When the ‘Occupy together’ movement started nearly a year ago, the media narrative almost immediately pivoted to bafflement (either pretended or genuine*) over what ‘the point’ was. Occupy, without a pre-determined raison d’être aside from “shit’s fucked up“, and lacking an official spokesperson to boil down the issues into bullet points that would be ready by the print deadline, actually required people to really dig in and collect the relevant facts and a cross-section of sentiment within the movement. This, incidentally, is also known as “being a fucking journalist”, but I will save you my diatribe about how terrible media organizations are** for another time.
Now Occupy is a lot of different things – a social justice movement, an experiment in anarchic self-governance, an attempt to introduce income inequality into the political mainstream discussion, an expression of contempt for the political status quo – depending on which direction you turn the direction of your analysis, you can probably come up with a lengthy list. The headless organized chaos that typifies Occupy necessarily leads to the formation of a movement that intentionally fails to resemble any of the top-down structures we’ve come to expect in human interactions (at least in this part of the world).
When I was participating in the protests in Montreal, I had a realization. It wouldn’t be fair to call it a ‘sudden’ realization, since I’ve been talking about Occupy for a minute. Whatever it was, I put the pieces together and realized that at its core, Occupy is the answer to a question. The question, and I think it’s a fundamentally important one, is this: how do we respond when those we elect betray our trust? I don’t think there are too many people who look at the political realities right now without a bit of practiced cynicism. After all, being cynical about politics is as old as the hills. But when our response starts and stops with witty rejoinders, we sell ourselves and the world short. After all, some things need to be dealt with:
An investigation undertaken by law clinics at NYU, Fordham, Harvard, and Stanford has concluded, after eight months of study, that the NYPD abused Occupy Wall Street protesters and violated their rights on numerous occasions during the 2011 protests that radiated out from Zuccotti Park. Their report, Suppressing Protest: Human Rights Violations in the U.S. Response to Occupy Wall Street, was released today. It focuses on transgressions against international law.
What I found most arresting were its specific descriptions of alleged police misconduct. Scores of examples were offered. I’ve highlighted a selection of the ones that struck me as most credible, whether due to video footage of the incident or eyewitness testimony from a credentialed journalist, a designated legal observer, or a member of the legal team that put together the report (the report, linked above features links).
I won’t post all of them, because you can just click through the link and see them, but I will post this one as a sample:
A member of the Research Team witnessed officers arresting a protester. A number of officers took the protester to the ground, and restrained him as he lay face-first on the street. The Research Team member heard the protester cry out, and knelt down to observe the arrest. She then witnessed an officer pull back his leg and kick the protester hard in the face. Another witness also saw the incident. Efforts to obtain the badge number of the responsible officer were thwarted by police, who refused to identify the officer and then took him away in a police van.
Now, my first instinct when reading these stories was to pivot to the snarky response that this was the kind of treatment that black and Latin@ New Yorker’s had been receiving from the NYPD for years, and that it was only now that it was happening to folks who didn’t ‘deserve’ it that the world was outraged. But while my smug superiority might have felt good, it certainly doesn’t help the person who was kicked in the face. Such cynicism blunts our capacity for outrage, which is what is needed.
I can certainly understand why people are cynical. There is more than a small element of ‘learned helplessness’ to this reaction: police forces have likely been openly contemptuous of the rule of law since the first time a ruling class decided to pay people to be armed enforcers of their regulations. Police break the laws they are supposed to uphold, and then work the system (or just straight up lie) to make sure they never see any punishment for their actions. Everybody knows this. What can you do?
But that’s the whole point – we can do something. Governments wield power through consent. It is the same with police forces. We have been told that the shitty options we have are the only options, without any real explanation of why that is. Communist or capitalist. Progressive liberal or reactionary conservative. Democracy or fascism. These are definitely among the list of socioeconomic models, but they aren’t the sum total of things that we can do. And expressing the tired cynicism that accompanies any and all of the above options doesn’t move us anywhere, because they all accept the premise that we don’t have any alternatives.
Occupy specifically rejects this idea. Occupy says that when the governing powers do not serve the people, then the people should take to the streets and not just demand answers, but deal with the problems themselves (ourselves) directly. And that is precisely what they are doing:
Ruby Brown, a North Minneapolis hairdresser and pillar of her church community, won a renegotiated mortgage from Bank of America this week — just days before her home was to be auctioned off in a sheriff’s sale. The settlement represents a fourth victory for Occupy Homes MN, the upstart activist group that has helped homeowners around the Twin Cities remain under their roofs.
Brown fell into foreclosure after years of struggling with inflated payments in an adjustable rate mortgage — a predatory lending practice which is now illegal. She eventually received a trial modification and complied with its requirements for 12 months, but was dropped from the program anyway. The confusion surrounding her modification prompted her to ask the question: “The people at the top (of Bank of America), do they really know what’s going on?”
Brown began working with Occupy Homes MN and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change six months ago. Like others who have taken the pledge to stay in their homes, she felt her shame dissolve. “It generated a fight in me,” she said. “I didn’t realize there were so many people in the same situation, that it wasn’t just me.”
What do we do when police beat protesters and slink away so they don’t have to stand trial for assault? What do we do when a bank refuses to play by the rules and forecloses on a home? What do we do when both of these groups are so closely tied to the ruling class that they will never see any justice for the crimes they commit? We are certainly free to sigh and snarkily opine about the inevitable corruptive nature of power, all the while resigning ourselves to the idea that as it was it ever shall be.
Or, we can Occupy.
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*Not that it matters. If you are a member of an organization whose sole purpose is to collect and relay facts, it’s entirely inexcusable to be confused by the Occupy movement. I am not a professional journalist, and none of it confused me in the least.
**Spoilers: I’m not a fan.