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.

Occupy Together: who’s the 99 percent?

I live in New Zealand  I can afford my own apartment and car on a teacher’s wage. I know how LUCKY I am and how quickly this could change.  I STAND WITH THE 99%
Kia Kaha!

The Occupy Wall Street protests continue, and are now spreading to other places in the US and around the world, including Australia. In the process, some useful questions about solidarity and inclusion are coming up.

Many of those who support Occupy Together (or some of their actions) feel, or are judged by others to be, uncomfortably well off. I’ve heard people say that protests in Perth or other parts are Australia are ridiculous because we’ve got very little to complain about here. And in many senses they’re right – the median household income in Australia and New Zealand in 2007/2008 was around US$45,000* (adjusted for purchasing power parity). According to the (not-entirely-accurate) Global Rich List, households earning the median income are within the top two percent of global income. And, of course, in Australia and New Zealand we have access to a reasonably-good-but-not-perfect healthcare system and welfare state.

I inherited money. I want to live in a world where we all have enough. Tax me!
Tax me!

Similarly, there are people supporting Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Together in the US or elsewhere who may not be part of the one percent but are doing fine: good jobs, health insurance, a house and a car. Some of these people are wondering where they fit into the protests: whether they can legitimately claim to be part of the 99 percent, or even to be genuinely disenfranchised. As Sady Doyle writes in her excellent Biography of Class, people’s experiences of being part of the 99 percent are very different. For some, it means struggling to provide even the basics of life. For others, including myself, it means a standard of living that is incredibly high compared to that of most of the rest of the world.

The difficulty of knowing where those who are well-off fit in with the protests is exacerbated by the lack of clarity in the movement’s goals (which I discussed in an earlier post). It’s easy (but not entirely accurate) to see the movement as a cry for help from those in the US who are pushed to their very limits, and if we do it can feel dishonest or exploitative to become part of the movement – as if we are claiming to suffer in the same heartbreaking ways that so many people are sharing on wearethe99percent.

America, we can hear you. We are with you.

I don’t think this needs to be the case, though. We can recognise our own relative privilege while we support those who are struggling, as the two woman in the photos above are doing. We can use the advantages that our privilege gives us – money, education, connections, whatever else – to try to support change at the same time as we work to avoid eclipsing the voices of marginalised groups. We can recognise our similarities as well as differences with others in the 99 percent: even those who are well-off are often disenfranchised politically, frustrated by a system where citizens struggle to control corporate and financial power.

Solidarity also stretches the other way. Australians, New Zealanders, and others from ‘developed’ nations are supporting the protests, but so are people from other parts of the world, including China. I saw a poster a couple of days ago that said something like: ‘to the 99 percent in the US – we support you, but remember that globally you’re part of the one percent. Don’t stop once you achieve your goals nationally’. People around the world are moved at the stories being shared on we are the 99 percent, but we also know that there are people all over the world suffering. The crisis continues in East Africa, there’s worrying unrest in Egypt, there’s an encephalitis outbreak in India, the intervention continues in Australia**…

The world cares what happens in US politics in part because we care about others’ suffering, but also because what happens in the US has consequences for the rest of the world. The US plays a key role in shaping climate action, financial regulation, economic globalisation, and foreign relations. Hopefully we’ll find ways to support the protests there that recognise the differences within the 99 percent as well as the similarities. And hopefully the protesters within the US won’t forget the global 99 percent.


* There are probably better figures out there, but I don’t think these need to be exact to make the point. Feel free to supply corrections!

** And more, of course, but the list was getting a bit depressing.

Occupy Wall Street: movements and manifestos

Single mom, college degree, no job, can't afford to look after my child, can't afford medication.
we are the 99 percent

Occupy Wall Street has been attracting a lot of attention, at least in the parts of the Internet I visit regularly. Most of the commentary I’ve seen so far, including from activists, is doubtful about the protesters’ ability to force change: numbers at the protests are increasing and unions are beginning to join in, but they’re up against a powerful system (and harsh policing). If you live in a society where the wealthiest 1% of the population control around 43 percent of the wealth (as of 2007) and income inequality is rising, a better deal for the 99 percent requires massive structural change.

