Tuesday, November 15, 2011

#occupy Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Last night I went to sleep in a really foul mood. When I woke up, the first thing I did was check the news, so I began this morning in an even worse mood.

You've probably already seen the reports. You don't need to be told that Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD brought the truncheon down on the Occupy Wall Street camp at Liberty Square last night.
Some weeks ago, when touring the park and dropping off some supplies for the campers, my friend James ominously stated that the NYPD's budget outweighs that of some smaller nations' sovereign military forces. The scene that began at around 1:00 a.m. was practically a YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK exposition for the pleasure of New York's Republicans and sadists.

Nor should it be news to you that journalists were aggressively prevented from accessing the scene (and in several cases bullied) by the police, so most of what we know about the crackdown comes from Twitter, yfrog, and YouTube. You don't need to be told the stories of unprovoked beatings and gassings, wanton (hell, downright gleeful) destruction of protestors' property (tents and tarps were slashed, cameras and computers were broken, and I can only imagine how much donated food was chucked into the garbage trucks that pulled up to the park along with the police vans and sonic cannons), and the refusal of Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD to comply with a New York City judge's ruling to allow protestors back on the scene.

You don't need to be told. All of this is old news. Every columnist, blogger, and interested social media user has already reported the facts and weighed in, leaving your present armchair correspondent with precious little to contribute. Nevertheless, I don't think I'll be able to move on from the subject and thinking about something else until I've tossed my two cents (well, three) into the distended coin purse of Internet discourse.


Scratch that. Contrary to previous reports, the famous Liberty Square Library has not been destroyed, which makes the diatribe I had prepared (and its exquisite allusions to Alexandria) totally unnecessary. This would make me feel so much better about the whole thing were it not for....


This afternoon -- hours after a New York County Supreme Court Justice issued a restraining order against Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD -- Judge Micheal Stallman ruled that the demonstrators' first amendment rights do not permit them to camp out at the park indefinitely, and that the police crackdown (bulldozers, pepper spray, batons, and all) was all good and legal. And just like that, Liberty Square has reverted back to Zucotti Park -- for now. Protestors are being allowed back on the site, with the proviso that they can't build another campsite.

There's a whole lot about this to make one feel scared and upset, but on the whole, the movement probably stands to make a net gain from this. Just when the American attention span was in danger of flitting elsewhere, and a month before the merciless New York winter threatened to move in and kill the movement slowly and ignominiously, the Liberty Square occupation goes out with a great sound and fury that shocks the whole world into tuning back in.

For the time being, public assembly isn't altogether banned -- and if the Occupy crowd can muster the tenacity we've come to expect from them, they'll back, tents or no tents. Bloomberg and the NYPD just giftwrapped them a reason to press forward, and here's hoping they rise to the occasion.


"We have been in constant contact with Brookfield [the park's owners] and yesterday they requested that the City assist it in enforcing the no sleeping and camping rules in the park," Bloomberg writes. "But make no mistake – the final decision to act was mine."

I can admit -- through a great deal of teeth grinding -- that Bloomberg's case, in its own limited context, is not an unreasonable one. But toward the end, there's a part I cannot read without biting my tongue:

Protestors have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.

A major motivating force of Occupy Wall Street was the fact that nobody who mattered -- lawmakers, executives, members of the mainstream media -- was listening when people tried to get a word in about America's growing income divergence and systemic flaws in its economic system over the noise about debt ceilings, job creators, and Kim Kardashian. Since writing blog posts, mailing letters, submitting articles to left-leaning magazines, and holding lectures wasn't convincing our greasy-palmed policymakers that economic injustice is a real and very serious national problem requiring an earnest solution, some people decided to find a more visible platform on which to air their grievances.

And now Bloomberg congratulates them on a good try and tells them their time is up. Two months is all they get before their platform gets yanked out from under their feet. Better luck changing the world next time, kiddies; also, you're welcome for the two months.

Putting aside the arguments about right to assembly, that last sentence is what really boggles my mind. If saying a thing like "now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments" with a straight face in a post-Citizens United America isn't absolutely daffy, it must be smug and malicious.

