‘Occupy’ protests being shut down

Various ‘Occupy’ protests around North America are being shut down on the orders of city governments, and apparently by means of police driving everyone out in the middle of the night and arresting those who remain. Regardless of the politics of the protestors, this is objectionable. While it is fair enough for cities to try to maintain safe conditions in the encampments, it doesn’t seem necessary to use such heavy-handed tactics to do so. They could correct potential fire hazards one at a time, clean the parks in segments without evicting everyone, and so on. The current approach seems unnecessarily violent and not respectful of the right of the protestors to speak and assemble – rights that trump superficial concerns like grass getting trampled.

An incoherent movement

While I object to the manner of these evictions, I continue to see limited value in the ‘Occupy’ protests themselves. There are definitely reasons to be concerned about things like the regulation of the financial sector and social justice issues generally. The way in which those in extreme poverty are treated by our society is deeply objectionable. At the same time, I think it is fair to say that the ‘Occupy’ movement lacks coherence and political savvy. While the particular democratic approach being employed seems to be gratifying for participants, it prevents the movement from articulating clear demands that can penetrate into the political system or even into the wider public discussion in a discrete way.

I also think the protestors have an inflated sense about their level of public support. They claim to represent 99% of the population, but it seems clear that 99% of the population does not want what they want – at least in terms of radical redistribution of income, or the wholesale modification of the corporate capitalist system that predominates in North America today. Most people are reasonably happy with the status quo, which is why the ‘Occupy’ movement is marginalized and confined to a few parks.

Part of the reason for that inflated sense of popularity probably comes from the ease with which the media can be captivated by the sort of stories the ‘Occupy’ movement produces: clashes between protestors and police, heated arguments within municipal politics, colourful signs and soundbites, and pundits arguing energetically. ‘Occupy’ has been all over the news, despite how there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of intellectual substance behind it.

The political situation

The political situation in North America is certainly discouraging for those who favour redistribution of wealth (a group that includes many traditionally identified as part of the political ‘left’). In Canada, the Liberal Party have been in disarray for years. It has performed poorly in successive elections and lacks an inspiring candidate for leadership or a clear sense of how to restore itself as a plausible government. The right is united and the left is a mess, which is the major reason why right-leaning governments have endured and strengthened in recent years.

In the United States, a left-leaning president has become quite unpopular, largely as a result of ongoing economic problems that are basically an accident as far as he is concerned. He inherited a big mess and has been fixated on trying to sort it out, fully aware that his re-election prospects depend more on that than on anything else. His efforts to produce growth and reduce unemployment have not been terribly successful (though you can argue that things would have been far worse without them) and he has sacrificed most of his other priorities to achieve what little he has on the economy. (Health is the only other area where he has devoted substantial effort, and it remains to be seen whether that will be picked apart.)

The state of the right-leaning party in the United States might be the most depressing thing about North American politics. The leadership candidates are mostly clowns, and the one who is most credible (Romney) has been driven to say some awfully discouraging things by his more populist rivals. It is deeply worrisome to see how little American Republicans care about empirical evidence and science, and frightening to think what policies would come out of a new Republican administration, regardless of which specific candidate leads it.

‘Occupy’ in context

The political left is a mess, so the prospects for more redistribution through the ordinary political system are poor. That may explain the effort to sidestep politics as usual through encampments and attempts to engage with the population directly.

And yet, I don’t think the general population is being convinced by the arguments the occupiers are making. They recognize that there are important problems being identified, but ‘Occupy’ doesn’t seem capable of managing and sustaining itself as a movement, much less of being the source for major political or economic changes in society as a whole. Their criticisms are more convincing than their proposed solutions, insofar as a clear set of proposals can even be discerned.

Eventually, some combination of official pressure, bad weather, and sheer exhaustion will probably lead to the end of the encampments. It is not clear to me that they will have any legacy worth pointing to. They demonstrate that people are unhappy with the state of politics and the economic order of society, but they do not seem like the start of an effective movement to alter either of those things.

