Thursday, November 17, 2011

Moving On

What I noticed most about Mayor Bloomberg's defense of his cleansing of Zuccotti Park was that he mentioned only freedom of speech. "The First Amendment protects speech," he said at his press conference. "It doesn’t protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over a public space."

Let's look at the First Amendment for a moment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Occupy Wall Street is certainly about freedom of speech, of course, but even more it's about "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Every right has its limits, and it may well be that peaceable assembly doesn't include "the use of tents and sleeping bags," though I don't see why it shouldn't. But I can't help thinking that Bloomberg, "a cold ruthless billionaire who bought his way into the mayor’s office",* deliberately chose to sidestep that issue.

Oddly, most of the liberal commentators I've read since the Zuccotti Park raid let him get away with it. When Robert Reich lamented "the hijacking of the First Amendment," for example, he mainly seemed to be talking about the Citizens United decision. The only other person I've seen who noticed it was Todd Gitlin, whom I wouldn't choose as company in a matter like this. Rather to my relief, he rambled off in some unhelpful directions, with numerous errors of fact and disputable judgments.

I'll grant Gitlin this other good (if platitudinous) observation, though: "Movements wither when they don’t evolve, and they evolve when they learn intelligently how to avail themselves of opportunities and adapt to changes in the environment ..." It looks to me as though Occupy has been doing just that. Yesterday Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh interviewed Marina Sitrin, a "postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Globalization and Social Change at the City University of New York, author of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. She is researching global mass movements from Spain to Egypt and has just come back from Greece." Sitrin's living proof that you can be a successful academic and still communicate outside the academy.
MARINA SITRIN: Yeah, I mean, these raids we’ve been seeing across the United States, and around the world, similarly, as the movements grow and grow in the plazas and the squares, the police come in and repress, and it doesn’t deter the movements. And, you know, similarly as in Greece, where I just was, I think the movements here will start to go more into neighborhoods, which we’ve already started to see happening. So, continuing to occupy a plaza or a park, that’s really significant and symbolic, but then, also, for example, in Athens, there are many, many neighborhood assemblies now dealing with local issues.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting you should say that, because last night at the general assembly, which was remarkable to see—I mean, well over a thousand people, and it went on for hours at Occupy Wall Street—one of the people in the stack—you know, they’re just sort of making announcements in the "stack," is what they call it—got up and said, "Occupy your block."

MARINA SITRIN: Exactly. I mean, that’s—exactly. And they’re actually finding, in Greece, for example, that by being more community-based, local-based, they can address specific needs more. So, for example, electricity is being taxed, so they’re working on making sure people don’t have their electricity cut off, preventing people from being evicted from their homes. So, similarly in Harlem, people have been working with Occupy Harlem in preventing people’s heat from getting cut off; in Occupy Bronx, it’s about preventing people from getting expelled from their homes—so, more and more kind of reterritorializing, but at the same time keeping a space where we can have our assemblies and exchange experiences from around the city. And I think, actually, it’s a much more radical, if not revolutionary, way of organizing, because when we just come to one plaza, we come to a plaza and have a gathering related to that space. When we’re in our neighborhoods and we come together and relate in that way, it’s more like alternative governance, which is I think what we’re seeing to a small extent in Greece now and in Spain, as well, similarly.
Bloomberg may have inadvertently helped Occupy Wall Street to move in this direction by clearing out the park.
This morning Goodman interviewed Dorli Rainey, the longtime activist who was pepper-sprayed in Seattle the other night. In the same segment she talked to Norm Stamper, who was Seattle's Chief of Police during the 1999 World Trade Organization demonstrations, now known as the Battle of Seattle, and to Chuck Wexler of the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum that coordinated the conference call with mayors and police officials around the country" which led up to the purging of the parks. This led to an interesting exchange. Stamper now repudiates the paramilitary response to peaceful protest that he used in the past:
... I do believe that since 1999 and the Battle in Seattle there have been many changes. My concern is, many of those changes have been for the worse. The officers, for example, in Oakland were dressed as my police officers were in Seattle, which is, in effect, for full—in full battle gear. We were using military tactics. I authorized the use of chemical agents on nonviolent offenders. I thought I had good justification at that time. I did not. The police officer in me was thinking about emergency vehicles, fire trucks, aid cars being able to get through a key intersection. The police chief in me should have said, "This is wrong," and vetoed that decision. I will regret that decision for the rest of my life. We took a military response to a situation that was fundamentally nonviolent, in which Americans were expressing their views and their values, and used tear gas on them. And that was just plain wrong.
Wexler, no doubt with an eye toward justifying this week's police tactics, disagreed with Stamper:

But, you know, in fairness, you know, you were faced, Norm, in a very difficult situation, and in fact, there really hadn’t been many demonstrations up 'til Seattle. I mean, prior to the Vietnam era, there was a big lag time. But what was—what does happen in some of these events is you can have 90 percent of the people are there peacefully, and you have this small contingent—and I think, Norm, what you had in Seattle is you had this group of anarchists that somehow was able to cause such disturbances that it forced a reaction, that perhaps was an overreaction, but I don't think the police were prepared for it. And today, you know, the police struggle between these two extremes, between people who go to exercise their First Amendment rights and then people who are there to cause, you know, damage and destruction.
Stamper wasn't having any.

