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Jul 31 2012

#Occupy: the answer to an important question

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.

(snip)

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.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    astro

    ” but I will save you my diatribe about how terrible media organizations are** for another time.”

    Please don’t take too long. I’d love to hear your take on it. In fact, I’m getting closer every day to blaming the MSM almost entirely for the mess we’re in. They could have been ‘on it’ from the get go and not only were they not ‘on it’ they have been active antagonists, and complicit enablers to the bad guys.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    The short version is that blaming the media is like smacking your monitor when your computer is slow. Yes, it’s the part of the machine you interact with, but it’s not the source of the problem.

  3. 3
    karmakin

    I see it a bit of a different way. I see it as a answer to the question of what do we do when the society who elects the people who get elected betrays our trust?

  4. 4
    astro

    You’re right. It’s the mouthpiece of the problem

  5. 5
    astro

    But I would also add that the current mess we’re in would have been much less bad if we had had a diligent no-holds-barred mainstream media (and more ethical media practice) in place from ‘the beginning’ (I get how vague that is). I fully EXPECT to find the kinds of people and behaviours we find in positions of political and corporate power but true journalism is the only thing between what the public knows and what it does’t. The media are not necessarily donating to the problem, but in not doing their ‘job’ they have essentially enabled the bad guys to run rampant unchecked. I have an analogous problem with republican politicians. I’ve begun to blame their constituency more than the politians themselves, because i fully EXPECT to find nasty, destructive people running for office, however, they exist entirely at the behest of those who would vote them into office.

  6. 6
    Crommunist

    Oh the media is definitely CONTRIBUTING to the problem, but they are not doing so out of malice. Nor, I would argue, are they doing it primarily out of sloth. Would you blame your oven for not washing your dishes? No, because that’s not the oven’s job. Similarly, blaming media organizations for not finding the truth and practicing good journalism is a waste of breath – that’s not their job anymore. Now it’s to be a profitable component of a larger corporate entity.

  7. 7
    lpetrich

    What’s the Occupy movement been up to? It’s not been very prominent recently, and I must ask how it will sustain itself without some way for its participants to gather.

  8. 8
    Crommunist

    Well you have to look beyond the major paper headlines or nightly news broadcasts. Occupy is still meeting, still doing things – it’s just not novel anymore, so it doesn’t get covered unless someone gets their head cracked open (and even then only occasionally).

  9. 9
    Perry Bulwer

    This article is an interesting analysis of some of the issues you raise.

    ****

    The Rise of the Police State and the Absence of Mass Opposition ~ by James Petras and Robin Eastman Abaya

    http://piazzadcara.wordpress.com/2012/07/25/the-rise-of-the-police-state-and-the-absence-of-mass-opposition-by-james-petras-and-robin-eastman-abaya/

    excerpt: … The question is why has the police state grown and even exceeded the boundaries of previous periods of repression and yet not provoked any sustained mass opposition? This is in contrast to the broad-based pro-democracy movements of the mid to late 20th century. That a massive and growing police state apparatus exists is beyond doubt: one simply has to look up the published records of personnel (both public agents and private contractors), the huge budgets and scores of agencies involved in internal spying on tens of millions of American citizens and residents. The scope and depth of arbitrary police state measures taken include arbitrary detention and interrogations, entrapment and the blacklisting of hundreds of thousands of US citizens. Presidential fiats have established the framework for the assassination of US citizens and residents, military tribunals, detention camps and the seizure of private property.

    Yet as these gross violations of the constitutional order have taken place and as each police state agency has further eroded our democratic freedoms, there have been no massive “anti-Homeland Security” movements, no campus ‘Free Speech movements’. There are only the isolated and courageous voices of specialized ‘civil liberties’ and constitutional freedoms activists and organizations, which speak out and raise legal challenges to the abuse, but have virtually no mass base and no objective coverage in the mass media.

    To address this issue of mass inactivity before the rise of the police state, we will approach the topic from two angles.

    We will describe how the organizers and operatives have structured the police state and how that has neutralized mass responses.

    We will then discuss the ‘meaning’ of non-activity, setting out several hypotheses about the underlying motives and behavior of the ‘passive mass’ of citizens. …

  10. 10
    lirael_abhorsen

    Holy shit I love your blog so much.

    In the category of “What has Occupy been up to?” you might be interested in this campaign against racism, sexism, and homophobia (among other things) in the Boston police, that recently spun out of Occupy Boston. It has been more successful than any of us expected (I haven’t been one of the core people, but I was one of the people who helped kick it off, and I have participated). Between 20 and 25% of advertisers have removed themselves from the police newsletter so far, the state group for police officers of color is basically in revolt, the union’s sketchy financials are being exposed, the story has gone national.

    http://cleanupbppa.wordpress.com/

    I feel like I’ve seen a lot over the last year. Being a medic you see and hear about some of the worst things that happen to protesters, and even not operating in someplace like Oakland that’s been truly hellish, I think it’s messed me up a little. But also made me a better person.

    A little point about the “black and Latin@ New Yorkers have been dealing with this for years” point, which I realize you didn’t pursue. That protester who was kicked might have been black or Latin@. Sure, a majority are white (and it’s important to think about how Occupy could be more welcoming to people of color), but there have always been plenty of folks of color around, and there’s a tendency to erase them when talking about protesters as a group. The poor little teenage girl who got her shirt pulled off by the NYPD during her arrest a couple of months ago is black. The medic who got his head slammed through a plate glass window by the NYPD is Latino, and the medic (who I’ve met) who was put in the hospital a few days later after officers leaped through metal barriers into a packed crowd, is black.

    Crommunist, are you going to come to NYC for the Sept. 17 first-anniversary-of-Occupy actions? I’m thinking about busing down from Boston.

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