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A Fail Too Big

by on October 28, 2011

Writing about Trust in Government, I wrote that I am one of those “dangerous and endangered class of people that says what I think about government when I disagree and do so in a public place.” I closed out that article by quoting Glenn Greenwald, of Salon magazine, saying “‘political liberties are meaningless if they’re conditioned on obeisance to political power or if citizens are frightened out of exercising them in any way that matters.'”  At that time  – oh, far off land of eight months prior! – I was writing about Wikileaks, with an aside mention of the protests in Wisconsin.

We have long since transitioned from Wisconsin to Occupy Wall Street. We’re in a similar state of affairs, in which there is widespread, international, support for the protesters but hesitancy and reticence by local government, and thus by police, whom the protesters claim to represent, to support Occupiers. By October 4th it was already clear that the NYPD and FBI were acting covertly to discredit the protesters. The “NYPD, Mayor Bloomberg (who made his fortune on Wall Street), the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House are doing everything possible to keep the occupation of Wall Street from reaching an ‘Arab Spring’ tipping point. Populist uprisings are lauded overseas, but they are perceived as a threat to elite corporate governance in the US.”  On October 15th, in New York “what was unknown to a lot of people that day, including those in Times Square, was that there were undercover cops already there, paid to be disruptive and to be loud.” A protester who was arrested for joining a demonstration against the banks before closing his account said that “there are a ridiculous amount of undercover cops within the Occupy Wall Street movement that are making things less safe. There will be a mic check about how to stay safe, stay out of traffic, and the undercover cops interfere, lead people in the wrong way, in ways that are illegal, and get them sent to prison. You saw this in Times Square.”

What do the protesters want?  “It takes a tremendous mental effort to refuse to see that the rich are getting richer in America while the rest of us are struggling.”  Meanwhile, the young, who do not start out rich, are getting poorer.  “An entire generation of young people around the world has come of age only to find that the self-help-y mantras served up during their adolescence as a sort of substitute for economic policy no longer apply post-2007. Unemployment among 16 to 29-year-olds is at its highest rate since WWII.”  It’s stands to reason that “a combination of inflated tuition costs and the proliferation of low-wage jobs is making the promise of financial security — and the dream of prosperity — increasingly elusive for many.”  One of the issues – a sort of list of grievances – frequently brought up by the Occupiers at Wall Street and around the country is student debt. “In the U.S. alone, the total amount students owe will soon reach a trillion dollars, surpassing the amount owed on credit cards.”

A more recent Glenn Greenwald, from October 27th, elucidates our two-tiered society. “The powerful are treated with far more deference by judges than the powerless. The same cultural, socioeconomic, and demographic biases that plague society generally also infect the legal process. Few people who have had any interaction with the justice system would dispute this….Those” – notice the word those, which implies corporation-people as well as people-people – “with political and financial clout are routinely allowed to break the law with no legal repercussions whatsoever. The criminal justice system is now almost exclusively reserved for ordinary Americans, who are routinely subjected to harsh punishments even for the pettiest of offenses.” I intended to go into some depth about the similarities and differences between ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and the ‘Tea Party.’  I’ll save much of that for a different topic, but both groups fawn over the constitution. The difference is in how each side perceives the limits of government.  To one, government is a force to limit corruption. To the other, government is a corruption to limited. For Greenwald, and for people who do not desire our disparate society, “the supremacy of law is not just one among many instruments of good government; it is good government itself. The converse is equally true: in the absence of the rule of law, good government cannot be said to exist….The central principle of America’s founding was that the rule of law would be the prime equalizing force, the ultimate guardian of justice.” It is clear, historically and rationally, that we need to turn to “the uniform application of a set of preexisting rules to everyone, including the rulers,” a system in which “the powerful [are] subjected to its dictates on equal terms with the powerless.”

Also, Occupy Wall Street is “against the corporations that corrupt the system, deplete the Treasury and ultimately aren’t held accountable for their crimes. The protesters are demanding that the corporate criminals who engaged in the shoddy, Machiavellian investment scams that plunged us into the deepest recession since the Great Depression be held accountable for their actions. To date, not a single instigator of the economic collapse has been prosecuted.” The list of grievances discussed by Occupy Wall Street is lengthy.

The subheader of an article titled “Occupy the No-Spin Zone” reads ‘one of the best things about Occupy Wall Street is the way it confuses and ignores the shrill pundit class.’ It is, therefore, hard to use media – particularly mainstream media such as television and syndicated articles, to enumerate the demands of a protest that does not make publish a list of demands. “What the movement clearly doesn’t want is to have to explain itself through corporate television.” It’s hard not to agree that “it takes a walloping amount of willful cluelessness to look at a mass of people holding up signs and claim that they have no message.” Indeed, “Occupy Wall Street is not a movement without a message. It’s a movement that has wisely shunned the one-note, pre-chewed, simple-minded messaging required for cable television as it now exists. It’s a movement that feels no need to explain anything to the powers that be, although it is deftly changing the way we explain ourselves to one another.”

