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American Politics, Global Affairs

Occupy protests must find a way to politicize while dodging rubber bullets

UC Davis campus police pepper spraying protesters.

A second wave of evictions and police violence is being unleashed upon Occupy protesters across North America, and the resiliency of the movement will be determined in the coming days as protesters must find a way to work around court injunctions and police actions to stay put and politicize, or close up shop.

In Canada, the Occupy protests in Calgary and Quebec City were torn down this past week, and it is not clear whether the protestors will return. While Vancouver’s Occupy site has been demolished due to court order, the protest has simply moved one block away to the grounds of the provincial courthouse. Occupy Torontofound out yesterday that they were no longer welcome to stay on the grounds of St. James Park, and were ordered by the top Toronto court to move by midnight last night. Many protestors remained, and police activity in the area has been negligible so far.

So while the various Occupy protests in Canada appear weakened and potentially finished, the fight continues in America, especially the scattered campuses of the University of California and in New York City. And it is in these places that the make-it or break-it moment of the movement is happening right now. And if they can survive the recent wave of eviction notices and police crackdowns – and at this point it is still a debatable if – the Occupy movement must take the next logical step and find a way to whittle down their most desired aims, and find political expression within the mainstream of America. For this is where the movement will do the greatest good, if they can find a way to make it palatable to corn farmers in Iowa and single mothers in Detroit – to get them all wondering why income disparity in America is the disgrace it is today.

But first they need to survive. And this has been challenging enough recently with the development of more aggressive police tactics. From tearing down the tents in Zuccotti Park with hacksaws and box cutters; crowd dispersal in Denver with rubber bullets; the pepper spraying of an 84 year old woman in Seattle; the fiery rampage through Oakland which saw Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen’s skull cracked open by a tear gas canister – the leash appears to have been taken off police forces across America in terms of how they deal with the Occupy protesters.

Rachel Maddow, host of The Rachel Maddow Showon MSNBC, aired a segment of her television show last night in which she commented on the way in which non-lethal weapons are being used by police officers not to contain crowds or to stop force being used against them, but simply as a “compliance tool” – i.e., to bend the will of the crowd to the will of the police.

And the instances of non-lethal weapons being used are rising. “Often, instead of just substituting for lethal force,” Maddow argues, “non-lethal weapons just increase the number of occasions and the types of occasions in which force is used at all.”

She asked whether lethal force would have been used in any of the cases outlined above, and it is worth considering. Would police in Oakland have fired live rounds into the crowd of protesters? Would Seattle police has shot an 84 year old woman for protesting with actual bullets, as opposed to ‘merely’ pepper spraying her in the face?

If the original aim of non-lethal force was to stop violence being done against the police, and no violence is being done against the police by peaceful protestors who simply will not do what the police want them to do, what is the stated justification for pepper spray? Or rubber bullets?

“These weapons have essentially been created to give police officers more ways to use force against more people,” Maddow argues, as opposed to fulfilling their original mandate of providing a non-lethal alternative to violent crowd control.

By now you have likely seen the video from University of California at Davis of a campus police officer pepper spraying a crowd of sitting protestors at point-black range. Eleven protestors were treated for injuries sustained by the officer whose actions have been condoned by the University chancellor; two have been hospitalized.

Maddow also had a guest last night, a retired police captain from Philadelphia named Raw Lewis, who noted of the UC David pepper spraying incident that “every American found that repulsive.” Mr. Lewis himself has been arrested at an Occupy protest, an arrest he called perfectly legitimate, when he was asked by police to move from where he and a large groups of protestors were standing, and they refused.

Mr. Lewis also condones the use of force by police officers as an essential tool in crowd control, but quickly cautioned that proper supervision is necessary, and should only be used in cases where the police have been physically threatened and met with force initially.

“The use of force is absolutely necessary if they are met with force,” Mr. Lewis claimed. “And often times at these protests they are met with force. But the amount of force can only rise to the minimum level necessary to overcome the level of force you are receiving.”

And at times during the Occupy protests, Mr. Lewis argued that the level of force instigated by police has risen far above what the situation warranted.

Mr. Lewis also pointed out that the action at UC Davis could very well be a critical rallying point for the Occupy as a whole. “They gave the movement a tremendous weapon,” he said in an interview with Maddow, “and those people that endured that are going to look back on that and realize how important that was.”

“Because now you are including mainstream America, looking at that, and saying this is not right.”

There are many troubling aspects of the UC Davis pepper spraying event, some of which have been mentioned previously. But what about the fact that campus police at an American University carry guns and possess riot gear at all? And that when they pepper spray peaceful protestors who simply refuse to move, their actions are condoned by the Chancellor, who has taken significant criticism over her direction of the campus police force.

Campus police at UC Davis pepper spraying protesters.

And then I start to wonder: how long will protestors continue this kind of peaceful protest when they know it is not respected or recognized as a legitimate form of protest by police forces across the country? If they know they will be arrested and pepper sprayed and shot at by jumpy cops with rubber bullet rifles regardless of how they protest, how long until someone inevitably fights back? How long until someone says ‘enough!’

But then again, its hard to create realistic political demands for change when your primary concern is to avoid shrapnel from tear gas canisters – and maybe this is exactly the aim of police actions across America. Unsettled, they cannot organize.

Yet as tall an order as it sounds, the Occupy movement must find a way to do both: to fight off or endure tear gas attacks and rubber bullets while simultaneously cementing ideas for social reform that mainstream Americans can stand behind, otherwise they risk become irrelevant, a fringe political movement that will end naturally with the coming of winter.

Because to effect the kind of change many are hoping for, they must work within the current political system, however damaged it currently stands, by finding a way to appeal to a broader audience.

Ultimately, they must show they are able – and willing – to overcome. Because some of their ideas have merit: but can they articulate it now to garner support when it matters most?

About awreeves

Editor-in-chief at Alternatives Journal. Author of 'Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian carp Crisis'.


One thought on “Occupy protests must find a way to politicize while dodging rubber bullets

  1. A well written, well thought out article Andrew. I was quite impressed. I can’t believe that my response is the first you’ve had. Hello people. Where do I subscribe? Sign me up.

    Posted by JReeves | December 5, 2011, 6:50 pm

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