by Zainab Cheema (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 10, Muharram, 1433)
“Come, I will make the continent indissoluble… O Democracy” once sang Walt Whitman, the 19th-century US poet laureate. With the unrest in Oakland, Portland, Berkeley, New York City, spanning the indissoluble continent as it were, democracy has once more become an unknown quantity, subject to definition. What to make of the democracy that Whitman sang love songs to, which became the taunt par excellence for the despotic Arabian regimes through the years of Pax Americana, as the US dissolves into the 1% in glass towers facing down the angry street?
The latest updates in the US “Occupy” movements, directly inspired from the global struggles of Muslims against Pentagon Inc., takes the fight to the very dooryard of the Empire. As Arundathi Roy noted on Democracy Now, “what [the protesters] are doing… is so important because it is in the heart of empire, or what used to be empire, and to criticize and to protest against the model that the rest of the world is aspiring to, is a very important and a very serious business.” If democracy was the name of the composure and self-complacency of US Empire, then the police batons at Frank Ogawa Plaza and Zucotti Park are spelling a death knell of sorts for the silver-plated ideal of equal access credit cards and voting tickets.
Ironically, the two “Occupy” protests crushed down by the police in mid-November span a continental breadth. “Occupy” encampments have mushroomed over the whole country, to protest the power elite’s willingness to mortgage the people’s livelihoods in their lust for higher profit margins. While the visibility of the Occupy Wall Street forced Mayor Bloomberg to don the white gloves of civility — even if with the grimace — there are no such pretensions with the lesser known camps. In October 2011, police bloodied the most totemic symbol of US democracy — the soldier glorified for safeguarding its freedoms — in an Oakland protest. Scott Olsen, a marine who served two tours in Iraq before leaving the army, was shot in the head by Oakland police. Olsen ended up in the hospital with a fractured skull. The symbolic damage inflicted on the sacred icon of US militarism was perhaps even greater.
In the colonies, US Empire can quell self-determination and dissent by subcontracting violence out to local militias, armies and dictators. At home, the job is much trickier. US politicians suffered the “Occupy” encampments for over a month and a half, especially after the protesters made it on the international news circuit, Hollywood’s Twitter feeds and Jay-Z’s T-shirts. The US “Occupy” protesters could camp on the threadbare carpet of free-speech rights, which has been regularly promoted by US functionaries in the Muslim East before the Arab Spring revolutionaries took them at their word. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg regularly portrays himself as a champion of free speech perhaps as a way to compensate for his own biography as a Wall Street success story, who still counts his closest friends from among the US financial robber barons.
However, in mid-November, a decision seems to have been reached by the invisible networks of power — those whom the mayors, presidents et al answer to — for dispensing with such out-dated niceties such as “free speech” and “freedom of assembly.” On November 14–15, crackdowns occurred on “Occupy” camps in Oakland and New York City. On November 14th, KPFA reporter John Hamilton described the police battalions assembled for uprooting the Oakland encampment. “Unlike last time, when police came in with tear gas and rubber bullets, this time they came in overwhelming numbers,” he noted, “they have come in as a small army… We know that between 700 and a 1,000 police are here.” 32 protesters were arrested while countless others suffered injuries from police violence.
On November 15, the NYPD cleared out the symbolic heartland of the “Occupy” protests, New York City’s Zuccotti Park. The rationale given for the action was “sanitation” — in democracies, it is a time-honored tradition to those who trespass class boundaries with vagrants or the homeless. People who smell, who threaten the beauty and prosperity of the cities — and by extension, who threaten the rentiers, landlords and money lenders anointed for keeping the cities beautiful and prosperous. The police lit up the park with powerful klieg lights and began removing tents, books, and people in the manner that one hauls out garbage. Batons and fists were used against protesters resisting the police, and reporters and cameramen close enough to the scene to capture what was going on. “They were tearing everything apart,” said protester Dennis Iturralde. “They were hitting people, spraying people if they didn't move fast enough.” Approximately 200 protesters were arrested.
In Hillary Clinton’s paeans on democracy, usually expressed when she thinks a country is due for regime-change, the violation of women’s rights merits US military intervention. In this logic, US democracy and its imperial defenders possess an inherent respect for women. Of course, a car salesman will always try to convince you that your car is broken, when forcing his showroom’s car (or tank) on you. But in the Occupy Wall Street crack down, women were not given any special consideration — Daily Caller reporter Michelle Fields and videographer Direna Cousins were assaulted with batons by NYPD police. The scars left by the chivalric members of the NYPD weren’t simply on the body — one woman registered shock as she described talking to a member of the NYPD from the front lines of a group of protesters, and being dealt with an open-handed slap in response.
Bulldozing away the “Occupy” camps and engorging municipal jails is about more than drawing a line in the turf. It has been about stamping down on the physical space of a culture of resistance. A New York judge sided with Brookfield Properties, the landlord of Zuccotti Park, ruling that protesters could use the park to protest and demonstrate, but not to set up camp. Salt Lake City’s Mayor attempted to redefine “free speech” to “cease and desist,” as did NYC Mayor Bloomberg, in declaring that the protesters had a right to protest as long as they did not interfere with the city’s right to keep its parks and its streets clean (for whom?).
