CommunityThe Dissenter

The Occupy Movement Bewilders Those in Media & Power

Occupy New Haven in Connecticut

Into the third month of the Occupy movement’s existence in the United States, encampments continue to flourish and reorganize themselves. Occupiers in hundreds of occupations still ongoing are winterizing and making long-term preparations to continue operating.

Having witnessed brutal crackdowns on occupations in Oakland, Portland and New York, where Occupy Wall Street began and inspired citizens to launch occupations in their own community, legal teams are going to court to obtain court orders to protect occupations from being forcefully dispersed suddenly in the dark of night. And the right wing is working overtime to inject the message into the conversation that the movement has welcomed degenerates, rapists, thieves, thugs and vagrants into their camps creating safety problems that demand immediate city attention.

Preservation of what the Occupy movement has built in the past months is of utmost importance. Not allowing the power elite (like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) and the security forces they wield (like the NYPD) destroy the communities that have been established and grown seems to be the priority. That is what anyone visiting the occupations will hear from organizers—how they are working to respond to city concerns about safety or how they are constantly shifting the way things are set up in the camp to minimize conflicts among occupiers.

The media does not concern itself with the internal matters. It covers the occupations with the traditional law and order framing that is typical of media coverage of protests. Reporters only report when there are arrests. Anytime there are arrests, it is said there were “clashes with police and protesters.” Rarely do reporters note how police escalate a situation to the point where force is likely to be used.

Media invite criminal defense attorneys and police consultants on the air to give their point of view. Not surprisingly, they are used to justify the raw imagery being seen on television or on YouTube—the throwing of a protester to the ground, the dragging of women by their hair, the pushing and shoving of demonstrators and press into barricades to clear areas.

For example, consider John Timoney, who served as Miami Police Chief and appeared on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” to talk about the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park. Timoney’s talking points should make him the poster boy for packaging authoritarian policing in such a way that the average American will be concerned about the safety of police at protests before displaying concern for protesters. He described to Morgan how “criminal activity” at the camp justified the eviction:

It’s a nationwide protest. It looks like the message isn’t clear. Although, I think there’s a consensus that it has to do with Wall Street greed and the pains that the country’s been going through for the last two years vis-a-vis the economy.

However, as this has dragged on, not just in New York City but in Oakland and Philadelphia and others where other elements have joined the protests, not with the best of intentions, with agendas, there have been documented cases of criminal activity. Over the weekend in Philadelphia, a young woman was raped.

New York has been documented with case after case of assaults. There have been issues with people recently released from Rikers Island being directed to or suggested that they go down to the park. You know, you get fed there and a whole host of things. And so, it’s become much more complicated than the original protests which started off with, I think, overall general public support 60 days ago.

Now, there’s — I think a pretty decent amount of public antipathy towards the protests right now because it seems like that they’ve gone beyond reasonable and once it starts getting into the area of public health but also criminal activity, there’s a problem.

For Timoney, the right to assembly, which the occupiers had enjoyed, needed to be suspended. Forget that Timoney said nothing about how NYPD was telling drunks to “take it to Zuccotti” or likely dropping off criminals at Zuccotti Park. Timoney’s argument is public support has waned, crime was on the rise at the camp and the messaging of occupiers was poor. Two of those three arguments should carry no weight in any debate about whether police have the right to forcefully evict an occupation.

The issue of crime in the park might justify eviction, however, Timoney should have to answer why police let crime escalate in the park. Zuccotti Park had become one of the most securitized zones in New York. What does it say about New York’s finest that they were just standing around and not arresting these people, which consultants like Timoney say created “safety concerns”? Doesn’t it draw even more attention to the reality that police and the city were intent on creating a scenario to justify running people out of the park?

Occupy Maine

City officials and police officers have this mindset occupations are so utopian in their setup that there will be no crime. However, they are not separate from society and many of the people in them are people whom the system has let down. They have been chewed up, spit on, stepped on and kicked around. They have sought social services, which have been grossly inadequate (probably because many of these services are underfunded). Thus, it should not be surprising the bottom 1% of society is going to these camps for clothing, food, medicine, shelter, etc.

Americans should find it grossly absurd city officials and those with police backgrounds do not appreciate the fact that these people are gravitating toward camps. One, from a law and order point of view, all the “criminals” are in one space. Police could just come to one concentrated location and pick up people they would normally have to chase around the city. Two, these camps are attempting to rehabilitate and help these people. They are in contact with counseling services and homeless shelters so they can help the people and prevent issues in the camp.

