As we enter the second season of the nascent Occupation movement police have responded viciously. To loosely quote Stuart Hall, “the Empire strikes back.” At UC Davis, police officers sprayed protestors with pepper spray. In a video making the rounds, we can see one police officer spraying protestors as a gardener might spray petunias. In Oakland, police officers shot a military veteran in the face with a rubber bullet, causing brain damage. Although it is possible here that he was shot inadvertently, more likely he was aimed at. And in the most startling image to me a member of the NYPD sprayed a protestor in the mouth. In these and in dozens of other similar instances these tactics reveal the fundamental disconnect between our supposed rights to protest and our practical rights to protest. And it’s also clear that there is a profound disconnect to how non-violent rule breakers are treated vs. Banks and other powerful institutions. Banks have routinely violated literally hundreds of rules and regulations in their desire to forcibly evict people from their homes, but it is difficult to imagine a circumstance in which police officers (or law enforcement officials of any sort) treat banks with the same type of cavalierly brutality they use to treat park and recreation violators. But rather than curtailing protest, these police actions usually have the negative effect, increasing rather than decreasing dissent. They increase the size of and support for the movement by revealing the stark contrast between the rules accorded to the 1% and the rules accorded to the “99%”. Movement supporters use this as evidence of growing power.
While I’m sure they’re right, I think they’re missing the point.
What happens when the violence stops? What happens, when police officers and political representatives stop Bull Connoring protestors?
We’re all familiar by now with the development and deployment of nonviolent tactics made popular by the Civil Rights Movement. Proponents felt protestors would gain the moral high ground by using nonviolence. And in doing so they would both gain supporters and would turn some detractors in their favor. They weren’t totally wrong, as many victories were earned by their nonviolent struggle. Long before the civil rights bills of the sixties were passed, blacks had successfully overturned Jim Crow segregation laws in dozens of cities through the strength of nonviolence.
But there’s another side.
By the early sixties Civil Rights Movement was in the midst of a transition. Many of the children involved in desegregating local school districts in the fifties had by now entered college. These students were still interested in desegregating public spaces, but they were also committed to increasing the political power of southern blacks. And they staunchly believed in non-violent tactics—indeed they called the organization they formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1961 SNCC established a base in Albany, Georgia with the purpose of registering enough black voters so as to overturn the white supremacist political leadership of the city. But in their struggle with the city, SNCC’s forces were decimated, as the city imprisoned many of their leaders.
In stepped Martin Luther King. King called for a march on city hall. 250 people joined him. They were all arrested.
Now in dozens of other instances the arrests themselves were valuable to the movement, as southern police would brutally beat protestors as journalists (hence the country) looked on.
But this instance was different. Rather than using brutal tactics against the protestors, rather than having their human much lesscivil rights called into question, Albany Chief of Police Laurie Prichett had his officers courteously arrest them. King and the protestors didn’t know how to respond. Instead of seeing peaceful protestors brutalized, Americans saw police arresting people who were disturbing the peace. When King returned to be tried for violating the law in regards to the rally he was offered the opportunity to pay $178 instead of having to serve time. King refused, believing that serving the time would only bring the contradictions of Albany’s racism into stark relief.
Recognizing this, the city paid his fine.
He tried to return to Albany again, but given his previous behavior the city was able to get a federal injunction against him. Although eventually Jim Crow segregation fell in Albany as it did elsewhere, nonviolent protest in Albany was arguably a failure. Indeed some argue it was King’s greatest failure. King was forced to leave. The type of nonviolent protest civil rights protestors used always relies on heavy handed violence, and a media willing to film it. Remove either element and it fails.
The growth of the occupy movement in hundreds of cities across the country is aided and abetted by the use of violent tactics by law enforcement officials. Their use of violence helps occupy forces crystallize differences between the “99%” and the “1%”. In so doing it increases the physical and social support for the movement’s activities, and increases the number of people willing to occupy.
However, sooner or later someone’s going to realize that this particular tactic is easily countered, by simply letting protestors say their peace, and arresting them with dignity when they break the law. And when this mode of arrest proliferates with the same speed and ferocity of the Occupy Movement, the various occupies will be left with a question that up until now they haven’t had to answer.
I, like many others, have up until now believed that the lack of substantive demands does not necessarily hamper the movement. Perhaps because we live on “internet time” we tend to forget that the movement really is barely 100 days old if that. And I believe that the proliferation of dozens of different occupies is a boon rather than a bane. But the more occupies rely on the use of force to garner support, the less likely it is it will be able to bring the change into the world we seek.