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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 11/22/11

Pepper-Spraying Occupy: An Assault on Our Democracy

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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.

Kristin Koster, who aided protestors who had been pepper-sprayed while trying to shield others said: "When you protect the things you believe in with your body, it changes you for good. It radicalizes you for good." By "for good," it's unclear whether she meant permanently or in a positive way. Maybe it's both, and, if so, she's right. And it happens not just by doing it, but by being witness to others doing it.

And that radicalizing for good effect can now be scaled up dramatically because of the abundance of smartphone cameras. The weapons brought by the police are more powerful in the immediate sense, but the power of the weapons of the protesters and the press (both citizen journalists and those officially credentialed by the NYPD) is much greater and more long lasting. As Andrew Sprung writes at xpostfactoid:

You have a truncheon or gun, I have a camera. You inflict pain, I inflict infamy. Martyrdom is instantaneous and viral. Bearing witness is the keystone of political action. It can also affect the action directly. You shoot, I tweet (or IM or phone) for more demonstrators.

Or, as Carlos Miller put it on the blog Photography Is Not a Crime: "for every pepper spray canister they have, we have at least ten cameras. And that's why we'll win in the long run."

Another example of just how powerful images can be came the next day. These images weren't of a loud protest, but just the opposite. "I thought I wouldn't see a more dramatic video than the ones yesterday of the pepper-spraying of students by police at UC Davis," writes Boing Boing's Xeni Jarden. "I was wrong."

As Chancellor Katehi left a meeting and walked to her car, student protesters parted and watched her in stony silence. "The disciplined, contemptuous dead silence of the protesters through whom UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi walks en route to her car is another astonishingly powerful demonstration of moral imagery," writes Fallows. "Again, as a moral confrontation, this is a rout."

It's worth noting that some of the most troubling instances of violence have happened in cities -- Portland, Seattle, Oakland -- led by leaders who are not predisposed to seeing protesters as violent hippies. In fact, Jean Quan, mayor of Oakland, site of some of the most brutal clashes, issued a statement early on saying, "We support the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement."

And President Obama has likewise expressed sympathy for the Occupy movement. "I understand the frustrations being expressed in those protests," he told ABC's Jake Tapper. "The most important thing we can do right now is those of us in leadership letting people know that we understand their struggles and we are on their side, and that we want to set up a system in which hard work, responsibility, doing what you're supposed to do, is rewarded."

That sounds good, but setting up that system will require more than "understanding." We need to start closing the gap between rhetoric and reality. In his open letter demanding the resignation of Chancellor Katehi, UC Davis assistant professor Nathan Brown writes:

Your words express concern for the safety of our students. Your actions express no concern whatsoever for the safety of our students. I deduce from this discrepancy that you are not, in fact, concerned about the safety of our students.

It's another example of the events of the Occupy movement serving as metaphors for the country as a whole. We hear a lot from our leaders about their concern for the middle class and the need for jobs. But their actions express considerably less concern. And that discrepancy, between words and actions, is where this battle of credibility is being waged.

That the Occupy movement has pushed this battle into the national consciousness -- no small feat in a country that loves to be distracted -- is undeniable. "This peaceful grassroots movement has succeeded in raising awareness about growing income and wealth inequality and, more generally, a system that seems better at serving the privileged few than enabling jobs and income growth for the many," writes PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian. And Politico points out that the term "income inequality" went from being used in the media 91 times the week before the protests started to nearly 500 hundred last week.

The challenge now, writes El-Erian, is to pivot from offering a critique of the current system to building a system to replace it. True, but we should remember that by the time Dr. King made his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the civil rights movement was almost ten years old. Change is not going to happen in an instant. But the more government officials continue to respond in a way that only serves to illustrate the critique the movement is making, the faster change will come.

Shepard Fairey, in explaining why he morphed his famous "Hope" poster into one championing the Occupy movement, wrote:

Obviously, just voting is not enough. We need to use all of our tools to help us achieve our goals and ideals. However, I think idealism and realism need to exist hand in hand. Change is not about one election, one rally, one leader, it is about a constant dedication to progress and a constant push in the right direction. Let's be the people doing the right thing as outsiders and simultaneously push the insiders to do the right thing for the people.

Having those insiders recognize that what they're doing is supposed to be for the people and not against the people would be a good start.

Cross-posted from Huffington Post

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Arianna Huffington is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, a nationally syndicated columnist, and author of thirteen books. She is also co-host of "Left, Right & Center," public radio's popular political roundtable program, as (more...)
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