All over the country, the tanks have rolled. Are rolling. It comes as no surprise, but is still a matter of outrage: at Occupy sites all over the “land of the free,” bullying, vicious, indeed sadistic police forcing has occurred–is ongoing–against completely peaceful demonstrators occupying space we’ve been told is public. A few episodes, such as Oakland’s near-fatal wounding of military veteran Scott Olsen, have received high-profile media coverage. Most are relegated to the status of minor, footnote-like stories when they receive any mainstream attention at all–like today’s brief New York Times article about U.C. Davis’s plans to “investigate” the deliberate, prolonged pepper spraying of a group of students who continued to sit on the ground after police told them to clear the area. So far, respectable liberal opinion–which has taken on board at least a part of the Occupy message via the recognition that wealth inequality must somehow be addressed, if only rhetorically–is failing to connect the dots around this issue. Those making the connections on the blogs and in the radical press are pointing out that the attacks have been centrally coordinated (see, for example, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan’s statement that she was on a conference call with 18 or so other mayors of U.S. cities to decide how to respond; see also Glenn Greenwald’s excellent posts in his regular Salon column). There is nothing casual or haphazard about the violence–or, for that matter, about the NYPD’s decision to trash 5,000 books from the people’s library in Zuccotti Park.
Recent events have settled one significant question that has continued to perplex some of the more naive members of the Occupy movement: the police are not our friends, not even potentially our allies. As individuals, they may be more (or less) humane; in terms of income and personal vulnerability to neoliberal restructuring, they may technically be members of “the 99%.” But in structural terms, they belong to an institution whose major purpose is to serve the 1% in its efforts to keep the 99% in place–by any means necessary, and even by means patently not necessary.
I would go a little further: you and I and everyone we know may technically all be members of “the 99%”; but those of us who, in our peaceful efforts to occupy public space and demonstrate the truth of the rhetorical assertion WHOSE STREETS–OUR STREETS step across an invisible line drawn by the powerful (or who even stray across that line inadvertently) will find we have joined a special sub-category that has hitherto been reserved for a motley cast of characters including the hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino youth annually subjected to the NYPD’s violent, occasionally fatal stop-and-frisk procedures; alleged Wikileaks content provider and victim of U.S. government torture-by-solitary confinement Bradley Manning; environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, currently serving a multi-year sentence for attempting the nonviolent disruption of an auction of environmentally critical public lands for exploitation by gas and oil interests; and Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, assassinated in September by a U.S. missile in an act of extra-judicial capital punishment after having been labeled a “terrorist” by the Obama Administration–a charge in connection with which there has been no credible substantiating evidence, let alone any effort at legal prosecution. And what is the name of this sub-category? That’s the tricky thing–it doesn’t have one. It is the realm of the double standard, the territory of should-have-known-better. Italian political thinker Giorgio Agamben calls it “the state of exception.” It is the no-man’s-land also inhabited by the homeless people that the Occupy encampments have sometimes been derided for attempting to make common cause with (as though choosing to pitch a tent in a park is a “real” protest, while simply attempting to survive in the open because one lacks the money to pay for four walls and a roof is some kind of shameful non-ideological opportunism). It is a realm reserved for sub-citizens.
This moment was bound to come for OWS; worse will undoubtedly follow. A lot of people are saying that “we had to get out of/beyond Zuccotti Park anyway,” but while that’s undoubtedly true–and while an important Occupation continues at the site, now surrounded by double layers of police barricades and patrolled by a hefty all-male staff of green-vested Brookfield Properties goons, in addition to the official police who come and go at will–I think it’s important to pause, to have a moment of silence for the public display of exuberant freedom that was there in the park a week ago and has now been effectively transformed into a ridiculously and insultingly configured Free Speech Zone.
On Friday, nevertheless, three friends and I met to read poetry there. I read Cherríe Moraga’s “The Voices of the Fallers,” from Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (South End Press, 1983). Jocelyn read several lovely poems by Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz from The True Subject: Selected Poems, a 1988 translation from the Urdu by Naomi Lazard. Pam focused our attention on the destruction of the people’s library by reading a Brecht poem about the burning of books, followed by a song lyric on the same subject. And Eric read A.E. Housman’s “Epitaph on an Army of Merceneries” (“When God abandoned, these defended,/And saved the sum of things for pay”). He also recited a lovely bit of doggerel, repurposed in honor of the Bloomberg Regime–“The Grand Old Duke of New York.”
On Saturday, I showed up at the park around sundown. Entering through the one narrow aperture in the barricades that is still the only way in, I saw a cluster of people chanting “shame, shame.” “Racist,” somebody yelled. The cops were arresting a young black man; they refused to say why. They had him down on the ground and soon six or seven of them were lugging him off like a trussed animal, pursued by the impotent crowd. “We’ve gotta de-escalate this situation!” an Occupier pleaded–I thought he seemed to have some sort of authority with the group, perhaps as part of the OWS peacekeeper effort. “Tell us your name, give us your full information,” he called to the kid in the van. Later I ran into a friend my age who’s been down there regularly as a volunteer on one of the work groups; she told me she thought the arrest had been in connection with “some quiet retaliation by the gay kids who were living down here and are pissed off at being evicted”–snipping the wires to the Christmas lights with which Bloomfield Properties has seen fit to festoon the slender trunks of the park trees. I have no idea if that’s true or not. I went and stood facing Broadway, behind the barricades, and read poems by C.P. Cavafy–several ironic historical poems, including “Nero’s Deadline” (about the Roman emperor’s failure to foresee his own impending doom), and two wistful poems about the defeat of Eros in the face of prejudice combined with poverty (“Stuck there in that grimy blacksmith’s shop,/worn down by the wrack and strain of work,/and by the working man’s rough pleasures, the boy went quickly to ruin” [“Days of 1909, 1910 and 1911,” from C.P. Cavafy: Selected Poems, translated by Avi Sharon, Penguin, 2008]). Standing beside me as I read was a young man with a Jesus beard and long hair who held out a large plastic tray with a little money on it; periodically he would say in a quiet voice, “Please contribute to help six people have an accommodation for the night.” I closed the book and put a dollar in the tray. “I was listening to your reading,” he said. “Whose ever poems you were reading, they were beautiful.”
In 1968, Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring lasted from January to August. In 2011, New York City’s lasted from September 17 to the night of November 14.