You already know about the Supreme Court's unfortunate ruling that handed America's oligarchic interests their own personal bullhorns and national P.A. systems for the sake of "free speech," so you don't need to be told. It was already the case that the entrenched minority could control the media, but Citizens United now allows them to pick and choose which politicians they want to see running for office, and spend however much money they want filling the airwaves with slander and misinformation.

Admittedly, that does read like a hyperbole. We're exactly not looking at a Netrunner future just yet -- but the point is that the wealthy have more free speech than the rest of the populace. They get to control the conversation. They pick what's on TV. They pick what's on the radio. They pick the issues our lawmakers are willing to fight for. Occupy Wall Street was a brilliant tactic towards leveling the playing field and circumventing the gatekeepers to introduce economic injustice into the national dialogue. (Before #occupy, you sure as hell didn't hear those words mentioned beyond "fringe" publications.)

Without a sustained public demonstration, we're back to "you've got your free speech and I'VE GOT MY FREE SPEECH." The encampment was precisely what gave the demonstrators the ability to make their case heard. Without that platform, the people who are driving the push for accountability in the financial industry and an America that isn't rigged against most of its citizens' interests are stuck trying to shout over the owners of the world's biggest megaphones.


I'm seriously starting to wonder if Karl Rove isn't cutting checks to people who troll CNN.com's user comments sections with "TAKE THAT HIPPIES OCCUPY A SHOWER WHY DONT YOU HA HA HA HA" bilge.

Earlier tonight I expressed this sentiment on another social media platform and received these responses from a distant acquaintance:

Karl Rove hasn't paid me shit. You'd be surprised how many people, myself included, who feel all this occupy nonsense is a waste of time. And furthermore that it is populated mostly by young academic types who can afford an ipad to tweet about their 'noble' endeavors. Most of those who are really getting fucked by the system are too busy actually going to work in order to feed their families to bitch about it. 

Of course there is a minority of haves and a minority [sic] of have-nots. That is how it has been since the dawn of civilization. Why should that suddenly change? And as for all the socialist idealists present at these protests, they need to wake up and realize that socialist and communist societies are just as guilty as capitalist ones of having extreme inequity between rich and poor. The only difference is that at least in capitalism you have an outside chance of making it into the privileged class with a mix of hard work and luck.

Compared to most of the rancorous gibberish I've been reading all day to furnish myself with excuses to take smoke breaks, this is positively constructive and reasonable.

But the point is that the sheer loathing directed towards the evicted Occupiers is astonishing. They're all stoners. They're all criminals. They're all basement-dwelling America haters. If they're not pampered, soft-handed academics, then they're penniless, filthy hippies. They're nothing but a bunch of whiners who don't understand how the world works. They should just get a $50,000 a year job with health benefits, like I did, because it's really just that easy.

Okay. Let's assume, for argument's sake, that the Occupy demonstrators really are nothing but a bunch of stoners, inexperienced students, unemployable burnouts, and messy hippies. Does this really make their grievances any less valid?

And to introduce some variety into our sources, let's look at a few numbers offered by FOX News' own Juan Williams. Thirty-nine percent of Americans fully approve of Occupy Wall Street. Seventy-six percent agree that the United States' economic structure disproportionately favors the wealthy. Fifty-five percent feel that income inequality is a significant national problem. Sixty-eight percent favor raising taxes on citizens earning more than $250,000 a year.

So why are we hurling epithets at the people -- be they hippies, stoners, slackers, or hell, even frustrated working stiffs -- who are making a serious effort to get America to notice and confront the fact that it has transformed into a de-facto oligarchy?

"Get a job," they're told by people who already have jobs, and choose to ignore the 16% underemployment rate and a minimum wage that has not kept pace with living expenses.

"Go out and vote," they're told by many of the same people who, in their next breath, complain about partisanship, gridlock, and the remarkable inability of Barack Obama to get even a god damn jobs bill passed during a period of widespread chronic unemployment.

Can you blame them for feeling as though the conventional avenues might not be a viable option?

And there's still more to this. A characteristically brilliant piece by Matt Taibbi hits the nail squarely on the head:

Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It's about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one's own culture, this is it....

