Do the so-called authorities really think that man-handling the Occupy protesters will clear what they consider a public nuisance? Just as the movement spread from New York to other cities, so the police policy of showing force to intimidate and crush the movement has spread. First New York, then Boston, Chicago and Oakland, today Atlanta. They all follow the same playbook, with similar tactics. Motorcycles, tear gas, mounted police, batons, paddy wagons, flashing lights, loudspeakers, riot gear, move in at night, or attack during the cold dawn hours when people are sleeping.
I don’t even want to think about the civil rights issues at stake here. People have a right of free assembly, no matter the purpose. Municipal governments declare the public nuisance must stop. That’s an important purpose of the protests: to create a public nuisance. Protesters move in with force so people, including people in authority, will notice them. Police move in with force so protesters – and anyone who thinks he or she might want to become a protester – will notice the police. The two sides don’t disagree about the nature of the conflict.
Where the so-called authorities have gone wildly wrong is in thinking that a show of force will turn the trick for them. They seem to think their playbook holds the key to success in this conflict. Execute properly, and you will shut down your opponents, 35 – 0, in city after city. Persuade everyone that you are in control, that you will not tolerate a bunch of hippies moving into the public square. They seem to believe that the Occupy movement is one more off-shoot of the sixties protests, one more example of radicals taking to the streets. We saw that happen when globalization nuts attacked Seattle, and we saw force shut subsequent protests down when they attacked other cities.
This is different. A critical difference is that the Occupy movement does not use violence. Anti-war protesters in the 1960s, and the globalization nuts both turned to violent tactics as a near-first resort. You could say that the 1968 Chicago police riot, or the shootings at Kent State resulted from guardsmen too ready to use their guns, policemen too ready to use their batons. That’s true, but in each case they faced demonstrators who initiated the violent spiral. Similarly the globalization nuts arrived armed with Molotov cocktails. The Occupy movement trains its participants to practice peaceful disobedience. They pointedly maintain good relations with the police. They clean up. They practice good citizenship wherever they can. Some would say the occupation itself counts as good citizenship. Others will say that good citizens don’t create a public nuisance. Some people are more tolerant of civil disobedience than others.
Now we come to the connection between the Occupy movement and national politics. Does anyone think the Occupy movement could have gained any traction at all if Obama had repudiated his predecessor’s economic, fiscal and monetary policies? The Democrats and Republicans slug it out in Washington. Inside the bubble, the partisan fights prove to the participants how hard each side works for its programs. From the outside, the partisan fights prove that these leaders just don’t care. They only care about their party’s interests, their own political standing, who’s ahead on the scoreboard right now, who’s going to win the election next year. They do not appear to care even a little about what occupies the Occupy movement. Despite the Tea Party’s huge victory in November 2010, they don’t seem to care much about that movement’s anxieties either.
That was the origin of the Hoovervilles. Government didn’t seem to care. People all over the country found themselves homeless, and no one seemed to care. Why not go to join others who faced the same misery, the same humiliating circumstances? Who thinks that being unemployed now, in 2011, is not humiliating? Who thinks it doesn’t lead to the same outlook of hopelessness and discouragement? The Occupy movement says, “You can’t keep paying off the fat cats while you ignore us.” People say the Occupy movement is ideologically incoherent, but the message and motivation are both simple. Don’t ignore us. Don’t use our family’s tax money to pay off the fat cats, then walk away when we ask how we’ll pay our student loans when we don’t have a job. How will we move out of our parents’ house if we don’t have a job? How will we get married and have children? When I come here, to sit in the public square, I want to ask you those questions. I don’t have anything to lose.
The Democrats have brought their usual political calculators out in response to the Occupy movement. They type in their question, a question Google can’t answer: “Will Democratic support of the Occupy movement help us more than it hurts us?” Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts has already spoken in favor of the movement’s goals. Obama himself has maintained some distance. The general drift appears to be that the Democrats would like to embrace the Occupiers to win a passel of votes, just as Republicans who embraced the Tea Partiers rode their energy to victory. Whatever the calculation, someone with a sarcastic sense of our perplexity will probably call the Occupiers’ encampments Obamavilles, to recognize another unaccountable case of government losing touch with the people who support it. A true irony here is that Obama pointedly supports policemen all across the country – the same policemen who clear out the Obamavilles with such vigor.
No wonder President Obama appears cautious about whether he and his party should offer encouragement to so many young people, whose main plea is just to be noticed. He can’t figure out if it will win him any votes. So many young people, after all, excitedly pushed him into the presidency just three years ago. They honestly hoped for something better: better leadership, better prospects for their country and for themselves. Many of the Occupiers would acknowledge Obama’s leadership skills. They have tried the best they can to explain why they feel so down and so angry, so at odds with Obama’s government despite his obvious skills as a politician. No matter how much the Occupiers diverge in their grievances or in their policy prescriptions, one phenomenon keeps them resolute and united: repeated shows of force from the men in blue. Let the so-called authorities – who order swarms of policemen into the night to bully fellow citizens – see how little respect they have now.