For those who want to reduce economic inequality in society – a project that I do not fully endorse personally – I think the task that needs to be undertaken is the rebuilding of the left within conventional politics. The Liberals the the NDP need to be brought together in Canada, and they need to craft a set of policies that can appeal to a majority of the population. The same is true in the United States, in that the Democrats need to find their way after the disappointments of Obama.

Redistribution versus decarbonization

What worries me most is that the most necessary political project is not one that really has any popular support to speak of. I am talking about the preservation of the habitability of the planet. It is a task that is essential to the welfare of future generations, but which primarily requires sacrifice from the generation that is making decisions now. It may be that when you rank all the human beings who will ever live, including those in the past and those yet to be born, virtually everyone alive today is part of the 1% who are the wealthiest and most privileged.

George Monbiot captures this well, in saying: “[Decarbonization] is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.”

The way I see it, extreme poverty and the treatment of mentally ill are major moral failings in North American society which ought to be prioritized within the political system. The simple redistribution of income from the wealthy to the poor and/or the middle class is a less important project, and one that is more morally questionable. The decarbonization of the global economy, by contrast, is a critically important project of enormous moral importance. It is more important than preventing future banking crises, and certainly more important than reducing the gap between those who travel by private jet and those who travel by Greyhound. Preventing future banking crises may be a precondition for decarbonization – since economic turmoil sucks the air out of politics and effectively forbids politicians from working on anything else – but that is an instrumental rather than a fundamental argument for increasing financial stability. Decarbonization also cannot survive as exclusively a movement of the left. It must become post-partisan. As such, the linkages between the movement to fight climate change and the ‘Occupy’ movement may be counterproductive in the long run.

Ultimately, I think our generation will be judged on how quickly we move beyond fossil fuels and how effectively we develop and deploy zero-carbon energy options. Decarbonization is the means by which we can reduce the terrifying risks associated with climate change, and zero carbon energy will be the basis for whatever level of prosperity is actually sustainable for the indefinite future of human life.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

28 thoughts on “‘Occupy’ protests being shut down”

  1. It goes without saying that politics is a dirty system. It’s so dirty that I believe there are only three reasonable approaches to politics: apathy/despair, overthrowing the system, or playing dirty to win. I’ll assume that the apathetics either aren’t reading this or will soon stop reading to go watch cat videos on YouTube. The second option, revolution, is growing more plausible, and the climate movement should fully support those efforts. The occupations of Wall Street and D.C. have found a weak spot in the wall of corporate power that keeps people out of the halls of influence. Everyone needs to push that spot until we break through the wall and have a new constitutional convention to establish a democracy in this country.

  2. The POUS is the most influential person in the world. Obama holds that position and foreseeably will be re-elected. Providing health care coverage for the majority of uncovered Americans is a major accomplishment. He has been constrained by a Republican Congress and generally a downturn in the American economy. 5 more years of his administration would take us further down a progressive road. I maintain hope.

  3. I have mostly been following the Occupy Vancouver event. I have probably been to the site a dozen times and a total of 5 to 8 hours. I have attended 4 general assemblies. I have also been following media coverage.

    “Heavy handed police action” does not apply to this location. The police did step in to protect fire officials who were putting out a barrrel fire which the protesters described as a “sacred fire”. I heard that two police officers were bitten and one kicked in the groin. I cannot recall if any participant of Occupy Vancouver was injured, arrested or removed from the site during that event. That is as “heavy handed” as has occured to date.

    The article on the subject in the Globe and Mail yesterday by Elizabeth Church reports that Vancouver has gone further than Toronto
    The city has applied for an injunction. about 13 days ago. The application will be heard over the next three days before the Associate Chief Justice. That will likely govern what will occur.

    I no longer see Occupy Vancouver as primarily a protest. It is an encampment on public space. In the general assemblies which last about one to two hours there is discussion, which is consistent with protest. I also see a waning of protest or concern with the original goals of freedom of expression in these assemblies.

    These assemblies can continue without the encampment. At this point there are about 75 to 100 people in attendance. The original rally on the first day had 4000. I expect that if Occupy Vancouver wanted to continue thto meet daily at the Art Gallery they would be allowed to do so for the hour or two that it occur.

  4. The protesters have few small problems. What they have is one big problem. Even if the cops don’t crack down, and the city lets them stay—and that’s where things were at on Tuesday—then what’s to gain from continuing the occupation? Why stay in the parks?

