Occupy, Violence, and the Stacked Deck

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(Image from “Occupy Oakland violence,” November 9, 2011)

Every year as the March (Vernal) Equinox  approaches, I feel my energy and enthusiasm levels rise.  Days get longer more quickly until March 20, after which they will get longer more slowly until the first day of summer, June 21, when they begin to get shorter again.   The vernal equinox signals the rapid disappearance of winter here in the Northeast, a virtually snowless winter this year in Upstate New York (global warming?), and it heralds the arrival of Spring, of renewal and rebirth.  This year’s renewals, significantly, will include the resurgence of a powerful new political force in America, the Occupy Movement.

“Occupy Wall Street” commenced last September, and as winter closed in around the country most urban communities with Occupy sites, suddenly or gradually as the case may be, lost patience with the perpetual protest offered by the Occupy movement.  Tent cities were closed down and organizers moved indoors for the winter.  The arrival of Spring will almost certainly witness numerous re-occupations around the country, and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.

Tensions will rise immediately as one of America’s unsolved conundrums resurfaces — the issue of the degree of toleration that can or should be shown to Americans demonstrating for economic freedom and justice.  Some police responses last fall impressed nearly everyone as being clearly over the top, such as the pepper-spraying of kneeling protesters at U Cal Davis. In other locations, such as Occupy Albany (New York), the community-protester relationship was largely a model of cooperation.

Both sides, among other things, assert First Amendment freedom of speech and assembly rights, the Occupiers in support of maintaining a prolonged, visual and vocal presence in the heart of American society, and other groups including government agencies charged with controlling public activities in opposition to disruptions by Occupiers.

The scene from Oakland shown above accompanied the story of Oakland protesters vocally disrupting a news conference held by city council members and local business leaders (11/09/11) calling for the end of the Occupy encampment in Frank Ogawa Plaza.  From the protestors’ perspective, those conducting the meeting were out to deny them their First Amendment rights.  But City Council President Larry Reid later said: “It was very frustrating. They attempted to deny our freedom of speech and it was not acceptable.” And City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, who argued that the encampment “is absolutely intolerable,” remarked that protesters’ attempt to shout down speakers “shows how supportive of free speech they are.”  The JDRF story reported:

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan didn’t attend the news conference but she issued a statement in which she said she wants the council members to join her, City Administrator Deanna Santana, Police Chief Howard Jordan and community leaders “in implementing a plan to remove the encampment.”  

Quan said, “While I am pleased to see a consensus developing on the council to remove the camp, I call on elected leaders who are clamoring for an immediate raid to put forward a plan that does not cause additional injury to people, property and our reputation, or result in another re-occupation.”  She said, “We know that a tiny minority thinks it is a sound strategy to pit our police against demonstrators. We call on everyone to reject provocation of violence.”

Oakland struggled with police-protester relations in 2011.  The incident at the news conference came about two weeks after initial violent confrontations with police (including the critical injury to veteran Scott Olsen by a police projectile) that gained national attention, and ten days after protests against police violence that ended, happily, without confrontation or arrests:

(A line of Highway Patrol officers, waited at 20th and Brush Streets on October 29, 2011, as demonstrators marched one block in front of them on West Street.)

The story of 2012, an election year, will be a story of class struggle between, quite literally, 99% of the people, who mostly have only their ability to organize and protest going for them, and the 1% that controls most of the media and, many Occupiers fear, the police that are assigned to keep the “peace” in the face of non-violent protest.

I will not pretend to know where the line should be drawn between sensible protest and forcible police response.  That varies with circumstances, and it is a judgment everyone will make for themselves with varying conclusions.  I will argue, however, that because the Occupy movement represents the civil and economic interests of nearly all Americans (99% is about right), it behooves our governments (local, state, and national) to carefully plan responses to Occupy initiatives and work in good faith with Occupy groups, representing public interests (such as safety) and not strictly the narrow interests of the wealthy 1%.  Both sides in 2012 must show and maintain good faith in these efforts.