People want out of this fiendish system, rigged to inexorably circumvent every hope we have for a more balanced world. They want major changes. I think I understand now that this is what the Occupy movement is all about. It's about dropping out, if only for a moment, and trying something new, the same way that the civil rights movement of the 1960s strived to create a "beloved community" free of racial segregation. Eventually the Occupy movement will need to be specific about how it wants to change the world. But for right now, it just needs to grow. And if it wants to sleep on the streets for a while and not structure itself into a traditional campaign of grassroots organizing, it should. It doesn't need to tell the world what it wants. It is succeeding, for now, just by being something different.

Let's pull out our cultural barometer and see what's in the air right now.

The acquaintance we heard from above blithely admits that people are getting fucked by the system. We know and accept that our government is broken, our politicians are bought, and nobody in power has the balls to give our most pressing issues anything more than lip service; we understand that the Supreme Court has basically tossed aside judicial impartiality, but we're also aware that nobody will listen if we complain. We know that the bankers who crashed the economy have gotten off scot-free and are still making billions of dollars ripping off the have-nots and helping the haves turn their money into more money, and most of us are apparently perfectly willing to let this slide. We accept that climate change is going to drown our cities and decimate our agricultural capacity, and we're not doing a thing to prevent or prepare for it. We know the food we eat is probably killing us, but that's cool too. We know the folks in the board rooms at our inescapable multinational corporations care singularly about profits, but we've come to expect that from them and learned to live with it. We've embraced the emptiness of our culture to the extent that we now celebrate vacuous bullshit with a lack of irony that would make Andy Warhol's speed-addled brain turn somersaults, and we're tired of trying to resist it. You already know all this; you don't need to be told. Nobody approves of how things are going and nobody's happy with how they are, but we've convinced ourselves that we have no choice but to shake our heads, take our stress-reliever of choice, and get on with our lives as they are, because nothing we do will make an ounce of difference.

And when a motley group of students, hippies, literati, and urbanites devises a model (albeit temporary) alternative and propose that things should be and can be different, we castigate and tear them down for having the nerve not to resign themselves to the insufferable status quo that the rest of us invited on ourselves and continue to hoist upon our backs.

The losers had it coming. God bless America.


  1. You know, I wonder, why the mayor did that, or spun it like that. I'd expect any politician to be canny and manipulative, but I don't know if he actually made the choice or wanted to take credit for something done by others to save face. Anyways, his sound bite was not meant to address or convince you so much as to signal to those who agree with him. Like this: http://lesswrong.com/lw/jb/applause_lights/ or half of the entries of this blog http://www.overcomingbias.com/

    Likewise I wonder how much of the media was crafted to control people/ideas and how much to build ratings? Did they push for this to end so there would be a neat little ending to the narrative? Every little thing I imagine multiple motivations for.

    *sigh* I guess I'm used to people saying things to communicate sides rather than describe reality. There are some people who take disagreement to mean dislike. I have to have mental tools for explaining this is not what I am doing.

    https://mail.google.com/mail/?ui=2&view=bsp&ver=ohhl4rw8mbn4 does not work if I am not logged into your gmail account.

  2. Whoa! Didn't notice the busted link. Thanks.

    Now -- when you say "Likewise I wonder how much of the media was crafted to control people/ideas and how much to build ratings?" do you mean the media pieces related to these current events, or are you referring to the telecom industry in general?

  3. Coming from a developing nation (something that I've already mentioned in this comments section,) where social injustice and a much bigger divide between classes exist, I can tell you how much I wish anyone had the balls to do something like OWS... however, I'm afraid we're way too far gone for that.

    We live in the social environment the US is heading to right now, as you expose it: Everyone knows corruption in the government is rife; everyone knows that there have been -and probably there still are- nexus between the government, the big corporations and the illegal armed groups/drug lords/organized crime; everyone knows that all media is in the hands of relatives and friends from people with high positions in the government including the president himself.

    Everyone knows this and it's not even that they pretend not to. It's widely discussed among the common people and regularly exposed by third parties. Then what's the problem? Why there's nothing done about any of this?

    There was a time when people were afraid to intervene: lots of good men and women who dared to raise their voice against corruption and injustice were silenced by what today it's been proven were illegal armed groups acting as some important politicians' personal hitmen. Something akin to what happened in NY, if a bit more underhanded.