Here’s my point: if the police and the community in a democratic society are really working hard—and it is hard work—to forge authentic partnerships rather than this unilateral, paramilitary response to these demonstrations, that the relationship itself serves as a shock absorber. Picture police officers helping to protect the demonstrators. Picture demonstrators saying, "We see people on the fringes, for example, who are essentially undemocratic in their tactics. And so, we need to work together to resolve that issue." These resolutions are clearly not easy. One of the things that complicates the picture enormously is when a woman like Ms. Rainey is pepper-sprayed. When innocent people who are there to protest what I consider to be very legitimate grievances against corporate America, against a government that has, in many respects, been bought off by corporations, the police have a responsibility to be neutral. It should be apparent that I’m not neutral, but I’m no longer a cop. And police officers on the streets really do need to be neutral referees, and they need the help of their civilian, if I may use that term, partners.
Goodman then brought in "retired New York Supreme Court Judge Karen Smith, who worked as a legal observer early Tuesday morning here in New York." Smith said,

I was there to take down the names of people who were arrested so we could follow them through the system and just observe what was going on. And as I’m standing there, some African-American woman goes up to a police officer and says, "I need to get in. My daughter’s there. I want to know if she’s OK." And he said, "Move on, lady." And he kept pushing—they kept pushing with their sticks, pushing back. And she said—and she was crying. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he throws her to the ground and starts hitting her in the head. And I walk over, and I say, "Look, cuff her if she’s done something, but you don’t need to do that." And he said, "Lady, do you want to get arrested?" And I said, "Do you see my hat? I’m here as a legal observer." He said, "You want to get arrested?" And he pushed me up against the wall.
This is the kind of thing that eventually strengthens a dissident movement, or at least weakens the position of people like Bloomberg: when people other than hippies and bums get shoved around by the police, they trust the government a bit less. Who knows, even the right-wing Daily Caller, beloved of RWA1, might have second thoughts now that two of their reporters were beaten by New York police officers.

I admit I'm not fully convinced by Stamper's claim that the police don't want to do these bad things, but I hope he's right, because as Michael Tracey wrote today at Salon, the New York Police Department has discredited itself by its conduct.

Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald has a good piece on the current state of the movement, which also recognizes that, far from needing advice on how best to "evolve" from the likes of Todd Gitlin, it has been changing all along and will go on changing.

Again using nothing more than reader donations, FDL designed and then purchased a full line of winter clothing for free distribution to the various Occupy sites around the nation: hats, sweaters, scarves, gloves, socks, blankets, jackets, thermal underwear, face masks, and more. Every penny FDL raises — 100% — goes exclusively toward the manufacture and free distribution of these products to Occupy protesters. They have thus far raised close to $90,000, and spent roughly $85,000 of it on the purchase of almost 7,000 items. They have also furnished heat generators, tents, and sleeping bags to numerous sites as well.

What makes this activism particularly impressive is that it is designed to build an ongoing and highly effective support network. Rather than indiscriminately dumping the clothing at various encampments, FDL has built a network of liasons and representatives to ensure that it goes to the places that need it most, and that it reaches those who will use it for its intended purpose: primarily, the “sleeper” protesters, largely impoverished, who form the backbone of the camps. Beyond that, FDL has expended great efforts to ensure that the goods it distributes are manufactured not in Chinese sweatshops but rather entirely by American unions — a difficult challenge in this age of disappearing American industry — which in turn ensures that the workers producing the products enjoy health insurance, living wages, and a decent standard of living: aims of the Occupy movement itself.

That last point underscores one of the most significant aspects of the Occupy movement: that it is not devoted to voicing grievances as much as it is finding a model to solve them.
The Occupy movement hasn't been only on the receiving end of such gifts: in Zuccotti Park, at least, the OWS library served as a lending library for the neighborhood, which makes its destruction by the NYPD and city sanitation workers the more of an offense. The occupiers' kitchens have also fed the homeless people that the police sent to them in hopes they'd be disruptive. I can't find now where someone associated with the movement was contemptuous of the police intention; it might have been in this Making Contact program I half-listened to this morning. And as the program points out, many veterans, including veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, are homeless, a reminder of how badly mainstream America supports its troops.

One last thing: when I first heard of rumors that the Department of Homeland Security was involved in this week's crackdown, I regarded the news that those rumors had been denied as confirmation that the rumors were true. That is usually the case, after all. Then today I saw that Homeland Security had denied the rumors again -- except, well, "Only in Portland." I expect more confirmations to leak out over time.
* And even more: "a Wall Street billionaire who so brazenly purchased his political office, engineered the overturning of a term-limits referendum and then spent more than $100 million of his personal fortune to stay in power, and now resides well above the law."