The implications of peaceful protest
// Dexter Fergie

Earlier this year, the US Department of Commerce reported that US businesses are more profitable than they ever have been before, because corporate profits are up by nearly half from the “end of the recession” in June 2009. But beyond Wall Street, this cheery figure is meaningless for the everyday American. The US economy remarkably brought production back up to pre-recession levels without hiring any more workers, leaving the unemployment rate above 9 per cent, while, for those with jobs, the average worker’s salary, accounting for inflation, dropped by nearly 2 per cent. In other words, these economic gains were at the expense of the working class.

Thankfully, there are a multitude of Americans no longer tolerating this: the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement converged on Sept. 17, taking Zucotti Park (formerly known as Liberty Plaza, until it was renamed after the chairman of the company that owned the space – perhaps a symbol for America’s departure from its founding values) in New York. In this liberated space, echoing the occupations in Athens and Barcelona, demonstrators enacted participatory democracy in the form of a general assembly, along with operating many communal services. Since this initial occupation, similar demonstrations have erupted throughout North America.

Like many other movements in the past, OWS is leaderless, a “horizontally organized resistance movement” (according to OWS’ unofficial website), allowing for a diversity of views and tactics to be practiced. Despite this diversity, there does appear to be a common agreement on labelling the movement as “nonviolent.” When both the demonstrators and the media use this term, it is typically meant to signify that the movement’s participants are not participating to destroy private property or provoke altercations with the police or other citizens. But to keep it in context, as philosopher Slavoj Žižek told the OWS demonstrators in New York recently, in “the 2008 financial crash, more hard earned private property was destroyed” than what any destructive protest is capable of.

Designating the movement as non-violent renders the movement to be more palatable for the general public, and as the movement insists on representing the “99%”, perhaps this language of nonviolence is even necessary. Conversely, this aim for palatability will neuter the movement’s potential. When demonstrators declare they will not disrupt traffic in the name of non-violence (as some have done), they are committing to keep their protest separate from society, and leave the economy relatively undisrupted as well.

Even more so, this language overlooks the inherent violence of the OWS movement. The occupation of a space belonging to others (in the case of New York, Brookfield Office Properties) is, by definition, a violent act. The demonstrators have stripped the “rightful” owners of the park of their authority as owners by the movement’s mere presence; their de facto authority. Brookfield, for example, has a list of regulations for the park’s usage – such as a ban on sleeping bags, tarps, and laying down on either benches or walkways – that are not being followed, yet the demonstration continues. Although these violations of the “basic yet necessary requirements” upset them, as a Brookfield spokesperson told the press, the scale of the protests (and a murky legal space regarding whether the state can even enforce these rules) has prevented them from acting on it.

As the foundation of the OWS movement lies within this idea of occupying a space (i.e. appropriating property with political objectives), OWS is in fact violence shrouded in a language of non-violence.

But what happens when a liberated square is not defended? Look no further than the unfortunate end of Occupy San Francisco, a group forged in solidarity with OWS. After holding an area right outside the Federal Reserve building in the financial district for a week, police officers raided the encampment in the middle of the night on Oct. 6 for breaking several city laws, including creating a public nuisance and serving food without a permit. Despite creative attempts at defending their space, the demonstrators’ tents and belongings were removed, and they were forced out. Sadly, the local movement now finds themselves in a quagmire, as the group has struggled to find an alternative protest space. Their proclaimed nonviolence prevented them from truly defending their political activity. And if this continues in other occupations, these spaces will exist only insofar as the state allows them to. Passivity will embolden governments to persecute the demonstrators for infringements of measly bylaws, hushing the movement’s actual objectives from the public.

In addition to the city of San Francisco’s re-appropriation of the demonstrator’s space, governments elsewhere have employed various forms of violence to curtail the OWS movement. New York has gone the furthest so far, spending over $2 million on overtime costs for the NYPD, and erecting a steel barricade around Wall Street, only granting access to those in business attire, other workers, and residents. The symbolic centre of capitalism – and the actual financial capital of the world – is now physically surrounded by a fence that is guarded by the NYPD. The consequences of crossing this barricade have been made clear: demonstrators will be met – and were met not too long ago – with mace and police batons.

These responses demonstrate that the economic system requires the protection of the state to continue normal operations. With a violent economic system hiding behind the state violence, the demonstrators stare violence in the face. Speaking to CNBC recently, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney expressed his fears: “I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare.” And in response, many on the Left – and many more liberals – made attempts to refute Romney’s claim. In doing so, the Left exposed their cowardice. Romney is right: this is class warfare. When the upper 20 per cent control 85 per cent of the country’s wealth, along with their democracy, this is class warfare waged by the economic system on everyday Americans. The OWS movement is simply the assertion of these everyday Americans.

As Žižek said, “They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are awakening from a dream, which is turning into a nightmare. We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself.”

// Dexter Fergie, Columnist

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