    Nowadays people is no longer afraid because no one dares to raise their voice anymore. We now craft reasoning and justifications to willingly help maintain the status quo: if you'd point how a given politician is clearly corrupt, people will heatedly "defend" him, pointing all the good things he actually has done (more likely credited himself with in inflated or outright fake press-releases,) which should be more than enough to make up for the "peccadillo" of corruption which is something that apparently comes with the profession. Leftist groups or individuals are constantly demonized and mocked by the common people and serious discussions on the matter of social injustice among friends usually end with resigned "oh well, that's how it is," or "it could be worse."

    Let our enforced current slackness of wrist be a cautionary tale.

  4. Both, although I only used examples from #occupy to keep it ambiguous on purpose.

    Having a 2 party system that correspond to 2 sides of every debate makes it easy for the media to rile people up. So they encourage it. This is for ratings; a stable 'us versus them' benefits Fox News and CNN alike, bashing each other for a decade strong. They seem so petty because they aren't even using their power to shape the future on purpose, the shape of the future is a side effect of their reinforcing their power.

    And it's really easy to get over the hurdles in small scale conversation. Lefties have shitty scaremongering politics about guns, Righties about gays, and most constituents on either side agree, or could upon a simple talk. Guns are a cool hobby and an equalizer of strength that prevents victimization of the small. Men aren't the only ones skeeved out when hit on by ugly guys, and some people don't think all guys are ugly anyways.

    But for those speaking to masses, signalling sides gets the most consistent results. 'Boo guns' becomes synonymous with 'empathic view of equality' or 'Boo gays' becomes equivalent to 'Protect your family by all means available.' Raw human nature is not conductive to justice; the lowest common denominator is actually what people have in common.

    You know, I think the food banks are what keep people from burning down the mansions of the rich. I really do; welfare prevents people from getting angry enough for a violent communism revolution. The rich can choose where to live most easily of all, and America has a long history of accepting people who were afraid of getting lynched at home. We have been absorbing wage gaps from elsewhere.

    It's a funny way of saying 'that's the way it is' that is more 'that's the way it has been heading towards due to social forces created not towards this as a goal, but which nevertheless made this inevitable.'

    If the rich remember to keep the rabble fed, there will not be enough anger to violently oust them. Them. Us versus Them. I am trapped in a mind that frames every story 'Us versus Them' and I can't get out.

  5. I've always been a fan of anarchy, not so much as a practical system, but one that certain concepts can be taken from and applied to our current government. I don't know how well 'true' anarchy would work in a real life situation, it's never really been done on a large scale, but nonetheless many concepts seem like they could solve many of the things OWS is/was fighting for. If anyone is interested, here is a classic article from the early 80s that describes some of the fundamental points of anarchy, http://www.radical.org.uk/anarchism/

  6. What a coincidence, you posted about income inequality, political corruption, etc again and I finally finished my business abstract which out-lines how most problems you brought up can be solved (although not directly, rather, as an obvious side effect). There are 2 and both are 2 pages, would anyone like to read one?

  7. Mao: As I expose it? Hah! You give me too much credit.

    I guess social ruts are no different from personal ones: the populace is not happy with the way things are, but lacks the willpower to pull itself out -- or feels anxious what will happen once they've left the relative safety of the doldrums. I guess this might be also why it is less often the case that change comes as a result of proactive effort than from irresistible external pressure -- which is unfortunate, because irresistible external pressure usually means destabilization.

    Interesting times.

    Spriteless: Us Vs. Them is the history and foundation of stable civilization. Read a book called "Ape and Essence" by Huxley. The book doesn't wholly focus on the topic, but touches upon it very astutely in a later chapter. (So does Watchmen, actually. Remember it is the fear of an alien invasion that Ozy uses to unite the warring superpowers.)

    Maybe someday we'll be smart and creative enough to conceive an alternative.

    NBas: I agree. I don't see a completely decentralized system working on a national scale anywhere in the developed world, but there are a lot of principles here I wouldn't mind seeing put into practice or at least given more consideration.

    That's how's been from every utopian proposal since Plato's Republic. There's plenty of stuff to like in these models, but just as much stuff that would lead to some pretty huge problems when taken off the page and implemented into reality.

    I guess there's another inevitable theme of history: the solution to one crop of problems becomes the seed for another. "Utopia" means "no place" for a very good reason.

    Zade: Why not post them here?