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Occupy Wall Street and the great unmasking

Here was the scene last night at Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

I think this might end up being the signature event of the movement, because it will represent the moment when the powers that be dropped the pretense and gave us all an unvarnished look at what they are really willing to do. The arrests over the first weekend might have been sold as just breaking up another protest. The much larger arrests last weekend could have been spun as a public safety issue, or of maintaining access to public infrastructure.

Last night, though, there really was no purpose other than to beat the protest out of existence. There was no march happening, no unrest, nothing. It was a pure display of power – and that is where I think many observers have been looking at the whole situation backwards. There seems to be this sense that the world is ruled by Human Resources, and that a wave of bad publicity is enough to make an institution reverse course. (I am not entirely sure how this belief persists considering that even the most awful executives walk free, cash out their companies for enormous sums, and the newly-branded operations continue to wreak havoc.)

That may be true enough when the populace is docile, but when folks start to make some noise we see what lies underneath the smooth talk: brute force. That is what last night revealed: If the rabble refuses to go along with the program they will be beaten into submission. The problem is not that they don’t understand us (can’t they see how bad this looks?!). It’s that we don’t understand them. These – and likely more – are the lengths they will go to in order to impose the current order on us. They do not care how bad it looks at the moment. The PR spin can wait until later. The exigency of the moment is to end this thing however they can, and the sooner the rest of us understand that the better.

Happily, there is a hitch. The organizers at Zucotti Park have chosen nonviolent occupation, and both parts of that are undermining their opponents’ efforts. At the beginning many tried to dismiss OWS as basically the same as the WTO unrest in Seattle back in 1999, but the resolute embrace of peaceful protest has deprived critics of the kind of visuals that have discredited direct action in the past. There are no broken windows, no tear gas, none of the pictures of chaos in the streets (at least, not as prompted by participants) that make casual viewers recoil and side with authorities.

Second, occupation is a long term tactic, but deploying muscle is a short term one. As long as the occupation remains peaceful, each successive police action will generate increasing sympathy for the occupiers – and diminish support among the police force itself. Again, look at the arrests so far and think about how the officers involved might have felt. First one: Another protest, break it up, yeah that Bologna guy was a jerk again but that’s how he is sometimes. Second one: Gotta keep the bridge clear for traffic, but what the heck was the deal with clearing the way for them? Third one: This again, and why exactly this time? They aren’t bugging anyone, why not just let them be? It only makes us look bad.

Each time the NYPD has another round of mass arrests it just makes them look worse and worse, and to no good purpose for them. In fact, it becomes counterproductive. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall New York City’s criminal element agreeing to scale back on their activities while the police once again go in huge numbers to round up citizens who aren’t bothering anyone or jeopardizing anyone’s safety. Think they don’t still have robberies to investigate, suspects to question, paperwork to fill out? Who could blame them if, each time out, they don’t feel a little bit more like chumps being sent out to do someone else’s dirty work?

What happens as support among the police wanes? I honestly have no idea, but I feel pretty certain it won’t be helpful for those who want the protesters to go away. The nonviolent occupation has time on its side. If the folks in Zucotti Park keep it up they will slowly but inexorably erode a crucial pillar propping up the 1% they have arrayed against. It is an absolutely brilliant model – and it is succeeding.

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

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