Occupy Oakland, the Mayor, the Police, and the People

by Dennis Loo
 
A bit of background first:
 
When Occupy Wall Street (OWS) started five weeks ago, the police and media's reaction to the demonstration was hostile, with police using pepper spray directly in people's eyes at point blank range, punching out women, attacking a man for the crime of carrying a professional-level video camera, and so on, and the media was dismissive, if they bothered to cover it at all. In other words, business as usual.
 
A CNN reporter (John Avlon) appearing as a guest on September 23, 2011's Real Time with Bill Maher, for example, said in response to another guest, Tom Morello of the band Rage Against the Machine who was hailing the protests, that there were merely "200 hundred" at OWS, as if this haughty reporter's understated figures explained CNN's malign neglect. With the exception of Morello, the guests (which also included Ron Suskind and former Rep. Jane Harman (D), with Harman saying excitedly at one point that everyone in America could become a "billionaire" and that the Democrats shouldn't rule this out (!?)) had spent their time prattling on mostly about the Democrats and Republicans, blissfully unaware that the real political action was at Zuccotti Park and spreading to cities and communities around the country.
 
The police's brutality at OWS, however, backfired on the police and helped to provoke more and better media coverage of OWS.
 
CNN's Piers Morgan had Michael Moore on his show last night (with some live shots during the show of the large numbers of Oakland demonstrators in the streets - at least 1,000 - protesting the 5 am police assault on Occupy Oakland's two encampments in which the police deployed tear gas and armored vehicles and rapidly demolished the tents et al, arresting 85 people and in the evening over a hundred). At one point Morgan said to Moore that the protests have turned more violent, coming from both sides. Moore immediately corrected him and said that the violence was all coming from the police. At Occupy Maine yesterday a chemical bomb was hurled at the encampment earlier in the day from a white car of people reportedly yelling obscenities at the occupiers. 
 
While Oakland's Mayor Jean Quan had previously said that the protests were just a sign that "democracy is messy," she reversed herself and ordered the police to forcibly destroy and evict the peaceful encampments for being allegedly too messy.
 
The question of the relationship between the state and the people and the matter of coercion and persuasion (public opinion) is a key one. In my book Globalization and the Demolition of Society, I discuss the nature of state violence from a number of different angles and how it can be a double-edged sword for those who use it. See this passage, for example:
 
"The state enjoys wide latitude for its use of force. This latitude, however, has limits. Force permits a state to overcome resistance, but when it uses that force, it risks provoking retaliatory actions and/or resentment by those being coerced, and it risks the disaffection of those who witness that coercion and view that force as unjust. In other words, the fact that a state has an immense arsenal of weapons to use does not settle the matter, because if a government comes to be seen as illegitimate, no amount of repressive violence by it will protect it from being overthrown. Legitimacy, in other words, is a fairly stable but elastic factor. [Max] Weber never addressed this elastic aspect of governmental legitimacy: the fact that governmental force is subject, under the right circumstances, to fundamental challenge.
 
"Those circumstances occur very infrequently in the advanced capitalist countries; whole generations can go by without their happening. But when the right circumstances do occur, and organizational and ideological leadership is present and sufficiently influential to fulfill the potential for a revolutionary change, all bets are off. While force is a state’s argument of last resort, its ability to continue to use force and the amount of force it can use are determined by whether or not its use is seen as legitimate by most of the populace." (Pp. 121-122)
 
The problem that authorities face in the Occupation Movement is that they want to get rid of these annoying manifestations of grassroots democratic action, but they don't want to appear to be too brutal in doing so because these tactics can backfire and spread the movement even more. Many demonstrators have until now been encouraging the police to realize that they are part of the 99%. It remains to be seen how much longer many of them will take that approach when they start to see increasing evidence that the fundamental role of the police is to defend the 1%. The delight that the Oakland police (backed up by units from all over the Bay Area police) took of their military-style assault on the encampments, however, with many of them taking pictures of the destruction for their personal amusement, better indicate the mentality of the armed might of the state. You cannot have a vastly unequal distribution of the society's resources without armed guards physically protecting those who monopolize most of the resources and pundits who intellectually justify a manifestly unfair and lopsided arrangement. Piers Morgan is a hack, but the fact that he and CNN felt the need to have Michael Moore on the show last night shows how far this movement, that is only five weeks old, has come.