    That’s the discussion that the Occupy intelligentsia (no, I’m not inventing that phrase) is having right now. On Monday night, right before the New York raid, a new “tactical briefing” went up at AdBusters. The Canadian consumerism-smashing magazine, whose editors had dreamed up the Occupation way back in February, raised two possibilities for the movement’s future.

    “STRATEGY #1: We summon our strength, grit our teeth and hang in there through winter,” wrote the magazine’s Culture Jammers. 

    “STRATEGY #2: We declare “victory” and throw a party … a festival … a potlatch … a jubilee … a grand gesture to celebrate, commemorate, rejoice in how far we’ve come, the comrades we’ve made, the glorious days ahead.” 

    Choose Door No. 2, and most of the movement goes to the “high ground.”

  5. Bloomberg and [Police Commissioner Ray] Kelly have breathed new life into what had been a struggling political movement. First, their brief eviction helped split the occupiers from Zuccotti Park itself, which had become a sometimes shady, frequently overpacked and unpleasant place. The park that was supposed to be a model society — and had become the star around which other cities’ occupations rotated — had become a burden to many of the organizers. Even the culture jammers at Adbusters, credited with calling for a day of action, which in turn sparked the occupation, argued on Monday it was time to move on from the parks.

    The one-two punch of the police eviction and court decision gave purpose back to a broader movement that has lately seemed adrift.

  6. At the onset, Occupy Vancouver provided a nice contrast to the hockey riots that we had here last year. There was something quite innocent about the assemblies and the general spirit of the place. I attended some of the assemblies and had lunch at their kitchen with some of my students. when David Suzuki came to speak there, he provided a definite boost of energy to the movement. Lately it has really started to decline and it feels more like a slum. Even so, I think that the movement has succeeded if only to raise awareness. There is not much that this group could have achieved in terms of change in policy.

  7. In yet another midnight police raid, Occupy Dallas eviction under way

    “Dozens of Dallas Police officers holding shields, batons and wearing helmets about to enter the #Occupy camp,” tweets WFAA (Dallas, TX) reporter Jason Whitely.
    By various reports, about 50 Occupy Dallas protestors are gathered. Police are in riot gear.

    Media were ordered by police to move away from the camp (at a distance that would make direct observation impossible), or face arrest along with protesters, according to various sources.

  8. America has swiftly soured on the Occupy Wall Street movement. OWS is now even less loved than the positively ancient tea-party movement. David Weigel plumbs the trends from the last two surveys from Public Policy Polling:

    Do you support or oppose the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement?

    Support: 33% (-2) Oppose: 45% (+9)

    Do you have a higher opinion of the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Tea Party movement?

    Occupy: 37% (-3)Tea Party: 43% (+3)

    Mr Weigel suggests that OWS’s fall from favour is “a reflection of a steady thrum-thrum of viral Internet articles and local news reports about the dark side of Occupation…”

  9. Violence and Vandalism Don’t Threaten the System, Occupy’s Positive Image Does

    We were confronted on Wednesday by two images of violence on college campuses.

    On the one hand, there were the students at UC Berkeley who had to do nothing more than link arms and chant in order to incur repeated thrusts of police batons to the gut. The campus police’s unprovoked violence against the peacefully protesting students, who were part of an Occupy Cal protest, elicited chants of “Stop beating students!” from the comrades of those being beaten.

    On the other hand, there were the students at Penn State, who rioted, tearing down lampposts and overturning a news van, in retaliation for their school’s decision to fire their football coach who, however successful his record on the gridiron, had concealed child rape for years. One of the lampposts fell into a crowd of students. A number of the rioters threw rocks and fireworks at police.

    The takeaway was obvious: rioting requires no courage, no moral righteousness, no intelligence and no revolutionary spirit – just rage.

  10. Follow along. If the vaguely defined “1 percent” have all the power, then no amount of sign-waving, slogan-chanting or locale-occupation will have any influence. It’d be like trying to get the Pope to let someone else be infallible once in a while. So if the protests end in any status other than quo, then the 1 percent is a myth, normal people have plenty of influence, and the protestors were just wasting everyone’s time.

