Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occupying Hearts and Minds

Screen shot:Two weeks of Occupy Oakland
Photo courtesy of Heart of Oak, CC BY 2.0.
I've struggled to write about the Occupy protests.  Not because I don't support in their message, nor because I believe protesting is wrong.  On the contrary, I think we need to make fundamental changes to our financial, commercial, political, and social systems, and the amendment I most strongly support is the right to free expression.  I've done on-the-street, yelling-with-a-sign activism.  I've marched in Washington and New York against the war in Iraq and the actions of the Bush administration.  I've spoken into a megaphone in front of a crowd of several hundred decrying the policies of the Justice Department under John Ashcroft.  I've lead a 24-hour reading of George Orwell's 1984 to draw attention to warrant-less wiretapping and other violations of privacy through the National Security and PATRIOT Acts (also under the Bush Administration). Activism gave me direction and focus during a dark period in American history. 

I put that behind me during my senior year in college.  I had a difficult time, as I was not-quite-centrist enough for the Democrats on campus and too centrist for the other Leftist groups.  And, honestly, I got screwed over from both sides before I took off for Senegal second semester junior year.  Furthermore, I found that anti-war marches were mixed-bag affairs, with every left-leaning issue represented by a different sign, slogan, or color.  Environmentalists calling for more attention on global warming.  Anarchists with masks (though not in New York City, where masks are illegal).  Communists calling for class warfare and insisting on tedious collective meetings.  Pro-Palestine groups.  PETA.  Feminists.  And so on.  They weren't all there to protest the war: they had their own agendas.  This made for a disparate, muddled message.  And it still does.  The most all-encompassing and typical Occupy protest poster I've seen said: "I am very upset."  Sometimes I feel that protest is only a way to look cool, or to feel supported in an idea, and not to change policy: it certainly didn't stop George W. Bush.

I approached the Occupy protests with apathy, caution, and hope.  It's hard for me to feel that anything can be accomplished these days, that a bunch of left-leaning protesters can actually do something to influence the political debate.  I've tried (perhaps not hard enough) to make a difference, and I left activism feeling burned and bruised by my government, fellow activists, and student politicians.  President Obama's term has crushed me even further than the Bush Administration, when I felt that I could  protest, if that makes sense.  Being out of the country for almost three years also left me disconnected from any political process--the problems in the foreign countries in which I lived were not my fault nor my responsibility, and I couldn't do anything while abroad about the issues at home.  I was afraid of being disappointed again (and still am), so I've avoided taking a position on Occupy.  I just don't have the heart to get out in the streets anymore.

Then the protests gathered steam and spread around the world.  I felt a bit more optimistic about their role, about their potential.  The police action in Oakland last week was wrong and very poorly handled, as are most police actions in Oakland.  It made me angry.  Occupy Oakland in many ways revived the movement and my feelings about it.  Then, the Oakland march and general strike took place yesterday.  That went off well, with little incident in daylight hours.  During the night, however, more radical Occupy supporters set fires, broke windows, scattered trash, and threw bottles at police.  I'm not sure if self-identified anarchists are these "more radical" protesters, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me.  They tend to ruin the fun for everyone. The police have claimed that protesters also threw Molotov cocktails and Roman candles, though I can't find any clear video evidence.  You can draw your own conclusions here and here (by the way, I love the Allen Ginsberg "America when will you be angelic?" poster--only in the Bay).  There are also some incredible photos here, including a shot of 92-year-old Pete Seeger, still takin' it to the streets.  I love that man.

Whether or not there were Molotov cocktails involved (which is well beyond the pale for me), actions such as throwing objects at the police, setting fires, and breaking windows are over the line.  I am also sick of seeing acquaintances on Facebook post about the need for violence and armed struggle on "behalf of" the ninety-nine percent or arguing that pacifism is no longer an acceptable form of protest.  Violence is not an acceptable means of protest in this case, or in most cases (if you're the French Resistance, then we can talk).  Violence and destruction of property delegitimize an otherwise peaceful and rational movement and only provide fodder to opponents.  On which do you think Fox News would focus the most attention: a peaceful assembly or a small group of rock-wielding morons? 

I think that the Occupy protesters have every right to do as they please as long as they are peaceful.  I fully agree that we must make drastic shifts to our overarching systems.  But the protests will not succeed if they allow violence and destruction of property to continue.  There is a legitimate place for civil disobedience and passive resistance, for instance, the occupation of government-owned property and symbols of corporate greed, such as banks.  It's breaking the law, but if you're willing to go to jail or face legal action for your cause, more power to you.  That's not a choice I would make anymore (my seventeen-year-old self would hate me).  Often, these actions are not in any way passive, even if their authors are peaceful, and draw attention and support to an issue.  I hate to bring up the Civil Rights movement because it feels so clich√©, but the Woolworth's sit-in did exactly that. Putting police, fellow protesters, and passers-by at risk of injury, however, is unacceptable and only plays into the hands of opponents of the Occupy movement.

Update, like 10 mins later: Great little bit here from SF Weekly on protesters who tried to stop vandalism and violence.  Good to see.

To end on a lighter note, and so all you anarchists out there don't think I dislike you or think you don't have a sense of humor, here's one of my favorite songs.  The accompanying photo montage is a little...earnest (and was not assembled by the band) but I love the cleverness of the lyrics.  I also know how to play it on the guitar.

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