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Rebecca Solnit: Civil Society at Ground Zero

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

When it set up its campsite at Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street was facing in only one direction: toward the financial heart of the planet two blocks away.  The police, who promptly surrounded the encampment and organized their own occupation of the neighborhood, were in a sense facing in the other direction: toward Ground Zero, where new glass-sheathed towers were rising to replace those destroyed on September 11, 2001.  The police, up-armored in full riot gear, with the sort of surveillance paraphernalia, helicopters, and high-tech cameras that were a far more minimal aspect of domestic policing before 9/11, were clearly thinking counter-terrorism. 

They were the representatives not just of New York's billionaire mayor and the bankers and brokers who had previously made the area their own, but of the ever more militarized national security state that had blossomed like some errant set of weeds in the ruins of the World Trade Center towers.  They were domestic grunts for a new order in Washington as well as New York that has, by now, lost the ability to imagine solving problems in a civil and civilian fashion. 

They represent those who have ruled this country since 9/11 in the name of our safety and security, while they made themselves, and no one else, safe and secure.  It is an order that has based itself on kidnapping, torture, secret prisons, illegal surveillance, assassination, permanent war, militarized solutions to every problem under the sun, its own set of failed occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the closest of relations with a series of crony capitalist corporations intent on making money off anyone's suffering as long as the going is good. 

Behind the police, directly or indirectly, stands that bureaucratic monster of post-9/11 domestic "safety," the Department of Homeland Security.  And behind both of them, without a doubt, that giant tangle of agencies -- 17 in all -- with an $80 billion-plus budget that go under the rubric of "intelligence" and dwarf the intelligence bureaucracy of the Cold War era, when the U.S. actually had an enemy worth speaking of.

All of this is the spawn of the 9/11 moment, which is why, on November 15th when the NYPD entered the encampment at Zuccotti Park, a weaponless and peaceable spot filled with sleeping activists and the homeless, they used pepper spray, ripped and tore down everything, and tossed all 4,000 books from the OWS "library" into a dumpster, damaging or mangling most of them.  Books couldn't escape the state's violence, nor could the library's tent, bookshelves, chairs, computers, periodicals, and archives.  Even librarians were arrested

Much was literally trashed and, though "books are pretty sturdy objects," as one Zuccotti Park librarian wrote me, "when you throw them into a dumpster a lot of them get destroyed. We have recovered about one third of our books and of that number many are far too damaged to re-circulate."  Novelist Salman Rushdie tweeted a perfectly reasonable response to the police action: "Please explain the difference between burning books and throwing thousands in the trash and destroying them."

Stop for a moment and imagine what the headlines here would have been like if Iranian or Chinese police had broken into a peaceful oppositional encampment and literally trashed its library without a second thought.  The barbarians!  Imagine what a field day the pundits would have had.  Imagine what Fox News would have said. 

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Nothing, of course, had to be this way.  That it was makes it part of the official legacy of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden.  In the wake of that day, this is what Washington did to itself, and so to us.  In the process, it did one other thing: it put the Constitution in the dumpster.  Which makes it stirring to see, as only TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit could see it, the return of civil society, of us.  We're back on the scene a decade later, like the cavalry, and it might just be in the nick of time.  Tom

Civil Society at Ground Zero
You Can Crush the Flowers, But You Can't Stop the Spring

By Rebecca Solnit

Last Tuesday, I awoke in lower Manhattan to the whirring of helicopters overhead, a war-zone sound that persisted all day and then started up again that Thursday morning, the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and a big day of demonstrations in New York City. It was one of the dozens of ways you could tell that the authorities take Occupy Wall Street seriously, even if they profoundly mistake what kind of danger it poses. If you ever doubted whether you were powerful or you mattered, just look at the reaction to people like you (or your children) camped out in parks from Oakland to Portland, Tucson to Manhattan.

Of course, "camped out" doesn't quite catch the spirit of the moment, because those campsites are the way people have come together to bear witness to their hopes and fears, to begin to gather their power and discuss what is possible in our disturbingly unhinged world, to make clear how wrong our economic system is, how corrupt the powers that support it are, and to begin the search for a better way. Consider it an irony that the campsites are partly for sleeping, but symbols of the way we have awoken.

When civil society sleeps, we're just a bunch of individuals absorbed in our private lives. When we awaken, on campgrounds or elsewhere, when we come together in public and find our power, the authorities are terrified.  They often reveal their ugly side, their penchant for violence and for hypocrisy.

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Consider the liberal mayor of Oakland, who speaks with outrage of people camping without a permit but has nothing to say about the police she dispatched to tear-gas a woman in a wheelchair, shoot a young Iraq war veteran in the head, and assault people while they slept. Consider the billionaire mayor of New York who dispatched the NYPD on a similar middle-of-the-night raid on November 15th. Recall this item included in a bald list of events that night: "tear-gassing the kitchen tent." Ask yourself when did kitchens really need to be attacked with chemical weapons?

Does an 84-year-old woman need to be tear-gassed in Seattle? Does a three-tours-of-duty veteran need to be beaten until his spleen ruptures in Oakland? Does our former poet laureate need to be bashed in the ribs after his poet wife is thrown to the ground at UC Berkeley? Admittedly, this is a system that regards people as disposable, but not usually so literally.

Two months ago, the latest protests against that system began.  The response only confirms our vision of how it all works. They are fighting fire with gasoline. Perhaps being frightened makes them foolish.  After all, once civil society rouses itself from slumber, it can be all but unstoppable. (If they were smart they'd try to soothe it back to sleep.) "Arrest one of us; two more appear. You can't arrest an idea!" said the sign held by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask in reoccupied Zuccotti Park last Thursday.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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