the police didn't expect that they'd have to gas people and protesters didn't expect to be gassed then there'd probably be less gassing all around. But its not rational for either party to make the first move in that direction; to do so would be to expose themselves to profitless risk. Instead the rational approach dictates getting a leg up on your adversary, either by more aggressive protesting or more aggressive policing. But that path leads to nothing excepting more bashing of heads and smashing of windows; I think we can all agree that civil disobedience needn't degenerate to that.

So we're faced with these questions:

  1. What is "appropriate" civil disobedience?
  2. How should the authorities respond to such situations?
  3. How do we get there from here?

To answer the above: I have an admittedly limited (and perhaps romanticized) perspective on the issue, but wasn't there a period in US history when this sort of thing was dealt with more peaceably? Protesters sat and sang Kumbayah and were hauled off without too much manhandling by police who didn't feel the need to don helmets, vests, and truncheons. It'd be interesting to try to figure out how we got to this point but, as with any conflict, I suspect there'd be a lot of finger-pointing and not a whole lot of concrete answers. It's best perhaps to figure out whether there's some intervention which can interrupt the process.

The thought that immediately comes to mind is mediation by a neutral third party, but its unclear whether there's anyone who meets that description. Who would command the respect of both the police and protesters to the degree where ey could convince them to risk de-escalation? Therein lies the rub... I got nothing...


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