This weekend, while listening to an NPR story about police using tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a demonstration, I was actually surprised when it turned out the newscaster was talking about Tahrir Square -- I had assumed it was about another brutal response to a peaceful protest here at home.
All across the country -- most recently on the campus of UC Davis -- a war is being waged. This isn't a battle over parks and tents and sleeping bags. Though many of our leaders don't seem to realize it, this is a battle about their credibility -- even their legitimacy -- about how they represent us, about whom their real allegiance is to. Their misguided response to the Occupy protests has actually proved the point of the protesters more than any sign or chant could. Sure, you can clear the protesters out from this or that park in the middle of the night, or send in riot-geared police to clear a campus sidewalk, but that doesn't mean you've won. Quite the opposite. As James Fallows writes, "what is going on is a war of ideas, based in turn on moral standing."
The Occupy movement has been a test -- a national MRI -- that has allowed us to check-in on the health of our democracy by allowing us to see what's going on underneath the surface of America's power structures. And the results are dire. What the movement, and the response to it, has shown is a government almost completely disconnected from those it purports to represent.
Each week brings an image more iconic than the last. There was the NYPD officer calmly walking up to several women who were penned, pepper-spraying them in the face and then slinking off. There was the 84-year-old woman pepper-sprayed in Seattle, along with a pregnant 19-year-old and a priest. There was Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen splayed on the ground with a serious head injury after being assaulted by police in Oakland. There was the picture of Elizabeth Nichols being pepper-sprayed directly in the face at close range by police in Portland.
And there were the indelible images from the surprise 1 a.m. raid on Occupy Wall Street's Zuccotti Park encampment by the NYPD -- which, Mayor Bloomberg claimed, was because it had become "a health and fire safety hazard." Really? Does the city traditionally take care of "health and fire safety hazards" under cover of darkness?
The mayor may have won the battle of sleeping bags in a park but, as protester Nate Barchus put it, "this reminds everyone who was occupying exactly why they were occupying."
If the mayor is so concerned about the hazards posed by people sleeping on the street and is prepared to use immense city resources to take care of it, as of last year there were over 3,000 homeless people sleeping on the streets of New York City.
City officials usually like to publicize their efforts fighting "health and fire safety hazards" for their citizens. But not this time. Not only were the media not allowed to report on the raid on Zuccotti, many reporters were barricaded, blocked, manhandled and even arrested. "The first thing the police did was clear out the journalists so that they could not see what was going on," writes Eric Alterman, "just as they routinely do in totalitarian nations."
Rivaling his "health and fire safety hazard" line, Bloomberg claimed the reason reporters were kept away was "to protect members of the press." Another hit to the mayor's credibility. As Harry Siegel put it in the Daily News:
The city doesn't take actions it's proud of at 1 a.m., and with the police literally shoving reporters away from the scene, 'to protect members of the press,' as Bloomberg insisted. That 'protection' applied to at least six journalists who were arrested, and many others who were handled roughly, including myself.
If you're a government official and you choose to do something in the middle of the night and you don't want the press to see, that's a pretty good sign you shouldn't be doing it. Since September, 26 reporters covering the Occupy movement have been arrested (you can see the run-down here, courtesy of Choire Sicha). A spokesman for the Mayor later bragged that "only five" of those arrested were officially credentialed by the NYPD. What a victory for civic government! Putting aside the fact that the NYPD doesn't get to decide who "the press" is, they actually want credit for "only" arresting five credentialed reporters of the many they shoved and beat and blocked and barricaded who were doing nothing more than trying to tell the citizens of New York what the officials they voted into office and whose salary they pay were doing in their name.
And then there is UC Davis, where police calmly and at close range pepper-sprayed students who were sitting down, arms locked and huddled. As the New York Times notes, one voice on the video of the assault is heard screaming, "These are children. These are children."
If this video were from China or Syria, James Fallows writes, "we'd think: this is what happens when authority is unaccountable and has lost any sense of human connection to a subject population."
The response by UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi illustrates that lack of connection. In her first statement on Friday, she passive-aggressively said, "We deeply regret that many of the protestors today chose not to work with our campus staff and police to remove the encampment as requested." Hard to look at the way those campus police were outfitted and think they're people who really came ready to "work with" others. No, they weren't there to work with -- they were there to inflict upon.
By Saturday, in a statement that used "safe" or "safety" four times, Chancellor Katehi said that the officers' actions were "chilling" and that the video "raises many questions." That's certainly true. It also raises one answer: governments that purport to be democratic shouldn't assault their own citizens in the name of keeping them safe.
Obviously, protests and use of public space present complicated challenges, but it is actually possible to navigate them, as government officials of the city of Davis itself seem to have done. This was a statement put out by Occupy Davis:
At Occupy Davis relations with the democratically elected city council and local police forces have been genial and productive. The authorities have worked continuously to harmonize the occupation's presence with the park and surrounding businesses and ensure that all aspects of the encampment remain non-violent. Those in charge of using force are aware that they are democratically elected officials that are directly accountable to the people.
That awareness seems to be in short supply, however. Three blocks away, UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza defended her officers by saying -- stunningly -- that their actions were justified because camping on the quad is "not safe for multiple reasons." The main one of which is apparently that you'll be violently assaulted by her officers.
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