If you watch the video of the now-infamous pepper-spraying incident on the University of California campus in Davis, California, you will see the crowd of protesters is much better at handling a volatile situation than the U.C. police. In fact the police are the ones who made the situation volatile.
Lt. John Pike is going to find it difficult to explain his behavior when there are literally dozens of on-the-spot videos of his actions: he sprayed peaceful, sitting student protesters with pepper spray at close range without provocation – not just once, but several times. He then physically pulled students into upright positions when they manage to stay in their places despite the obvious agony caused by the chemical attack.
The ring of seated protesters did rise then, and were joined by other people from the surrounding area. They surrounded the police officers and chanting “shame on you” and “you can go”, forced them to take what has become known as the “March of Shame” out of the area and off to the sidewalk.
During the encounter only Lt. Pike and one or two other officers accosted the protesters (at least that’s the impression the video gives). The other officers seem unsure of what to do. At first they tried to form a double line so arrestees can be led away. But as the crowd surrounded them they were forced into a tighter and tighter formation, until at last they are packed into a condensed mass, backs together for mutual support. It is obvious they were completely unprepared for the number of protesters they encountered. The video starts with Lt. Pike’s swaggering assault on peaceful citizens engaging in their right to assembly. It ends with his look of utter bewilderment as passive resistance overcomes the swagger.
The arguments I have seen in favor of the brutal treatment Occupy protesters have been subjected to generally start with the claim they are being removed from places they “aren’t supposed to be”. Where is this “place” these people aren’t supposed to be? Who decides that? They aren’t setting things on fire, hurting people, invading homes, or destroying property. When did such a consideration as “you aren’t supposed to be standing there” come to outweigh their constitutional right to free assembly and peaceful protest?
Someone gives the police orders. Who is giving these orders? When did they become more powerful than the public in a supposedly free society? These are the very issues the Occupy movement is protesting about. On paper authority is vested in the public. In reality it is in the hands of corporations who write our laws and pay-off politicians to pass them.
The police should not be painted as the villains in this situation. I’m not a police hater. The police saved my life once and the majority of the time they do a fantastic job protecting people. But other times they are used as a control force against people. It must actually be a lousy “rock-and-a-hard-place” situation for most of them. Dorli Rainey, the 84-year-old lady drenched in pepper spray in Seattle was physically assaulted by the police – but her rights were assaulted by the politicians controlling the police, and the corporate interests that control the politicians.
View the video of that Seattle confrontation: the police are standing in a line using large handheld canisters of pepper spray, essentially hosing people down with the stuff. What was the protesters’ “crime”? They weren’t on the sidewalk – that’s what a police spokesperson said later. The spraying was indiscriminate: young, old, female, and male – at least one pregnant woman who had to be transported by ambulance. It was a complete over-reaction. But the orders were given by people who weren’t even there – orders to physically harm people who were essentially guilty of jaywalking.
The question has been asked “how many of those people in the streets really know what they are protesting about?” The answer is: all of them. It’s those who doubt the protesters sincerity and intelligence who don’t understand what they’re protesting about. They aren’t a mob and these protests aren’t riots. The Occupy movement has a structure and order to what they do – they have large assemblies where proposals are put forward and then debated and voted on. I saw this happen in Oakland the night before the police raided the original Occupy encampment in Frank H. Ogawa plaza. They knew the police were coming and actually discussed what to do. They decided for non-violent protest – most evacuated the plaza there willingly, while a few elected to sit-in and be peacefully arrested. And it worked very well – both the protesters and the cops kept their heads that morning. The Occupy protesters are more democratic than the U.S. Congress because their decisions are made based on their ideals and beliefs, not on who paid them the most to vote a certain way.
What we are seeing in OWS is just as valid as the protests that led to the Boston Massacre (of protesters by British troops), Nat Turner’s rebellion (by slaves against the Southern system of white supremacy), and the labor strikes of the early 20th century (by workers who were being exploited by corporations that were aided by politicians).
Every so often the people must re-wrest control from the economically powerful forces that take their rights from them, bit by bit, over time. This is one of those times. It’s one of the fundamental rhythms of a democracy, seen over and over throughout history. The struggle for the rights of the citizenry in the face of moneyed power is never over. I’m not advocating socialism or any other “ism” – I’m talking about the kind of democratic, free society invented here in the United States – it must be defended by every generation in one way or another. Capitalism and democracy are not an easy mixture of systems – but democracy should always come first.
The struggle between the moneyed powers and those who really make the money has been going on in America since the nation’s start. The “Founding Fathers” were mostly rich white men who created a system that gave the “lesser people” enough concessions to give them the sense of liberty, yet protected the rich white men’s power and wealth. It took the next 200 years for the actual citizenry of the U.S. to re-forge that system into one that has at least the potential to be fair, equal, and free – we aren’t 100% there yet.
It took the political protests of the early 19th century that put-down the power of the Federalists (led by Alexander Hamilton) in favor of the Democratic-Republicans (led by Thomas Jefferson). It took the movements of the antebellum era that further broadened liberty under Andrew Jackson, the abolitionists, and the various pro-democracy parties of the time. It took the Civil War. It took the women’s suffrage movement of the turn of the 20th century, and the workers’ movements at the same time. It took the civil rights, antiwar, and women’s rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Now it takes the Occupy movement to keep us heading toward a society where the individual has rights, but the corporation only has legislated abilities. It’s no coincidence that the Occupy movement is contemporary with the attempts to give corporations the same legal rights as individual citizens, most recently seen in the Supreme Court decision that corporations can give unlimited contributions to political organizations. People aren’t “sheeple” – they never have been. The Occupy movement may not accomplish the goal of creating a more just, more equitable society. The Boston Massacre and the actual Boston Tea Party didn’t, either. They led the way.