Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Real Challenge For The Occupy Movement

It was increasingly evident that the powers-that-be across the country were losing patience with the Occupy Movements in various places. For a couple weeks now, stories of police violence in Oakland have made it clear that the tolerance of the ruling classes in various places was disappearing.

It started Sunday in Portland, OR, and was telegraphed on Friday, when the mayor - who repeatedly made the claim he supported the Occupy movement - insisted that police were going to move in at one minute after midnight two days later. Since then Oakland (again) and last night in Manhattan, where police cleared Zuccotti Park. There are various videos abroad the show pretty clearly the police were none too gentle as they pushed the people out. They were, one and all, in riot gear, with state-issued truncheons and pepper spray. What good is it having all these toys if you can't play with them?

I have to admit that I am surprised at the sweep of officialdom's decision to act this broadly. At the same time, it isn't like it should be that surprising. What really troubles me, however, isn't the predictable reaction of state power to a growing, and popular, movement of popular democratic resistance. Instead, this article in particular, while certainly within a history of radical ideas, betrays the heart of the Occupy movement by identifying the institutions of state power with the interests of the people who make up that institution:
Individual officers and even groups have expressed support of certain struggles--most notably, for a time during the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol last winter. Some participants in Occupy Wall Street, despite regular police attacks, have chanted, "Police are the 99%!"

But the truth is this: The police force is not, and cannot ever be, a force for social justice.

In reality, the police don't do the job that they do on TV: protect regular people from crime and violence. Instead, they serve and protect private property and the existing racist, sexist, and massively unequal social order.
What makes my discomfort with this even deeper is I pretty much agree with it, at least to a point.

Yet, I am far more sympathetic with the following:
Addressing government authorities, one occupy spokeswoman used the police aggression as an opportunity to refocus on the larger message of the movement:
You claim to support us, and yet you tell your police force to destroy us. Peaceful citizens are being injured in the process. This is not democratic, this is autocratic. … We have said from day one that our fight is not with you, but rather with banks, irresponsible corporations, and a corrupt federal government. By camping outside the city hall, we gave you a choice to decide to stand with us and with working class Americans. Instead, you made the choice to protect unjust social and economic policies that are leading our nation into a state of financial ruin and institutionalized oppression.
More of this kind or thing is needed. We need to address police officers as members of the working class whose jobs, too often, lead them to acts that are contrary to their own interests.

There is little doubt, I believe, that the mild-mannered, establishment commentator Charlie Pierce is correct, however, in his general description of what has happened over the past 24 hours:
Your right to peaceably assemble for the redress of grievances, and how you may do it, and what you may say, will be defined by the police power of the state, backed by its political establishment and the business elite. They will define "acceptable" forms of public protest, even (and especially) public protest against them. This is the way it is now. This is the way it has been for some time. It's just that people didn't notice. And that was the problem with the Occupy protests. They resisted the marginalization — both literal physical marginalization, and the kind of intellectual marginalization that keeps real solutions to real problems out of our kabuki political debates.
Now that the police have moved, en masse, across the country, the next step will determine whether Occupy will go the way of similar protests in Britain that ended after the Tory-led coalition government there sent the cops in to smash some heads, or if they will defy the police, the mayors, and the nonsensical political commentators. I would caution, by the way, that relying on the courts as a bastion of defense is a sketchy plan. They are as much a part of the apparatus of control as the police, who do their bidding.

The question that faces Occupy now is: Do protesters return to Zuccotti Park and the other public spaces they have taken over, in the face of the state making their feelings about the movement clear for all to see? If they do, then Occupy may well be on its way to overcoming the internal debates and divisions, some of the more important of which I highlighted above, and pose an even graver threat to the institutions that would stifle democracy.

Virtual Tin Cup

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