The Occupy movement continues to spring up across America, and the authorities are taking notice.
The attack on protesters in Oakland by a large and heavily-armed police force received particular attention, with one protester struck in the head and severely injured by a police projectile. Video footage shows the protester, Scott Olsen, standing still as projectiles were fired. Then, while Olsen lay on the ground bleeding, a cop threw a stun grenade into a group of protesters who came to his aid.
Police forcibly removed occupiers in San Diego and Rochester and clamped down on those in frigid Denver. And at Occupy Wall Street’s Liberty Park, an electric generator was taken and literature uncovered in the rain during the latest underhanded actions by authorities.
What we see in the clouds of teargas and the handcuffed crowds is the state doing its thing. The state is made of authoritarian power relations backed by force.
The politicians who decide how to direct state force are influenced by people with power. They are often themselves elites before taking office, and they do what they can for those who help keep them in power. They act in the interest of “stability”: Not the stability of the average person, but the stability of the system. Their priority is not for average people to live comfortably in the knowledge that they are on solid ground so long as they work reasonably and help each other. Their priority is to secure the wealth machinery that fuels political power.
But the state’s power comes not only from force but from enough people accepting its exercise of force — believing it is legitimate or believing that they are helpless to stop it.
The state is more than a set of power relations; it’s also the people who make those relations function. And people have the power to decide. This was made clear in Albany, as police resisted calls from politicians to disperse the crowd and instead acted in the interest of public safety. And Arun Gupta notes that police in Allentown, PA were openly supportive of the local Occupation.
Each of the police officers who attacked protesters in Oakland could have said no. Like Bradley Manning, they could have refused complicity in wrongdoing and joined in resisting it. Like Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen did when he became active in anti-war organizations, they can stop doing harm and start healing the harms they’ve dealt.
Unfortunately, the political, social, and economic incentives to obey orders are difficult to overcome. If the people giving the orders are seen as “us” and the protesters seen as “them,” it is less likely for ethical questions to get their due consideration.
But in revolutionary times, unexpected things can happen. A mobilized and conscious populace can deliver massive shocks to power relations, dispersing the power of elites among the people and opening opportunities to create a more just world of liberty and prosperity.