Returning to the issue of trust, “the only people who are scared of the ‘violent mobs’ at Occupy Wall Street are the people being paid to call them violent mobs.”  We started with Greenwald’s well-posited notion that “political liberties are meaningless if they’re conditioned on obeisance to political power or if citizens are frightened out of exercising them in any way that matters;” local governments have been attempting to frighten people of out exercising rights in any ways that matter.  Overnight, on October 25th, “the police in both Oakland and Atlanta forcibly tried to shut down the Occupy movements in those cities.” “The reaction of Oakland police was extreme, firing beanbag rounds and flash canisters into the crowd and launching tear gas at them and driving them from a park they had occupied for two weeks.” Famously – and to say ‘stupidly’ or ‘unfortunately’ would be an understatement – a 24-year-old former Marine was hit in the head by a tear gas canister thrown by riot police. At the hospital – which protesters, not police, transported him to, he has gone from ‘critical’ to ‘fair’ condition. That may make little difference, as the often-beleaguered Oakland Police Department finds that this will lead to a general strike.

While it is clear that Scott Olson was hit by police wearing uniforms it is not unlikely that “right now” (says an article more than three weeks old), “the NYPD – and the FBI – are engaged in low intensity corralling of the protesters. They are playing a waiting game, hoping that the protest will exhaust itself. But if the participants grow – as appears to be the case with the increasing support of unions and the enhanced credibility of the movement – watch for a law enforcement “false flag” operation. You’ll know about it instantly, because it will probably be the first time you’ll see any serious interest in the Wall Street protests on TV. The revolution won’t be televised; but the government takedown of democracy and peaceful assembly will be.” The “revolution” was not the topic of television before Scott Olson (except for the occasional “what can it all mean”), but now television has an intriguing story.

And “Atlanta’s finest were more peaceful as they just arrested all fifty people occupying a park in downtown Atlanta and handcuffed them and carried them off to jail, but the result was the same, a metropolitan police force at the direction of its mayor attacked its own citizens for peacefully assembling and protesting its government.”  I’m sure that John Talbott is correct that “if this had happened in China or Syria, our state department would be filing letters of protest as we speak.”  In the first month of the Occupy Wall Street movement – on October 18th – 1,500 American citizens had been arrested in cities and towns across the country.  While a small handful of them have been charged with various acts of mayhem, the vast majority were peacefully demonstrating.  Most of the arrested won’t be charged, but it will “keep them off the streets” for a little while.

On its face, ‘occupying’ public space should be guaranteed under the First Amendment. The courts have long held that ‘expressive activities’ are accorded the same protections as the right to speak or freedom of the press….The First Amendment’s guarantees are not, however, absolute. The government is able to determine the appropriate time, place and manner for citizens to speak their mind, as long as those restrictions are based on maintaining public order and aren’t designed to prevent a particular message from getting out….The state can’t place limits that effectively leave no outlet for citizens’ expression.

It didn’t take long – less than twenty-four hours, if you look at things from a certain angle – for the Occupy movement to become an international movement. One of the original members, who arrived on September 18th, the second day, is Kobi Skolnick, an ex-settler and Chabadnik turned non-Observant Israeli. This is not the only protest Skolnick ever participated in. “‘I participated in protests against the Oslo Accords. I was an activist for Zo Artzenu. I was also arrested during the protests. But I have undergone a change and today I do not agree with their opinions and with their extreme ideologies. It’s not as though I accept the murderous acts of terrorists, but you can’t ignore the fact that the Palestinians suffered,’ he said. ‘Today I’m a man of peace, [looking] to bring about world change.'”

In London, people are occupying the plaza of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Football (what we call soccer) was noticeable in mid-October, not long after the camp begin. “it’s starting a conversation;” not all the players are campers, some are bankers passing by. It’s “what the camp stands for: dialogue.” People always impatiently ask what the occupiers’ ‘demands’ are, and why collectively they seem unwilling, or unable to provide quick-fix solutions. These questions miss the point….If anything, the camp itself is their demand, and their solution: the stab at an alternative society that at least aims to operate without hierarchy, and with full, participatory democracy.”

The Occupy camp in New York, meanwhile, is using an economic system that seems to work: Larry, a 47-year-old licensed barber from Staten Island, gives free haircuts and shaves at his makeshift barbershop complete with clippers, scissors and one of those cloaks that keep hair off the customers’ clothes. “Well, I’ve been here, protesting and supporting, and I figured today was going to be a nice day, no rain. Why not, you know? Let me do what I can to help people.” One of the most striking things about volunteer labor is the duration of workers’ stamina – workers who, at a wage-paying job, might well be checking the clock every few minutes. Nick the tobacconist has no plans to stop rolling cigarettes as long as the occupation of Wall Street rolls on. Says Larry the barber, “I’m going to be here until I need a break; I got a big line coming later on today.”

From → Politics

One Comment
  1. missdisplaced permalink

    I do support the Occupy Wall Street protests, but I think they really need to get their message out (I mean articulate it) better. I understand that they do not want a “leader” per se, but some PR and/or spokespeople who can articulate their actual demands into words would be helpful for the majority of the population to understand the many complex issues.

    If this does not happen, the movement runs the risk of a currently somewhat sympathetic public turning on them. We were discussing this in my journalism class, and even many of the students were frustrated with the portrayal of the protesters by the media. From a journalist’s POV, yes it is rather hard to cover a movement that does not have clear “leaders” to get quotes from.

    For instance, it would be better to say “Occupy Wall Street supports the reinstatement of the Glass–Steagall Act” instead of “We hate Big Banks!”

    I know it’s more complex than this. However, the REAL change happens when turning the street protests into lobbying and policy (look at the prohibition movement – stupid, but look what they accomplished). Otherwise, the protest is just attention seeking noise (a lot of noise) but still noise. I really hope they have a plan for that.

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