For law enforcement across the US, the “Occupy” movement is now being perceived in military terms. Bulldozing away Zuccotti means for them cutting off an enemy base from where actions against Wall Street are organized. On November 17, the NYC police arrested yet more protesters blocking off the New York Stock Exchange, as they vowed not to let any traders in the doors until the wheels for change were brought in motion. Zuccotti Park has been boarded up and barricaded, resembling a crime scene. Some “Occupy Wall Streeters” attempted to breach the barricades, only to be arrested. An additional 60 people were arrested on November 17, as thousands marched across the Brooklyn Bridge.
The 1% perfectly understands the sentiments of the 99%. “We’re coming to a point where Occupy Wall Street is just the beginning, the Tea Party is just the beginning,” said Bloomberg recently to a room of “haves.” “The public is getting scared… and they don’t want to wait around for another bullshit promise.” The question is what promise the bankers are now going to hand the hapless Obama to deliver to the public.
This was compounded by arrests in Portland and on the UC Berkeley campus. Protesters remained defiant, swelling to 6,000 people in three Portland parks on Sunday night in the face of a police evacuation notice and intimidation campaign. At UC Berkeley, where hundreds of students camped at the famous Sproul Plaza (where the Student Free Speech movement began in the 1960s) to protest further tuition hikes that would raise UC tuition from $13,000 to over $22,000. The UC Berkeley’s Chancellor Birgenou sent in a phalanx of riot police against the students, who furiously charged the young men and women with batons.
UC Berkeley student Michael Levien described the scene, “A few people tried to escape in the narrow gap between the students and police. They were savagely beaten. Several people fell to the ground from police blows; they were mercilessly and repeatedly hit with batons as they lay defenseless on the ground, putting up no resistance whatsoever. The police arbitrarily pulled people from the crowd, arresting 32.” Chancellor Birgenou had the same choice words to justify the police attack on the encampment: “hygiene, safety, space and conflict issues” are the reasons for violent crackdown on the students of America’s most famous public university.
If a button was pressed on November 14 and 15, it was by Wall Street, demonstrating that it possesses the power to propel government institutions across the country to close ranks and unleash law enforcement against the public whose livelihoods it has devoured. An opera of fuerza is more impressive than extracting a trillion dollars in taxpayer money from the government to cover losses from derivatives-based gambling.
The visceral fear of US power brokers as Hosni Mubarak wobbled in the thick of the Egyptian revolution, is now replicated on home-soil. The extremity of the reaction underlies how deep their fears are at the what-ifs. A New Yorker writer described the panorama of state brutality quite succinctly: “While protesters have shown remarkable discipline, the police [have not]… slamming and dragging unresisting men on the street, kneeling heavily on people’s heads while binding their wrists too tightly in flexicuffs, and pepper-spraying already captive women in New York; billy-clubbing peaceable demonstrators and dragging them brutally around by their hair when they offer their wrists to be arrested in Berkeley; and tear-gassing and flash-banging them at Occupy Oakland.”
As Susan Galleymore noted in a Counterpunch article, this display of force has been the costliest gamble of all. US response to “the movement is exposing other cultural myths and morality tales for what they are, too: formulas for shaming generations of wage-earners into silent compliance.” These include: “The American Dream is there for the taking by anyone willing to work for it” and “The rich have what they have because they “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Not to mention the myth that invalidating Constitutional rights and fighting endless wars is all to protect the security of the American people.”
Democracy is revealed to be the paint peeling from an unsightly structure — a monolithic leviathan of power whose leash is in the hands of cabals like Wall Street, the Pentagon, AIPAC, and others. The self-evident truth is that the government’s legitimacy is a lot like reality TV — you have to believe that it is authentic for it to work. Just as the scam behind Kim Kardashian’s wedding is sinking her million-dollar reality-TV profiteering, the government has gambled away public trust out of a Molotov cocktail of fear and greed. A recent poll taken by ABC News and the Washington Post reveals that 80% of the American people are angry with their government.
Many governmental functionaries recognize the danger posed by such recklessness — an attrition of resignations falls like snow on US government. These include Robert Gates, who warned that “We cannot kill or capture our way to victory” just before resigning for a life of easy retirement on his West Coast estate. Most recently, the Oakland mayor’s top aid Dan Siegel made headlines when he resigned in protest at the brutal crackdown on Occupy Oakland. “The people who are working for these mayors and police and so on are doing Wall Street’s business for them, and we need to stand up against it,” he declared. Other official figures from mayors’ offices are turning in their resignations, without publicizing their reasons.
Photos of bloodied and terrified young protesters splash the web, as the government abandons the pretense that it is “for the people, by the people and of the people.” Police mauling protesters is the domestic counterpart to Hillary Clinton’s cavalier quote on NATO’s war of expansion in Libya and Qaddafi’s death — “we came, we saw, he died,” an illiterate adaptation of Julius Caesar’s vini vidi vici. That is, as it ceaselessly expands its mandate to temporal godhead, the US is now above the fig leaves of democracy, human rights, and other rhetorical poses. They will still be invoked, but half-heartedly — Rome no longer needs to pose as a Republic, when it can confidently display its scepter of Imperium. And while comparisons of the US with Rome may be old hat, this self-admission is something brand new.