    However, if the Occupy movement dies without inspiring any substantial changes in the U.S. political scene, then it will prove that they were right all along.

    In other words, the Occupy movement can only succeed by failing completely.

  11. A few days ago the philosopher Slavoj Zizek showed up at Zuccotti Park and addressed the protesters. In his thick Slovenian accent he spoke about the grave importance of the protest, beyond just being some vague symbol of populist anger. He said, “I don’t want you to remember these days as ‘oh, we were young and it was beautiful.’ Remember that our basic message is: ‘We are allowed to think about alternatives.’ A taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world.” We are allowed, according to Zizek, to not only imagine a better world. We are allowed to expect it, to demand it. Only then would it be possible. Dare to struggle, dare to win.

  12. I went to the Occupy Vancouver site on about 15 occasions, watched 4 general assemblies for about one hour each and was there for a total of about 8 to 10 hours. I found it quite interesting. At first I was struck by the process and then the idealism. As the weeks passed, the effectiveness seemed to run its course. The 50 or so occupants seemed to spend a lot of time just well passing the time. It became more of community for homeless people, and some remaining die hard idealists. One overreach was to claim representation of the 99%. Actually in Canada I expect over 99% of people are not homeless. I think two weeks would have been enough to have made the point and left with some greater sense of accomplishment. The Occupy movement did succeed in raising awareness and discussion. I wonder what its legacy will be.

  13. I think that Occupy Vancouver is a lot more significant than I initially thought. At first I was excited by the young people and their hope that in our society change could be achieved . Their in-your-face approach was great and provided a sharp contrast to our affluent city core. I think that many people were quite startled and shaken up by their action. As time went by, much energy was devoted to criticism and humoring of their effort. I would like to think that it is just the beginning of something larger as more and more people realize that our world order is unjust, immoral and unsustainable. In my eyes it was a brilliant idea and it will come back perhaps in a different form.

  14. How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the OWS Protests

    Much more than a movement against big banks, they’re a rejection of what our society has become.

    I have a confession to make. At first, I misunderstood Occupy Wall Street.

    The first few times I went down to Zuccotti Park, I came away with mixed feelings. I loved the energy and was amazed by the obvious organic appeal of the movement, the way it was growing on its own. But my initial impression was that it would not be taken very seriously by the Citibanks and Goldman Sachs of the world. You could put 50,000 angry protesters on Wall Street, 100,000 even, and Lloyd Blankfein is probably not going to break a sweat. He knows he’s not going to wake up tomorrow and see Cornel West or Richard Trumka running the Federal Reserve. He knows modern finance is a giant mechanical parasite that only an expert surgeon can remove. Yell and scream all you want, but he and his fellow financial Frankensteins are the only ones who know how to turn the machine off.

    That’s what I was thinking during the first few weeks of the protests. But I’m beginning to see another angle. 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. And by being so broad in scope and so elemental in its motivation, it’s flown over the heads of many on both the right and the left.

  15. The police in their own way are symbols of the problem. All over the country, thousands of armed cops have been deployed to stand around and surveil and even assault the polite crowds of Occupy protesters. This deployment of law-enforcement resources already dwarfs the amount of money and manpower that the government “committed” to fighting crime and corruption during the financial crisis. One OWS protester steps in the wrong place, and she immediately has police roping her off like wayward cattle. But in the skyscrapers above the protests, anything goes.

    This is a profound statement about who law enforcement works for in this country. What happened on Wall Street over the past decade was an unparalleled crime wave. Yet at most, maybe 1,500 federal agents were policing that beat – and that little group of financial cops barely made any cases at all. Yet when thousands of ordinary people hit the streets with the express purpose of obeying the law and demonstrating their patriotism through peaceful protest, the police response is immediate and massive. There have already been hundreds of arrests, which is hundreds more than we ever saw during the years when Wall Street bankers were stealing billions of dollars from retirees and mutual-fund holders and carpenters unions through the mass sales of fraudulent mortgage-backed securities.

