Sunday, February 5, 2012

Occupation and American Culture

            Finally I have some time to put down a few words about Occupy DC and the police action that occurred at MacPherson Square yesterday (and is being repeated at Freedom Plaza today).  Unfortunately, I don't have much time, so I will simply sketch out some of what I saw and felt and heard and offer some thoughts about what it all "means".
            Around 5:40 on Saturday morning, an overwhelming platoon of US Park Service Officers descended on the Occupy DC site at MacPherson square.  With streets all around blocked off and lined with police vehicles, some officers on horseback, others in full riot gear, and all, of course, heavily armed, they resembled a military force, and it was a reminder that there is very little difference between our modern police institutions and a standing army - the standing army, that institution the founding fathers decried as an impediment to liberty.  There was no warning except a non-specific statement issued on Monday warning that enforcement of the no-camping ban would be increased.  I was there around noon when the police occupation was still in full effect, and when I returned ten hours later, the police and their barricades still dominated the whole of the park.
             The strategy was perfect - give the required notice ahead of time that enforcement would be stepped up, but so far ahead of time (5 days) and without stating a specific date and time of the inspections, so that the effect would still be that of having given no warning at all.  When they arrived, what the Park service claimed was that they were there to inspect the site for non-compliance with the camping ban, and that those tents that were "in compliance" would not be removed.   The reality was that the conditions of compliance were so needlessly specific and arbitrary - every tent had to be completely clear on the inside, with all personal belongings and trash piled neatly separated in piles outside, and with no evidence whatsoever of bedding - that, combined with the fact of the pre-dawn unannounced timing of the raid, it allowed the officers to take down and confiscate nearly every single tent in the park.  The Park Service officers barricaded off, in turn, each “occupied” – that is, tented – section of the park in turn and cleared out all of the residents.  Then they brought in HazMat workers to inspect the tents based on their unreasonable criteria that each one be completely empty inside.  
That is correct: workers in full-on HazMat suits with masks, inspected tents for “human waste” – a phrase that seems to evoke an expectation of… what?  Holes dug in the ground for communal toilets?  “Human waste” ? At least half a dozen horses and two bulldozers were paraded around the block – the effect was comical, pageant-esque - while several dumpster-size flatbeds loaded up their quotas of confiscated tents.  The HazMat workers, to me, were the quintessential image of the narrative underlying this attack.  It seems that the collective value systems being enacted by Occupy DC are literally a literally toxic threat to American culture, so much so that the employees of the state need to suit themselves up from head to toe as if they were cleaning up a nuclear-power accident before they could move in on the tents where these people had been living out lives of collective solidarity and non-heirarchical, communal-property-based empowerment systems.
I am sure that the police realize that they did not abide by the law in their handling of their duty to enforce the no-camping ban.  I will not even go into the multiple horrendous examples of physical abuse some protesters suffered at the hands of these officers, though this is an important part of the story as well.  The entirety of their raid, in fact, was illegitimate and is undoubtedly going to be challenged in court - occupiers I spoke to today claimed to have videotaped footage of the government forces tearing apart tents that were totally compliant with their stated criteria.  But that was all secondary to the Park Service's intention to sap the movement of momentum and destabilize it in one fell swoop.  While the legal battles will be fought in coming weeks, the police's improper conduct had the immediate effect of sending the protestors scrambling to even find a place to be.  It seems that the new philosophy of our police institutions is "shock and awe".
Before it was cleared out, the Occupation itself always felt to me to have a subdued carnival atmosphere - a harmonious, well-decorated community of all different kinds of people standing in solidarity and living together with radically collectivist values.  For a person like myself, with too much studying and too comfy a bed to have ever spent much time at a stretch at the Occupation, it was like a cool new museum exhibit in town: an anti-corporate commune that you could walk through and see up close.  Except that every time I go there I meet new people, have new conversations, think about things differently, and my feelings of being an outsider are challenged.  Everyone hedges their statements with admonitions that they “can’t speak for anyone else”.  It had a sense of joyous optimism that was contagious. 
These places, these occupations, are doing a makeover on American culture, replacing the concept of the “public” with the more nuanced concept of the “common” and other collective values.  A public park is something you can only use in superficial ways, run by the government and controlled by the police.  A common park is one that houses people, feeds people, is controlled by general assemblies and group consensus.  American values today thrive on a fallacious notion of individual self-reliance that allows those whom the system privileges to ignore the plight of the disenfranchised.  Occupations bring to light the fact that every person, from the richest to the poorest, depends on resources held in common to do anything and that no one acts in a vaccuum.  They demonstrate that a radical break can be made and american culture shaped into something that recognizes the necessity to accommodate the needs of all, something that recognizes that unbounded consumerism and unbounded greed (which are really both the same thing, or two sides of a coin) is not the only basis for a society.
People keep asking the occupiers for message, for demands, statements, and in fact the MacPherson occupation issued a Declaration back in November of their political demands.  But what these people are actually doing transcends the one-side “demand” logic of the standard civil protest.  These people, through their actions, are making the solution.  This is why and how the mere fact of their camping can be political speech.  It is an active, daily demonstration of the power of collectivist values to create societies of equality where no one goes hungry or lacks a comfortable place to sleep.  And to the corporate interests that profit off of the individualistic values of current American culture, the culture that says that life is a competition for who can die with the most land and cars and luxurious clothes, that says that if you have more money than your neighbor you have the right to do whatever you want with it because of course that means that you worked harder than he did, collective values are anathema.
I won't pretend to know anything about what will happen with Occupy DC except that it will not go away.  The park is still occupied in a general sense - the library, kitchen, and info desk stand, along with less than ten tents that were apparently compliant, out of the dozens that were standing on Friday.  I just returned form a general assembly of about 100 people where the dominant mood was one of defiance and strength.  A multiplicity of plans are being drawn up and it is clear that this is only the beginning of the occupation of american culture by voices of radical dissent.
Perhaps when I have more time I will be able to expand on these ideas and what cultural and societal forces are involved in the Syria-esque nationwide crackdown on these nonviolent protests, plus put up the photos I took that show just how huge an operation this raid was.  For now, though, I'll leave these imperfect paragraphs as they are and return to my studies.

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