It is clearly in the interest of the Occupy movement to scrupulously maintain non-violence in all that they do.  They must stay on the high road, or they will marginalize their effectiveness:

(Broken Window at a Chase Bank in Oakland)

Posting another photo of this window, Seniors for a Democratic Society cautioned about the urgent need for non-violence in the Occupy movement:

Nonviolence is the tactic the ruling Forces of Greed most fear, next to an outbreak of democracy itself, because they have no weapon against it.

There are forces attempting to destroy the Occupy Movement now, and they include those pushing violence (video by Anonymous). We have no evidence that they are FBI but we are suspicious, from past experience (going back many decades). We suspect that the movement has been infiltrated, all of the major Occupy groups and internet social groups. You will recognize these people by the way they push violence and use pejoratives against those opposed to violence, like [Chris] Hedges. They are also trying to drive wedges between people within the movement, a traditional FBI tactic.

When we see people wearing masks breaking windows and starting fires, we can’t prove they are FBI, we can’t see their faces, but everybody in the movement is tainted by what they do. At LUV News we said early in the Occupy Movement we are not marching with people wearing masks, we assume they are wearing masks either because they are FBI or because they intend to discredit the movement with lawbreaking which will destroy the movement. * * *

We are building a movement, person by person, still far short of the kind of mass necessary to bring about needed change against an Empire run by psychopaths who will do anything to stop us. The American people are not going to join a movement which appears to embrace violence. We must close ranks on this or we are destroyed, as many of those pushing violence intend.

Note the extreme level of suspicion and distrust in this group.  How much of that Chris Hedges brand of suspicion is real or imaginary I simply don’t know, but the message — to avoid violence like the plague — is really common sense.  There are too many ways that violence used against protesters can be turned against the protesters to minimize the credibility of their intent or their messages.

That point was brought home to me by Janet Spitz, one of our guest bloggers and a thoughtful authority on business and economic issues, when I recently approached her for another offering.  She told of how a recent letter to the editor had been published by the Albany Times Union after edits she felt detracted from the gravity of her complaint.  Her letter as published on January 15, entitled A plea for peace with Albany police, was upsetting to her, she told me, because “they removed all references to domestic abuse (the whole point of the letter),” and left it a “wimpy,” “no-content” piece.  Here is her letter as originally presented to the newspaper (January 3, 2012) with passages that were eventually edited out (not just modified) in italics here:

As a person who respects the fact that peace is not necessarily as easy as it looks, I’ve been a strong supporter of Police Chief Steven Krokoff, particularly in light of the challenges he inherited when he took the job.  Faced with a certain level of community distrust, he took on the task of building a bridge between demands requiring police action, and the community seeking ordinary everyday peace in reasonable coexistence with the local police presence.   
Chief Krokoff’s recent claim to clairvoyance, therefore, surprised and dismayed me (Carleo-Evangelist, “They Made the Decision”, Albany Times UnionJanuary 3, 2012).   Krokoff says of the Occupy Albany group and the police use of force against them, “I didn’t make the decision.  They made the decision.”  That by using withering verbal abuse “Their intent was to provoke a police officer….”  “When it comes to uses of force, we’re reactors” Krokoff said. 
Reacting to words with violence.  Yes, that is one possible reaction, and the one which Krokoff encouraged his officers to choose … because – let’s see if I have this here – he read their minds clairvoyantly, and thus knew what they intended? 
These are the words, and viewpoint, of a classic Domestic Abuser:  usually a man, he says of the woman he beats, “She made the decision.  She argued with me.  She said things.  She sassed me.  She forced me to hit her.  I had no choice.”
In the case of the Occupy Albany protestors against inequality, Krokoff heard that they planned to carry a tent around downtown Albany a second time, in addition to using words he preferred not to hear.  Clearly, to a domestic abuser – I mean a Chief of Police – words and walking constitutes a “use of force” and so deserves a violent reaction.  He had no choice.  The decision was theirs.  What??
Together with the killing of Nah-cream Moore, this abrupt shift in Krokoff’s attitude and direction gives me pause and deeply saddens me.  It gives me pause in my otherwise positively inclined view that when Chief Krokoff says he intends to investigate fairly, he intends to investigate fairly. It saddens and disappoints me to learn that his idea of “fairness” is to define American Citizen words and walking, as violent force, force which “fairly” deserves a violent reaction.  I ask Chief Krokoff to please, himself, take pause … and to listen to his own words.  
If you would not have Albany citizens understand you as an abuser, then please, Chief Krokoff, do not use Domestic Abuser logic.  Instead, take words for what they are – a means of non-violent communication, however enthusiastic – and respond in verbal, not physical, kind. 
We need more non-violent communicators, willing to react to words with words, and thus build the level of community trust so needed for peace.  Let’s hope Chief Krokoff can look at his own reaction and understand the difference between words, however sassy, and force.  Please, Chief Krokoff:  choose peace.