  16. The 1 percent is vastly more politically active. In the Chicago sample, 99 percent reported voting in 2008; in the 2008 American National Election Study, only 78 percent of a nationally representative sample reported voting. Both numbers are probably inflated – nowhere near 78 percent of Americans actually voted in 2008 — but it seems unlikely that misleading survey responses would fully account for the gap between the 1 percent and Americans as a whole. Other measures of participation show even larger gaps. For example, 41 percent of the very wealthy reported attending a political meeting. Only 9 percent of Americans did so in 2008. And 68 percent of the very wealthy reported giving money to a political candidate, party, or cause in the last four years. In 2008–a year in which “small donors” were numerous–only 13 percent of Americans donated to a political candidate or party. Again, there are small differences in the wording of the questions between the two surveys, but they are not likely responsible for the 55-point gap.

  17. It is hard to imagine a more thorough rebuke of these arguments than that delivered by Jed Rakoff, a New York district judge, in rejecting a $285m settlement between Citigroup and the SEC.

    The case involved a fund that, it is alleged, the bank had designed to fail. The subsequent implosion cost investors $700m while earning Citi $160m. Mr Rakoff called the settlement not just a betrayal of the public interest, but the product of an approach “hallowed by history but not by reason” that provided the SEC with little beyond a “quick headline”. Settling without establishing the facts “is worse than mindless, it is inherently dangerous,” Mr Rakoff wrote.

    If the unproven allegations were correct, they constituted a violation of core principles of securities laws. Citi, said the SEC in its complaint, created a billion-dollar fund half-full of wretched mortgages. It then bet against it, earning fees on both ends of the transaction. Investors were not told of Citi’s role in choosing securities, nor how it stood to benefit if defaults ensued.

  18. Occupy Davos? Leaders greeted by doubts about capitalism

    The deep snow in Davos this year is no surprise — but the deep doubts about capitalism certainly are. What is Stephen Harper getting himself into?

    For decades, this ritzy Swiss resort has hosted an annual celebration of capitalism where luxurious Audis ferry potentates and presidents between lavish hotels so they can bemoan the perils of socialism, high taxes and debt. And yet, this year, the veteran founder and Chairman of the Davos World Economic Forum, Professor Klaus Schwab, declares that “Capitalism, in its current form, no longer fits the world around us.”

  19. But these books are more or less boosterish. None examines the movement’s basic goals in depth; instead, they exemplify its unwieldy belief in letting every voice be heard. This pluralism makes the Occupiers very good at talking to themselves, but less good at making themselves understood to outsiders, even sympathetic ones. This may be one reason why a movement that claims to represent 99% of the population has managed to mobilise only a small fraction of its constituents.

  20. NYPD (Quietly) Credits Occupy For Helping Fight Post-Sandy Crime

    As my colleague Katherine Goldstein reported last month, Occupy Wall Street was quick to set up shop to help people recover in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, collecting and handing out donations in New York City for those impacted by the superstorm. She closed her dispatch with this line: “I imagine both concerned New Yorkers and storm victims alike will remember who was out on the front lines.” Turns out, they have. And, perhaps even more surprisingly, it looks like we can count NYPD officers among that group.

  21. If you think protest is finished in Hong Kong, think again

    The next stand-off could be uglier

    Nothing, apparently, to show for all that youthful energy, then. Three of Occupy’s student organisers are serving prison terms of six to eight months for unlawful assembly. The three who conceived of Occupy face charges too. Half a dozen pro-democracy legislators have been turfed out of office on trumped-up technicalities. And the pan-democratic camp is riven between traditional democrats calling for the autonomy promised in the Basic Law, China’s mini-constitution for Hong Kong, and more radical “localists”, some of whom espouse outright independence.

    Chinese officials urge Hong Kong to return to being an “economic” city. Whatever that means: the idea of an apathetic populace interested only in material gain is fanciful. A long and admirable history shows Hong Kongers persistently demanding more say in their affairs—starting under colonial rule in the 1960s and 1970s when they organised against poor living conditions, inferior education and rampant corruption. Stephen Vines, a local commentator, speaks of a “golden thread” that runs through these early protests to the more recent ones. Mr Xi hasn’t heard the last of Hong Kong. Those who were politically baptised during the Occupy movement will be around longer than he will.

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