It is ridiculous how government employees in positions of power with resources to keep people safe are publicly suggesting citizens fed up with having no power and have very little to no resources are expected to keep the area in and around them safe or they cannot continue their assembly. This notion conveniently obscures how cities, states and the federal government have created this problem by supporting austerity measures that cater to business, corporations and the wealthy and decimate social programs that citizens have depended on to maintain stable lives.

Occupy Boston

On top of that, columnists and commentators suggest the occupying of space has run its course and as a tactic should be discarded because it is getting in the way of the message. [Note: The message, to them, is what they are reading in newspapers, hearing on the radio and seeing on television. It is different for Americans who are actually visiting occupations in their community and talking to individuals about why they are sleeping out in the cold every night. So, when columnists and commentators utter this concern, they are talking to themselves and showing they are not involved and don’t really know much about what is happening on the ground at all.]

E.J Dionne, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post, writes: “Will the Occupy movement play into the hands of its enemies by living up to the stereotypes they are trying to create? Or will it instead move to a phase that builds on its success?” In elitist fashion, he continues, “Ongoing violent demonstrations will simply not help the cause, and the Martin Luther King Jr.’s lessons on nonviolence are useful here.” To my knowledge there have been no “violent demonstrations,” only violent suppression of demonstrations by police. He adds:

This movement is about something much bigger than “occupying” a particular space. Occupations proved to be a shrewd tactic. They are not a cause or an end in themselves. Focusing on holding a piece of public land simply makes the movement a hostage to the decisions of local officials, some of whom will inevitably be hostile to its purposes.

What Dionne and others who share his sentiment fail to understand is that this movement could not have grown without “occupying.” The spectacle of encampments that have functioned as hubs of protest is what made them worth covering regularly on primetime newscasts. The ability for citizens to visit these camps and figure out why people are angry and upset is why demonstrations have been an every day occurrence nationwide for the past month. Lose the camps and open show of dissent and the movement will lose the physical presence that has captivated people and influenced talk on the economy.

Noting the “We are the 99 percent” slogan, Dionne goes on to conclude the movement’s “tactics should live up to this aspiration by building support among the vast number of Americans who will never show up at the encampments. It should also want to help political figures such as Warren, who understood far earlier than most the costs of inequality and of the abuses of financial power. The last thing this movement should want to do is create fodder for the ads and e-mails propagated by Warren’s foes.” They need to “occupy the majority.”

Again, a commentator is foisting upon the movement the responsibility of making sure something doesn’t happen; in this case, that Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for a Senate seat is not tarnished by the movement’s day-to-day actions. Shouldn’t it be that Warren has to worry about how her campaign is going to succeed in the midst of this movement? That is how the movement can have impact, by preventing Warren from tacking right and giving her political cover to take positions adversarial to corporate power. Plus, doesn’t Dionne understand the right wing will just come up with another way to attack Warren if the Occupy movement followed his advice?

The combination of media reports laced with police propaganda and advice from the uninitiated is born out of one major misunderstanding: this movement’s ambitions are not limited to addressing economic issues. The movement aims to re-organize society so there is direct democracy. And that is why all camps function on a decision-making process that gives every person an equal ability to influence the vision and goals of the movement.

For people who think about government in terms of how best to manage democracy, for those that see running society as something that requires knowledge of how to run a business, the non-hierarchical organization of occupations in the movement is and has been something to scoff at. They see Congress and the Obama Administration and immediately think there have to be figureheads that can be run for election like the Tea Party ran people for office. They think people who protest eventually have to participate in the established process if they expect to achieve anything, but what can be achieved when corporate and special interests have such a stranglehold?

People like Nicholas Kristof want the movement to now “occupy the agenda,” but how and to what effect? They forget the movement was born from the reality that time and time again citizens have been turned away when they tried to convince representatives to support their agenda. That is because bought-and-owned politicians have been afraid of losing money from corporate or special interests by being on the side of the people. Coming inside early would greatly diminish the possibilities for this movement.

Everyone is asking, what next? The movement will keep on growing. It will keep on building community. It will keep on challenging power. It will keep on daring power to deploy police to violently crackdown and galvanize more support for the movement. It will keep on challenging the courts to protect their freedom of assembly, expression and speech and invite lawyers to help them expand what is considered protected assembly, expression and speech in this country. It will continue to influence the conversation on the economy. And, most importantly, it will continue to ignore those who only wish to micro-manage and offer criticisms from the sidelines and have no interest in participating in something that is renewing hope for change among citizens who voted for a president who chose not to be the transformative leader he claimed he would be prior to election.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."