This past fall, Occupy transformed the political landscape by seizing a moment, wedding righteous anger to high spirits—by existing and enduring in public places. 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 larger public—by looking like the 99 percent.
Then, in house occupations and anti-foreclosure actions, the movement began to deliver palpable results—putting real families in real homes, preventing evictions. And despite ample provocation by paramilitarized police, the movement occupied the moral high ground by staying almost wholly nonviolent. Now, ready or not, here comes the election cycle of 2012, putting pressure on the movement to keep up a vital tension between self-maintenance and growth, between challenging the whole plutocratic political economy and upping the odds of 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 G-8 and NATO in May, the Republicans in August and the Democrats in September, respectively.
In Chicago, 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 demonstration 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) 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 applicants 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 $1,000 and/or ten days in jail.
The local press accepted Emanuel’s spin and treated the final version of the ordinance 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. Chicago’s applicants had to scramble to file their papers before the new regulations took effect on January 28. And even then, the feds may end up pre-empting the city by imposing still more-stringent national security laws.
Plastic netting, video surveillance, bans on “weapons” like pens, fenced-in “free speech zones,” beefed-up police forces, pepper spray and tanks—some of what’s in store for protesters in Tampa and Charlotte—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 eighteenth-century document. These are slaps in the face of the people’s right to govern themselves, as much as the Citizens United decision and the billion-dollar election campaigns that line the pockets of the oligarchs who hold free licenses to operate TV and radio stations on the public airwaves.
The authorities in Chicago, Tampa and Charlotte hope to scare Occupiers away. They’ve thrown down their gauntlets. 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, even though Occupy Chicago explicitly defines itself as a “nonviolent nonpartisan people’s movement.” 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, if vandals hijack the demo or damage property, the city could legally force the organizers to pick up the tab.
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, many of whom sympathize with the thrust of Occupy. Seeing what gets framed as “violent clashes,” whoever started them, 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-prisoners politicians whose idea of reform is a reformatory.
I was on the streets of Chicago in August 1968 when provocative disrupters among overwhelmingly nonviolent protesters 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 percent 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 greater Occupy movement has rightly understood 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. An “Open Letter to the Occupy Movement: Why We Need Agreements” makes the case that Occupy should define itself, explicitly, as a movement of “strategic nonviolent direct action.” By renouncing violence against persons or property, Occupy would enhance its appeal to the disabled and people of color, who have good reason to stay away from volatile confrontations. By isolating those who seize the spotlight by smashing things, it can prevent them from trampling the ethos of a brilliantly leaderless movement.
Think about right-wing billionaires like David Koch and Sheldon Adelson. Would they rather see Occupy preoccupied with the cops, or fighting the banks? Smashing windows, or bringing down politicians who oppose reinstating Glass-Steagall?
The Occupy movement has till now been a seedbed of creativity. Now it needs to amp up its declaration of values.