At approximately 4am on Tuesday morning (December 13, 2011) riot police forced members of Occupy Baltimore to leave McKeldin Square. No one was arrested, and there was no violence. In a statement, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake affirmed the right of individuals to protest, but not to establish a permanent campsite. What follows are random (i.e. unordered) thoughts:
- In my previous post, I noted that sooner or later police would realize that the use of violence increases support for Occupies in general, and that supporters are going to have to figure out how to deal with the possibility of "peaceful" police evictions. Although police arrived at the site, unannounced in full riot gear (hence "peaceful" rather than peaceful), they did not explicitly wield any of the physical objects (batons, tasers, pepper spray, etc.) in forcing Occupy people to leave. This, combined with the time they chose, guaranteed that any media coverage garnered would be media coverage that implicitly privileged local government. The narrative becomes "after letting protestors use the square for more than two months, the mayor took the square back" rather than "peaceful protestors were beaten for occupying a public space". Although I wrote my previous post a few weeks ago, it is prescient in many ways.
- The most identifiable group of law breakers at any given time are the students at local universities who jaywalk while crossing the street to go to campus. For understandable reasons, police (with the exception of NYC) don't arrest or even ticket these students. I use this as an example to call attention to the ways that law enforcement and political officials can selectively decide when to site someone for illegal activity. There's a dumpsite in East Baltimore that has a two story high uncovered pile of broken glass. When the wind blows, people living in the neighborhood are struck by glass debris. I don't expect riot police to go to the institution responsible for the dump in full riot gear asking them to clean up the site. Part of that of course is because it isn't the responsibility of the police to deal with mismanaged environmental waste sites. But I believe my point remains. The use of law in this case was both disproportionate and unequal.
- There's a way to use this event as an opportunity. I've said this but don't think I've written this–the goal of occupy should not be to simply "hold" a space. Although doing so has symbolic importance given the slow death of public space and public political conversation, focusing on the space has the tendency to reify that space to the point that the movement becomes more about holding a particular space than it becomes about increasing action against inequality. And then the movement becomes that space, which then leads to easy and problematic "us" vs. "them" distinctions, with "us" here being the people that stay and build in that space, and "them" becomes people who don't stay and build in that space. As I think of it, this ends up flipping the entire concept of the 99% on its head, with the 1% (actually, much less) of people staying at McKeldin Square pitting themselves against the 99% of people who DON'T reside there. Getting evicted gives people an opportunity to proliferate the idea, and to take it back perhaps to its open source roots.
- There IS with that said, one population that does lose something very specific. Occupies to the extent they have taken public space have become home to populations without homes. We can intellectually make claims about how precarious life is for all of us at this moment, but at a base level if you've got a roof over your head and a paycheck, your life isn't quite as precarious as the life of someone "sleeping rough" (to use English slang). Moving occupies "into the cloud" so to speak, takes real stuff away from the one population that probably relies on occupies more than anything else.
- One way around this is to not move occupy "into the cloud" as much as simply move occupy. That is, have more than one site and to grow more than one site. There's an argument to move the site to a space that's more politically important. To a space that calls attention to a specific political issue. The discussion about which space to choose is, I believe a false choice. I know that bodies can't occupy more than one space at the same time. And that some issues may generate more support than others. But at the same time there is something to be said for extending the public, and not being comfortable in one space. In my public talks I've emphasized the concept of the swarm. That's an important idea to take hold of.
- Finally a colleague of mine pointed out that Americans can learn a great deal about nonviolent action from people in authoritarian regimes who've been able to figure out legal, nonviolent, and fairly unstoppable means of registering dissent. The idea of getting people to walk to work for example is something that can be really powerful. But it entails organizing where people are. And becoming "we" rather than "them" vs. "us". And it entails shifting our perceptions about why people aren't active and aren't doing more. People aren't necessarily passive because they are brainwashed, or because they are sellouts.
I've more thoughts, but these are the ones that stand out. Would be very interested in hearing your thoughts.