Monday, December 5, 2011

Ritual Unrest - On the Symbolism of Occupation

On the evening of Thursday, December 1st, at about 8pm, a group of about 150 people operating as Occupy Tampa conducted a march from Curtis Hixon Park in Downtown Tampa to Julian Lane Riverfront Park.  After arriving at Julian Lane, members of the group held a meeting at the park’s ampitheatre and collectively agreed to establish an encampment there.  The group then moved to a small hill, where they pitched a handful of tents.  At 10:56 pm, 13 unmarked Tampa Police Department squad cars pulled into the parking lot of Julian Lane Park, and around 30 police officers moved into the park.  They issued a warning to the group of campers that they were trespassing in the now-closed park.  After allowing several members of the group to exit willingly, the police surrounded those who refused to leave.  Two hours later, 29 people had been arrested for trespassing and, in many cases, resisting arrest.

These facts, like most, do not speak for themselves.

There is little inherent to them that illustrates why these things occurred, or what they meant.  Some in the media and in society at large have chosen to dismiss or diminish them as the mischief of misguided kids or clueless dropouts.  But the larger national situation, in which dozens of similar actions have unfolded as expressions of widespread economic and political grievances , lend them a significance that deserves to be spelled out.

This single event is part of the larger focus of the Occupy movement on freedom of speech and access to the political process.  The element of this movement that most dramatically separates it from the demonstrations that have become conventional since the Civil Rights Movement is the idea of permanent occupation of public space.  This allows for a kind of free speech much more profound than that of demonstrators carrying placards with five-syllable slogans.  Occupation enables conversation, allowing people to meet and come to know one another over days and weeks, not merely hours - and through that to forge strong bonds based on common interest.  Attempts to occupy public space, such as the one in Tampa on Friday, are assertions that if parks are indeed public resources, then there are few more legitimate uses of such space than for discussion of the future of our country, and further, that attempts to put a curfew on such speech are unconstitutional.

That, though, is only the most immediate implication of actions like Friday's.  What may be more profound is the point that was made about the attitude of our society's most powerful towards citizens.  By all accounts, including many I’ve gathered directly from participants, the Tampa Police Department mostly handled themselves professionally and courteously even as they were arresting demonstrators.  Be that as it may, the disturbing absurdity of the situation was hard to miss.  Activities occurring in the park during the two hours before demonstrators were evicted and arrested included group hugs, individuals sharing their motivations for demonstrating, and a meditation circle.  These activities were met with force.

Most political action that has truly resonated over the last century has been of this sort – symbolic, with a concrete and small action taken at a critical point that, when met with government force, points towards the larger and deeper contradictions and injustice of a sociopolitical system.  When Gandhi marched to the sea to make salt, it was not because he wanted to make salt.  In fact, if he had succeeded, the action would not have been as successful.  The attempt was an assertion of the Indian people’s right to economic self-determination – and representatives of the British Empire chose to fully play their own symbolic role as merciless hegemon.  The Freedom Riders did not board busses bound for Mississippi because they actually wanted to go there (god forbid), but to expose much more fundamental problems.  When local police forces assaulted and arrested the Riders, they exposed the southern states’ blatant disrespect for federal law and the values of equality many Americans took for granted.  

Like these movements, Occupy is engaged in the creation of momentary conflicts that expose the oligarchical and authoritarian nature of the system in which we now live.  The point of these actions is certainly not to antagonize or demean the police, but to force those who control them to play their hand more publicly and bluntly than they might like.  The fact that occupations are being so aggressively forestalled displays the governments' deep hostility to the independence of its citizens.

The most important message of this sort of direct action, though, is not its critique of those at the top of the power structure, but its celebration of those closer to the bottom.  In the scale of the problems facing people nationally and globally, spending three hours marching and half a day in jail rank pretty low.  But that nearly 200 people willingly chose to devote slices of their busy lives to this action, and that 29 of them chose to risk financial and professional blowback that we are only tentatively beginning to comprehend, is a testament to the seriousness with which people are committed to this effort.  For many of the organizers of this event, it represented a first attempt at something completely new, an assertion of collective power based on nothing but willpower and time.  It makes one thing abundantly clear – this is not going away.

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