Eyewitless News prattles on that this is the Occupy movement’s winter of discontent. Weather, evictions, dissension, perplexity—yadda yadda. Those are facts, but they are not facts that speak for themselves. Facts need interpreting. This is also the run-up to spring. Spring means flowerings, cleaning, revitalization.
This past fall, Occupy transformed the political landscape by seizing a ripe moment—by putting righteous anger together with high spirits, by dramatizing new possibilities—by existing, enduring and symbolizing. The occupations cleared spaces for public life, for mutual education and controversy. From them came all kinds of direct actions that carried symbolic weight. From them also came the marches of tens of thousands where the inner movement of the encampments was joined by the outer movement of the membership organizations—the unions, progressive groups, and so on. That was when the movement broke through to the public—by looking like the 99%.
In house occupations and anti-foreclosure actions, the movement began to deliver palpable results—real families in real homes. And despite ample provocation by paramilitarized police, the movement occupied the moral high ground by keeping almost wholly nonviolent. Now, ready or not, here comes the election cycle of 2012, putting pressure on the movement to keep up the vital tension between self-maintenance and growth, between challenging the whole plutocratic political economy and upping the odds of real reforms that can arrest and reverse it.
And, right on cue, here come the city governments of Chicago, Tampa, and Charlotte, readying noxious rules and massive armament to corral the likely thousands of demonstrators who will gather, in the Occupy spirit—though not necessarily with any official imprimatur—to greet the G8 and NATO in May, the Republicans in August, and the Democrats in September, respectively.
In Chicago, for example, at the behest of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the City Council on January 18 passed a stupendous ordinance, requiring, among other things, that all applicants for permits (1) supply at the time of application “a description of the size and dimension of any sign, banner or other attention-getting device that is too large to be carried by one person,” and (2) that they obtain $1 million insurance coverage to “indemnify the city against any additional or uncovered third party claims against the city arising out of or caused by the parade, and agree to reimburse the city for any damage to the public way or city property arising out of or caused by the parade.” (If all that weren’t tragic and farcical enough, it now also becomes mandatory that the applicant submit “a list identifying the type and number of all animals that applicant intends to have at the parade.”) The minimum fine for a violation jumps to $200; the maximum is $1000 and/or 10 days in jail.
The local press treated the final version of the ordinance, as Emanuel spun it, as a back-down after critics assailed an earlier version. It is not a back-down. It is full frontal abuse of the First Amendment. As I write, Chicago’s applicants are scrambling to file their applications before the new regulations take effect on January 28. And even then, the Feds may end up preempting the city by imposing their own still more stringent national security laws.
Plastic netting, penned-up “free speech zones,” pepper spray and tanks—these are officialdom’s bankrupt notions of how a democracy ought to confront “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” in the words of some 18th century document. These are slaps in the face of the people’s rights to govern themselves as much as the Citizens United decision and the billion-dollar campaigns that line the pockets of the oligarchs who hold licenses to operate TV and radio stations on the public airways—licenses for which these haughty broadcasters do not pay a single dime. Talk about the rights of the plutocrats to lawful usurpation.
The authorities in Chicago, Tampa and Charlotte hope to scare Occupiers away. They’ve thrown down their gantlets—show up at your peril and stay offstage, boys and girls. These are flagrant insults. And very likely, some who show up to stand for economic justice and decency will react not only with indignation and mockery (eminently called for) but in-your-face breakage and belligerence. No matter whether it’s the riot police or the agents provocateurs or the “black bloc” who cast the first stones. Under Chicago’s new ordinance, vandals—call them the black bloc, as Europe does—hijack the demo, damage property, and the city could legally force the organizers to pick up the tab. The black bloc would not only get to crash the party but arrange that the peaceable partygoers pay for the privilege.
It’s not hard to imagine scenarios in which windows are smashed and heads clubbed. What happens then—regardless of who started it, regardless of the assemblies’ nuanced arguments about the true meaning of violence—is that the image of the protest becomes just that—violence. Which offends people in living rooms everywhere, some of whom sympathize with the thrust of Occupy. They cringe and pull back. What moves to the forefront of their minds is an association between Occupy and a symbolic amalgam of disruption, inconvenience and the privileged frolic of rich kids. Panicky about the loss of law-and-order, they’re more likely to vote for take-no-prisoner politicians whose idea of reform is a reformatory.
I was on the streets of Chicago in August 1968 when provocative disruptors among overwhelmingly nonviolent protestors were infiltrated by provocateurs and beset by rampaging police, producing a televised spectacle that had the perverse effect of encouraging a disengaged public to side with the police against what they thought were dangerous and frivolous revolutionaries—even as the Vietnam war declined in popularity. Let there be no romanticizing of those who “upped the ante” toward militancy, indifferent to the fact that 95% of America was politically on their right —or of the few hundreds whose stagy vandalism (“Days of Rage”) a year later sounded the death knell for a mass student movement.
The Occupy movement rightly understands nonviolence not as a negation, the absence of destructiveness, but as a creative endeavor—a repertory for invention. But Occupy has been reluctant to be more explicit about it. The movement should overcome its reluctance. Occupy should define itself, explicitly, as a movement of strategic nonviolent direct action, in the words of an “Open Letter to the Occupy Movement: Why We Need Agreements.” It should renounce violence against persons or property, in no uncertain terms. It should take note that, in effect, a failure to renounce violence shoos away the disabled and people of color, who have good reason to fear special injury from the police. It should do everything it can to isolate those who seize the spotlight by smashing things. When the media move them to the front of the parade, together they trample the ethos of a brilliantly leaderless movement.
The Occupy movement has been, so far, a seedbed of creativity. Now it needs to amp up its declaration of values.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph. D. program in Communications at Columbia University. His new book, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, is coming soon.