Still, there’s a lot of optimism around the Occupy Wall Street protests. People in the US want to believe that things might get better. For those of outside the US, a shift in domestic politics gives some hope that the US might start playing a different role in the international system. The reasons to hope are small, but there are times when you cling to them anyway.

As the protests grow, those both within and outside the movement are starting to raise questions about what those involved in Occupy Wall Street want to achieve. As Betsy Reed put it, we’re seeing more and more demands for demands: “their failure to present demands is the most frequently heard criticism of the OWS protesters, not just in the mainstream press but from veteran leftists as well. What do these wan, angry young people want, anyway?”

A list of different themes on which proposals could be made, such as "health" and "peace war".
WSF 2007 Proposals for Action

The demand for demands isn’t new. One of the recurring critiques of the alter-globalisation movement was that it needed to be more organised. George Monbiot’s The Age of Consent was a good example of this: he argued that the movement needed to grow up, develop a manifesto and a program (which he was nice enough to provide an outline for), and start implementing it. This was also a debate that started happening around the World Social Forum fairly early on: what was it meant to achieve? What were its demands?

I understand why people want manifestos and plans for action. It makes it easier to understand the movement, easier to organise and find targets and gauge progress. Occupy Wall St has put out its first official statement, but it’s a long way away from the tightly-worded manifesto that many are calling for: it lists participants’ grievances, but there’s little attempt to connect these grievances within a coherent overarching analysis or to create an all-inclusive list of complaints. I don’t think this is a problem. In fact, I think there are a quite a few reasons to be cautious about pinning down the movement and its goals.

Firstly, the movement is still growing. Occupy Wall Street has, so far, been emphasising the importance of direct democracy. It’s mentioned several times in the first official statement, and is clear in the focus on using consensus decision-making and affinity groups to work through strategies and tactics. (This hasn’t been without problems, including the reproduction of existing privilege.) Handing out a manifesto now means that those who join the movement after that point can sign up to the manifesto, but won’t be able to help shape it.

Two protestors holding signs: "Dream" and "Any path that narrows future possibilities may become a trap."
Occupy Wall St, courtesy of Flickr user emilydickinsonridesabmx

Secondly, I’m not sure that anyone is able to tell, at this stage, just what’s possible. Should the movement be calling for relatively reformist (and hence more achievable) goals, or calling for the broad structural change that’s needed? Given the current US political situation, calling for policy goals that seem achievable today will mean falling far short of providing accessible healthcare and housing, or committing to workers’ rights. Refusing to put out a manifesto leaves the movement free to experiment with what might be possible without either being tied down to relatively limited change or being criticised for utopian goals.

Thirdly, and on a related note, when people start calling for the movement’s demands they often mean: which specific policy changes do you want? Policy changes are certainly required, but the potential for them seems limited. The US political system is a mess, and heavily shaped by economic power. If real change is going to happen, people may need to start thinking about direct action as well as trying to change the political structures that currently shape the US, if only to provide local safety nets. This kind of political imagination isn’t necessarily easily captured in the list of demands that people want to see.

Finally, it might be useful to think about what’s happening on Wall Street as a space, rather than a movement. As Chico Whitaker (2004, p. 111) wrote about the World Social Forum:

movements and spaces are completely different things. Without over simplifying things in a Manichechean way, either they are one or the other. Nevertheless, they can co-exist. Nor are they opposites, which means that they do not neutralise each other, but rather, they may even be counterparts. … Movements and spaces may be seeking, each one performing its roles, the same general objectives. But each one works in a way of its own, aiming at different specific objectives.

This sprang to mind when I read this in Manissa McCleave Maharawal’s article:

It was that it felt like a space of possibility, a space of radical imagination. And it was energizing to feel like such a space existed. And so I started telling my friends to go down there and check it out. I started telling people that it was a pretty awesome thing, that just having a space to have these conversations mattered, that it was more diverse than I expected. And I went back.

There’s value in having a space to organise, both literal and metaphorical, in feeling that there is a space where you can talk about the things that matter to you, where you can meet with other people who care and what to create change. Action needs to come out of that, but not at the expense of shutting down the space itself.