"It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men." ~ H.L. Mencken
The Wheeler Street Riot and the Abuse of Police Power
Column by Michael Kleen.
Exclusive to STR
This past Saturday, police in full riot gear, armed with chemical irritants, pepper spray, batons, and a sound cannon, confronted over a thousand students at a block party on Wheeler Street near Western Illinois University. Gathered near their large, white van, officers from several different police forces around the state (who were formed into the “West Central Illinois Mobile Field Force”) waited as loudspeakers ordered the students to leave. “We are ordering you to disperse,” it said in an electronic tone. “Leave now or chemical munitions may be used.” The warning was followed by a piercing siren that reverberated across the garbage-strewn sidewalks and lawns.
Then, between 5:30 and 6pm, riot police formed a line and began spraying chemical agents into the crowd and into at least one nearby home, where students were tightly packed onto the porch and in their living room. Anyone with a camera was warned that they were breaking the law by filming the actions of the police. Anyone who stepped close to the advancing line of black-clad officers was quickly Maced and brought to the ground. Some students jeered and booed from their porches. “You would have thought it was a Third World country,” one student told the Western Courier.
What justified this extreme action on the part of police? According to authorities, the level of behavior at the block party had become “too egregious” and “would have continued to escalate without intervention.” But what are the facts? It is true that property damage had occurred. A little after 5 p.m., several students set fire to some empty boxes at the corner of Wheeler and Albert Streets, but the police did nothing to stop it. Then those same students threw a bicycle on top of a stop sign at that intersection, but the police did nothing to stop it. Finally, those students took down the stop sign and threw it into the fire. That is when the police took action.
Oddly, however, eyewitnesses said that local Macomb police, who had been patrolling the street all afternoon, had disappeared shortly before 5 p.m., only to return with the “Mobile Field Force.” This led some students to believe that the police were prepared to clear the street with or without provocation.
“I don’t know if it was because of the fire, I don’t think it was,” a student named Zak Krause told reporters. “I think they were just going to come out and probably just stop everything. I think that was the plan from the beginning. If the police didn’t leave the streets to get this whole plan to make everyone to leave, I don’t think it would’ve been this crazy and the fire wouldn’t have happened if the police stayed on the streets.”
The situation quickly escalated, with some students throwing beer bottles while others fled into their homes to get away from the smoke, pepper spray, and the advancing line of black-clad riot police.
Al Goldfarb, president of Western Illinois University, claimed that the actions of the police were necessary to “ensure the safety of our students and our community.” Again, in a letter released after the fact, he said the Mobile Field Force had been called in “for crowd control to ensure the safety of all present.” However, it is hard to imagine how indiscriminately firing tear gas and using pepper spray on unarmed, inebriated students ensured the safety of anyone. It was reported in the Western Courier that a girl had to be taken to an ambulance because a police officer sprayed her in the mouth and she had difficulty breathing. Another student claimed, “When [the police] were marching down the street, they were hitting people standing on the side of the street . . . they just clubbed people.”
Considering the statements of local officials before and after the event, coupled with the actions of the police and the fact that simply arresting the students who damaged the stop sign would have been cheaper than using riot police to clear the street, it can be discerned that protecting private property and public safety was not the goal of this operation. In a letter published prior to the event, WIU President Goldfarb repeatedly claimed that previous Wheeler Street parties had “created a disturbance” and “tarnished the reputation” of Western Illinois University. In the past, David Letterman had called nearby Adams Street one of the top party streets in America, and Maxim magazine dubbed WIU the “Best Kept Secret in Illinois.” In this context, it is clear that police were called in because WIU administrators felt that they needed to “do something” to protect the reputation of the university.
Using the police to clear students off a street in order to protect the reputation of a public institution is a fraudulent use of force by anyone’s definition. More alarming still is the application of tactics and weapons designed to deal with full-scale riots against unarmed students, many of whom were, at most, guilty of nothing more than public intoxication.
The Wheeler Street Riot illustrates the consequences of the growing militarization of police, the targeting of groups rather than individuals, an emphasis on enforcement of positive law, and the need for justification of increased spending on law enforcement agencies. By treating all students at the block party as though they were complicit in the handful of criminal acts, the police crossed a line from protecting public safety and private property to committing open and unjustifiable aggression against a crowd. Aggression is wrong, whether it is carried out by a civilian or by an agent of the state. Unfortunately, these abuses have become increasingly frequent in the past decade, and every effort should be made to restrain or do away with the institutions that lead to such abuses of power.