Will the Occupy Wall Street Movement Change the Course of History?

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A Reflection on the Protests from Occupy Mobile

Guest Column
by David Underhill

Perhaps it’s true that the people united will never be defeated. But they can be arrested.

That was the local Alabama authorities’ instinctive reaction to the uprisings of the 1960s. And it worked really well — if rights and consequences are no concern.

Find a reason, in some obscure or rarely enforced municipal ordinance, to arrest the agitators. Or just invent an offense, snatch the pesky ones, and drag them away. Rights have no role in this drama.

The plot is simple: Make the troublemakers disappear, tangle them in legal proceedings, bust their budgets with bail and fines and lawyer fees, and scare off sympathizers who see all this and decide to cower.

And that’s the end of it. Unless the arrested are a ripple from some larger phenomenon gaining strength and momentum. Then arrests, harassment, and outright assault will have opposite consequences. They will provoke more resistance, not stifle it.

The Occupy movement teeters on this pivot. And evidence accumulates that decisions are being made, maybe through agencies like Homeland Security, to apply the instinctive squash nationally — before momentum can gather.

A prominent participant in Occupy Mobile was arrested Thursday, November 17 for trying to follow the rules. He and a few others had gone to Government Plaza, the joint city-county-court complex to request a slot on the agenda of the next city council meeting. Guards at the security funnel told him only two from his group could go to the clerk’s office to sign up.

For anybody familiar with the procedure, this was a new and peculiar rule. The young man asked why just two could go, and he was swiftly handcuffed and hustled off, under some fanciful charge of obstructing government operations.

A few blocks away others from Occupy Mobile were offering meals to the homeless. They had set up behind the sidewalk in the entryway of an abandoned building. They were impeding no passersby and bothering nobody — except perhaps those who dislike seeing hungry people receiving free food along a major downtown street.

But a mounted police squad had been positioned across the street. Four officers were astride horses standing shoulder to shoulder and aimed toward the food servers. In a parade the police department’s mounted unit is festive and impressive. In this setting with this alignment it becomes the PD cavalry, the helmeted riders in tight formation stirring memories of medieval knights in the lord’s service tramping serfs and conquistadors charging Aztecs and Incas. They were there to intimidate, not to protect and serve, as police departments like to describe themselves.

Nor had they come to protect and serve the week before at a nearby park. After several poster-bearing forays along downtown streets, the loose cluster of Occupy Mobilians decided to join the encamped Occupy ranks. They moved into a park, which soon sprouted a tent town small by the standards of Occupy Wall Street but big by the standards of anybody who has ever tried to spark any type of activism in Mobile.

And it had one major advantage over most other Occupy outposts: Symbolism.

Only a narrow street separated the chosen park from the chamber of commerce, local headquarters of the One Percenters, now with the Ninety-Nine Percenters as next door neighbors.

That odd coupling lasted just days. The arrival of mid-level officials with grave faces signaled trouble to come. Flak catchers they were called in the ’60s. Underlings sent by the deciders to inform the rabble of their fate. Most of these bearers of bad tidings, civilian bureaucrats and police officers, were black, as are the mayor and many other top officials of the city. Most of the encamped Occupiers were white.

The results were weird. These black officials enjoyed their status and authority because of an earlier radical movement that broke whites’ discriminatory laws to create a new order. Now black officials of this order were solemnly instructing white protestors that they must vacate the park, because they were breaking the law by being there.

Exactly what law this might be wasn’t exactly clear. Sometimes the story was that Occupy must leave because city parks close at dusk. Other times closure was pegged to the clock not to the light. Either way, campers pointed out examples of city parks routinely used at late hours with nobody being hassled or arrested.

Then the story changed to demonstrating or picketing without a permit and while clumped too close together. This prompted Occupiers to remind the officials that some of these rules they sought to enforce had been created to thwart the civil rights movement that produced their current titles and paychecks.

Then the story changed to……

And the shifting stories were bolstered by the PD cavalry, alongside the park, noses toward the encampment, waiting for the bugle to signal Charge!

Finally the story became patriotism, veterans, and respect. Veterans Day approached on Friday the 11th. This park would be an assembly point for the parading vets. A reviewing stand would be erected for dignitaries. And bleachers for the public. Having all this happening at the park with the Occupy encampment stirred into the mix would be logistically impossible. Most of all, it would be disrespectful to the vets.

Some Occupiers agreed with this pitch. Some thought staying, square in the midst of the vets’ fest, would honor the vets for protecting the right to engage in just this sort of free expression — and a sign over the encampment should say so.

After thorough and meticulously democratic discussion and debate — followed by even more discussion and debate — the decision was to leave, for the vets’ sake.

And it turned out that none of the official info fueling this labored decision was true. Veterans Day arrived a couple days later, but the envisioned structures and marching assemblies in the park did not. There were no bleachers or reviewing stand, nor any marshaling of paraders. Nothing.

The park was in normal use, and everything related to Veterans Day was in front of the chamber of commerce building across the street. These things consisted of a small reviewing stand fashioned from a trailer bed and a few short rows of folding chairs. That’s all.

Many of the Occupy Mobilians didn’t see this evidence of the deception. They were in jail.

They had taken down their tents and tarps, their library and kitchen, their banners and posters. And they had moved — themselves but not their encampment — to a small park at the intersection of several busy streets two miles away.

There the police force came in darkness. On an Internet video the Occupiers can be heard singing God Bless America as the agents of law and order arrest them for criminal trespass in a public park. Since 9-11 made this song a staple of sporting and other events, perhaps they adopted it from those venues.

But they’re also singing This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land. That’s a leftover from the Great Depression years and the radical risings it spawned.

Then they launch into a chant of “the whole world is watching, the whole world is watching…” That dates from the 1968 Democratic party convention in Chicago, where hippies and anti-Vietnam-war militants were beaten down by the police and vilified by much of the public for objecting to war. But a commission of inquiry later described the ugly scene in the streets as a police riot.

And they chant “the people united will never be defeated, the people united…” That too is a legacy of the same era, the civil rights and Black Panther party branch of the ’60s.

Those with no such agenda, but worse behavior, will not be arrested. Just a couple nights after Occupy Mobile went to occupy metro jail, a high school football playoff game at a nearby stadium brought fans of the victorious team to the same park with paint and brushes. At this triangular park’s tip is an ancient and large cannon celebrating some war or other. Tradition says partisans of the winners in big games may paint the cannon their school colors.

So they were totally coating the cannon with orange paint — in plain view of several lanes of passing traffic. Nobody stopped to stop them. Nobody called 911. Nobody got arrested.

A stickler for legality could note that they were defacing, if not damaging, public property. But nothing severe would happen to them. Although flagrantly violating the law, they were adhering to the established ways, not challenging them. That confers immunity.

The Occupiers’ mass midnight arrest at the same park came shortly after a similar thing in Oakland and shortly before a similar thing in New York. The sweeps continue in other cities, and apparent leaders are being singled out and picked off, as just happened in Mobile.

If this pattern isn’t explicitly coordinated at the highest levels, it’s certainly a contagion at lower levels. Whether it succeeds in crushing the fledgling Occupy movement before it can take flight will depend on whether this period of history contains an urge and resolve to change like the ’60s did.

If it does, the repression will fail and some sort of new order will arise. It will not be a better one unless the Occupiers, among others, define and enact one.

The ’60s didn’t give birth to any imagined utopia. But they surely bent the arc of history.

© 2011, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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