First, like many people I have also had edits that I did not appreciate in letters to the editor, so I understand Janet’s feelings; and in this instance, I can see how the point of Janet’s letter was altered.  In the editors’ defense, however, they appear to have rejected her analogy with domestic violence to avoid the inference that Janet accuses Chief Krokoff of being a domestic abuser, or of having that mentality.  I can see that was not her intention, but Chief Krokoff would have found such an inference, however unintended, extremely offensive, and Janet’s statement might have been quoted out of context.

So I can understand the edits that were made.  I also feel that the letter as edited and published does convey Janet’s criticism of police action as based on unfounded presumptions, and does not make her point look “wimpy” or overly simplistic.  (I have no personal view of allegation of police misconduct in the incident, which resulted in injuries to both police and occupiers, as I was not there.)

Regardless, Janet’s analogy to domestic violence on this issue, in the abstract, is apt: It seems to be a part of human nature to blame violent confrontations on the other side, and this tendency extends all the way up and down the scale from a barroom brawl to the cold war with the Soviet Union.  I think we too often jump to our own defense as “good guys” without taking a hard look at the justification for our violent actions.  Janet has reminded us that this tendency, in its most perverse applications (such as self-justifying domestic violence, or war), leads to intolerably destructive results.  I think we recognize that tendency at work in the histories of Occupy Oakland and Occupy Wall Street.

More importantly, in additional comments she sent to me Janet makes clear that her concerns go well beyond justifying alleged police misconduct.  Like Seniors for a Democratic Society, Janet fears violence and confrontation being used as a weapon to attack and destroy the Occupy movement: “To preserve and strengthen the top 1%, protests must be violently crushed.”  Here is her assessment:

Non-violent action is not a wimpy plea from incompetents.  Non-violent action is a strong method of in-your-face communication, from strong people, with strong and important things to say.  Non-violent action has, repeatedly, changed laws and regimes; it has altered the way people think about and understand basic human rights.  To effect that type of change, it requires strong, persistent, and vocal advocates and participants to carry their message forward.  

The Occupy Movement has taken that banner up — so far, to some moderate effect.  That movement has not begun to attain the [necessary] level of national attention to the ways society has accepted financial re-distribution from the poor and middle class, to the super-rich.  The fact is, many of the New Deal laws raising the floor of the wages and wealth (such as it is) of working families, have been altered to the advantage of the upper 1%, whose wealth even BEFORE the Great Recession of 2008, equaled the wealth of the 1% in 1928, just prior to the Great Crash of 1929 which heralded in the Great Depression.  And wealth of corporations and the top 1% have soared since 2008.   

World-wide, there is now a deep Global Recession, caused not by working people, but by financiers, banks, and financial institutions whose deceitful accounting practices and intentional defrauding of whole governments as well as citizens have caused the collapse of economy after economy.  

