Monday, November 21, 2011

Of Pepper Spray and the New Protest Movements

The older I get, the crankier I become, especially when I look at the current political scene. I have at least been heartened by the Occupy protests, since the fundamental problem of our nation, social inequality, has finally entered mainstream conversation after over thirty years of class warfare by the wealthy. At the same time, I have also been appalled at the violence used against these protests, and rather frustrated at the protests themselves.

As far as the repression of the Occupy protests goes, it has been a litany of injustice, from Oakland's cops putting a marine in a coma to Mayor Bloomberg (and others) clearing off encampments in the dead of night like the cowards that they are to University of California protesters getting billy clubbings to finally, and perhaps most famously, prone, peaceful protesters at UC Davis being attacked by chemical agents wielded by "campus police" behaving like a goon squad. In many ways, we are seeing a lot of chickens come home to roost. In the aftermath of 9/11, our nation reacted hysterically, building up a fearsome and secretive security apparatus. Now we have police on steroids and an internal espionage network, intended to fight terrorists, now being used to crush dissent. The current proclivity towards trigger happy policing, whether the finger be on a taser, can of mace, or gun, has long been apparent to those lacking the wealth or whiteness necessary to avoid daily contact with the cops.

The attacks on student protesters in California point as well to the misplaced priorities in academia. Higher education is now run by administrative apparatchiks, and faculty and students are expected to shut up and stay in their place. Dissent means tenure denial and a billy club to the ribs. California, a state where academic programs have been cut wholesale and tuition has skyrocketed, is a natural place for students to protest the degradation of their education. The fact that the police forces on campuses like UC Davis had the imperial storm trooper gear to dress themselves in bespeaks to an academic world where majors are slashed but luxury dorms are being built, rec centers feature rock-climbing walls, and football coaches are paid millions of dollars while more and more classes are taught by adjuncts on starvation wages. Universities are businesses, and the bells and whistles are good for business. Like the Gilded Age factory owners of yore, those of own the educational means of production today need an armed force to crush any opposition to their rule. If the complete corruption of public higher education wasn't already blindingly obvious, it should be now.

As much as I find the repressions of the Occupy protests to be odious, I have to say that the Occupy protests are fast in danger of losing the plot completely. Is setting up encampments really the most effective means of protest? I really don't think so. The protests now are devolving into disputes with the authorities over the right to camp out in public spaces overnight, which seems to be distracting from the real issues at hand. What's more, winter is coming, making the encampments difficult if not dangerous. The leaderless nature of these protests, and their reliance on consensus, makes them weak and ineffective.

I think the Occupy protests have been a great wake up call, and have raised issues that have too long been ignored. That being said, now that awareness has been raised, it's time for the more traditional organizations to step in and push for substantive change on the issues. Unions need to start organizing, especially in the service sector. The rank and file of the Democratic Party need to push for and get behind candidates willing to do something about social inequality. Faculty and students at universities need to make clear demands for reforms at their institutions. (And I mean realistic, pragmatic demands, not pie in the sky calls for free university education.) Protesting is all well and good, but unless it leads somewhere, it's merely a kind of therapy with shouting.

1 comment:

Shady_Grady said...

This was a pretty good summation. Thanks.