The violence we don’t see

Occupy Wall Street was forcibly evicted last night: as I watched my Twitter feed explode with news about the police action, I saw reports of violence from police (including at least one being taken away in an ambulance) and media being kept out of the area. I saw expressions of surprise, dismay, and outrage at the police violence, at the force used to evict non-violent protesters.

Heavily armoured police with rifles moving in against an occupation
Police action against Chapel Hill Occupation, by Katelyn Ferral

The system that we live in is built on violence. The violence we’re seeing as various Occupations are evicted is different because people have organised, and dissent is visible and centralised. This means that violence is exerted overtly and against people who might not otherwise experience it, as well as those who are subject to it every day. As people who are white, who are middle-class, join the protests, they become subject to similar policing to that marginalised groups experience on a daily basis.

We often think of moments such as these as being unusual, aberrations. Moments when a mayor or politician makes the wrong decision, or a few bad apples in the police force misbehave, or (depending on where you’re getting your news) protesters push things too far by engaging in violence or overstepping the bounds of civil disobedience.

Police in riot gear with rifles at Occupy Denver
Police at Occupy Denver

What happened at Occupy Wall Street wasn’t an aberration. That should be clear from the police actions at Occupy Oakland, at Chapel Hill, at Occupy Denver, at Occupy Cal, at Occupy Melbourne, at countless other occupations. And this isn’t only a recent phenomena. I’ve been reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which records, over and over, people organising against desperate conditions and marching on or camping at Wall Street and other symbolic or actual centers of power. And, over and over, of these protests being broken up with violence and/or dissolved through cooption. The same history of protest and violent repression exists in countries throughout the world.

However, despite the regularity with which dissent emerges and is crushed or dissipated, moments such as these are in some sense unusual. Usually, the violence that sustains the system is invisible (at least to those who are relatively privileged), pushed to the edges of society. This doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We follow laws in part because of the threat of violence: direct violence in the form of police actions like those at Occupy, but also the violence of deprivation of liberty, the threat of the violence from marginalised groups (non-whites, young people, poor people) that will supposedly result if we don’t support harsh policing. The Australian political system, which I have seen so many people say is better than that in the US and not worth protesting against, is built on a history of genocide which ran up to the 1970s. Our two mainstream political parties use rhetoric around asylum seekers to try to gain support, contributing to Australian xenophobia and racism in the process.

Tents and a sign reading 'capitalism isn't working'
Capitalism Isn't working, photo courtesy of Andy Roberts

The cheap access to material goods that buys the consent of the working class in Australia and other developed nations is also built on violence. Slavery continues to be used around the world, including in the US. We can afford to eat meat regularly because of the cruelty of factory farming. Those attempting to organise against sweatshop conditions are killed or intimidated in many places. Minerals in our shiny gadgets help to fuel vicious conflicts that we may only ever hear about in passing.

The violence used to break up Occupations is striking because it is visible, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I want to end with something cheery. I want to end by saying: here’s what you can do. Here’s how you can fix it. You can, of course, take plenty of actions against the violence I’ve talked about here. You can take part in events like the National Day of Action Against Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. You can call your representative and tell them to start treating asylum seekers like human beings. You can call the offices of local councils when police move in to evict occupations. You can try to buy fair trade, reuse and recycle, join your union, pressure companies to sign on to codes of conduct.

Protesters standing with a sign that reads 'another world is possible'
Make Ready Your Dreams, photo courtesy of Eric Wagner

More than this, you can try to imagine another world, a world that isn’t built on violence in the way this one is. And you can try to create that world now the way many of the occupiers are trying to, the way people have tried to over and over again: by taking action against discrimination, by feeding each other, by helping those who don’t get heard to have their voice heard, by setting up child care and free libraries and workshops and loving each other.

Don’t be surprised when the violence becomes visible, but don’t give in to it either.

2 thoughts on “The violence we don’t see

  1. Let the wretches who today
    include your name
    in their books–the Damasos,
    the Gerardos, the sons
    of bitches, silent accomplices of
    the executioner-know
    that your martyrdom
    won’t be expunged, that your
    will fall on their entire moon of
    And to those who denied you in
    their rotten laurel….
    -Pablo Neruda

  2. Interesting post.

    “The violence used to break up Occupations is striking because it is visible …”

    Yes, it is interesting, and not just because it’s visible, but because the occupations have succeeded in making it visible.

    I’m in two minds about the emphasis there has been on the confrontation between police forces and occupiers in discussion on Twitter, and in the press.

    On the one hand, it worries me that it’s a distraction from the formation of a true “majority rights movement” to reassert the reactive, safeguarding principles of democracy against a tiny, domineering elite that is doing great harm.

    On the other hand, the violence – and just generally the difficulty faced when laying claim to assumed freedoms we have thought of as essential – has laid very bare the difference between the widespread faith that we have open, civil societies, and the reality of the limits on our lives.

    It’s as if half the celebrated trees in the garden of civilisation have turned out to be elaborate painted forgeries. And for the privileged it has, as you point out, been the converse of our usual experience: the erstwhile unconsciousness of possession sharpens the reality of dispossession.

    So in that sense, whatever the ‘project’ of the occupiers might be, it’s enough by itself that a simple tactic has been found that discomforts the habits of society and drags our serious problems back up to the surface.

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