The response of governments and international agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund has been to Protect Banks At All Costs. This requires enormous transfers of wealth from citizens to banks, and this is what we are seeing now in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, where unemployment ranges from 20% – 45%, and wages are cut deeply, for one purpose and one purpose only:  so that all of that wealth can be used to pay the interest on loans from the banks.  

Paying interest on bank loans has become the holy grail of our time. Corporations also have become entitled, in society’s eyes, to huge, unprecedented profits, so when the Schenectady Garbage Companies raise their rates allegedly because costs have gone up, the most cursory investigation reveals a) costs are the same, but b) profits have soared.  And so companies are raising prices even more and cutting wages to pad that profit line of unprecedented wealth.  

What does this have to do with violence?  There is only one way, ultimately, for banks and corporations and their lackeys to “Take” unearned wealth and profits from the citizens whose rightful ownership of that money is uncontested, and that way is to kill people, maim people, shoot people who protest.  It is to create a culture of violence and fear, so that all understand in a Stalinist manner, that what the Banks and financiers decide (i.e., to take wealth that is not theirs) must be unquestioned, must be unchallenged.  

To preserve and strengthen the top 1%, protests must be violently crushed.  

And, as the Times Union so ably demonstrates, even non-violent words challenging that violent repression must be redacted, softened, made ineffective, and those articulating those challenges, made to appear incompetent.  Only then, can violent repression accompanying the enormous transfer of wealth from the 99% to the 1% we witness today, become accepted as the New Normal of Our Times.  

Janet Spitz 

February 27, 2012

I need to pause for a breath at this point to take in the full import of Janet’s statement.  I do not agree with Janet that her letter was intentionally watered down by the Times Union to minimize its impact.  That newspaper gets very high marks from me in its condemnation of increasing poverty and inequality, and its support for the Occupy movement.  It has supported Occupy Albany from the beginning.  Janet is, of course, entitled to voice that opinion, but I simply don’t agree.

Everything else she says in that statement, however, rings true.  I’ve been researching inequality and economic issues for more than a year on this blog.  We simply don’t know yet what the 1% will do, how far they will go, if the 99% regains significant political power. Revolution might very well imply armed conflict, and heaven help us if it comes to that.  I will say this now:  The day of reckoning is coming fast, faster than we would have imagined back in 2008 at the time of the Crash.

Janet is correct that by 2008 the American economy had been pushed through rising inequality to the brink of collapse.  Now, four years later, we witness a stunning, simply pathological struggle among contenders for the Republican presidential nomination (and the right to function for four years as Henchman-in-Chief for the 1%) that has been reduced to arguing about, of all things, birth control.  Nothing in my nearly 70 years on this planet has prepared me for anything nearly this bizarre, and dangerous.

Almost no one (myself included) has paid enough attention to banking and how debt and interest are eating away, exponentially, at the substance of the economic system. I’m certain that as yet I’m unaware of its full implications, and I can see in the Times Union’s discussions, as sympathetic as its editors are, that they are  not yet as aware of these matters as they and I, hopefully soon, will become.  I have just about recovered sufficiently from a bout with heart disease to put the energy into that topic it deserves — but I pray others will get there first.

Kudos to Janet for echoing the fears of the Seniors for a Democratic Society and one of their mentors, Chris Hedges – fears I would have dismissed only three years ago as rampant paranoia.  The end of disaster capitalism is nearing, as it burns itself out.  The time to act is now, and the 99% must act decisively – and non-violently.

I offer these parting thoughts for Chief Krokoff:  I too have admired your efforts to improve police-community relations in Albany, to the extent that I am aware of them, and you deserve credit for your part in Occupy Albany being a model of protester-community cooperation so far.  In 2012, I urge you to remember that you and your police officers are members of the 99% that Occupy Albany is fighting for.  The 1% will not save you or preserve you.  So I implore you, protect Occupy Albany as you would protect a dying campfire on a cold, drizzly night — with all the resources you can muster.

JMH – 2/27/12

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