Confrontations Designed to Reveal Ugly Truths

One of the great achievements of the Occupy Wall Street movement, after only six weeks of protest, has been its unmasking of some deeply entrenched illusions about our rights of free speech, access to public spaces and the meaning of democracy. OWS has done this not with words alone (truth-telling tends to be consigned to the fringes of respectable opinion), but through mostly peaceful public confrontations of Power. 

As we saw in the Sixties, it takes such direct confrontations to force Power to reveal ugly truths that otherwise must be masked.  In the case of the Occupy protests, it is the truth that public spaces do not really belong to the citizenry; that private powers can curb dissent through procedural pretexts notwithstanding the First Amendment; and that democratic accountability as now practiced in the American empire is mostly a charade.

When an outburst of real democracy emerges, as it has in hundreds of Occupy cities, it sends shockwaves of fear throughout the political establishment and business – because real democracy advances a whole set of interests that are anathema to the elite consensus and pseudo-democracy that now prevails. 

Blogger Namiza Naqvi makes some penetrating points about these issues in a fascinating post about the re-privatization of public spaces.  Naqvi writes:

"An overarching issue is the public versus private ownership in everything from police to politicians to parks to property all over the planet in its cities and its villages. Whether it is a military or it is police the purpose seems to be to serve this end of privatization.

"The reaction by the law enforcement agencies to the [Occupy] protests have proven that people protesting the occupation or privatization of public property are viewed as criminals by the privately owned 21st century state..... In the eleventh hour of the 21st century in Times Square: I watched the police pushing the barricades even further in on the sidewalk cramming the demonstrators even further on an already narrow space and creating a potential crisis if the crowd got jammed in and someone fell or a stampede broke out because of all the police on horseback. The police steadily pushed back the barricades and diminished the space where protesters could stand and it seemed that the cops by doing this were forcing the crowds to overflow onto the street and creating the pretense for arresting people for not remaining within the designated area for the protests.  As I watched this situation at Time Square I thought of all the fences and blockades and barricades in other parts of the world where people are squeezed off of their lands—their homelands—their homes razed to the ground and bulldozed turned into private properties---while the people are forced into dangerous environments—flood basins or coastlands or unwelcoming hostile cities in their own or foreign countries—in the path of disaster—or into cities where they have no chance of incomes—living in ghettos—begging, living on the streets homeless—only to be further abused and harassed by police and militaries.  

"This is a global trend of a not so slow and steady move of diminishing public space, this creeping movement to eradicate the public. Now it’s all about this isn’t it: the privatization of public goods and the use of police to protect private property? The protesting of this without a permit is considered a crime.

"…..The protests would show the type of violent push back  (“the oddity of a Marine who faced enemy fire only to be attacked at home” by law enforcement agencies) that becomes immediately visible from the law enforcement agencies, the laws and regulations and the entire apparatus of the State when the people protest and question its credibility.  The protests would show how the entire system moves to discredit and denigrate a demand for accountability and how it insists on erasing dissent.

"The protests have made evident the very severe and dangerous contradictions between what is etched in stone: for the people, by the people of the people versus the unaccountable privatization of everything from police to politicians to parks to property."

It is discomfiting to see the illusions about public space and free speech shattered, but it is also liberating. Finally, some truth.  Finally, citizens can finally begin to “step into history” as agents of change rather than lazily presuming that politicians or news media or think tanks will take care of things.  Three years into "change we can believe in," it is now abundantly clear – Our so-called leaders have other priorities than us, and little interest in accountability.  The system is broken.

The Occupy protests are illuminating in other respects. They are unmasking the many corporate enclosures of the commons that are embedded in the neoliberal market/state -- the Wall Street bailouts, corporate tax evaders, hidden subsidies, commodifications of ecosystems, culture and life itself.  More fundamentally, the Occupy protesters are exposing the enclosures of public space and culture.  No wonder public space has become such a strategic ground of contention.

This was why the Bush II administration made it increasingly dangerous and even criminal to meet in public to air grievances.  Consider the formidable paramilitary forces that greeted protesters at the Republican national conventions. The corporate news media gives scant time or credibility to cultural dissidence (Time magazine recently hailed the return of the "silent majority").  But for the upsurge of public support for the Occupy forces, it is clear that officialdom is eager to declare the Occupations criminal acts, or at least to disperse them.  Their very existence constitutes an indictment of the political establishment.

I love the poster that has emerged from the Occupy world. Printed on a copy of the Bill of Rights, the text reads: “We are not camping. We're assembling peaceably to petition the government for a redress of grievances. This is our permit.”

A severe crisis of legitmacy is brewing.  What remains to be seen is how this will manifest itself and play out.  I heard about the "Mayor" of Occupy Oakland meeting with the "real" Mayor of that city to negotiate the terms of protest ahead.  With public opinion polls showing enormous support for the Occupy movement, this is ominous news for our "official" government.  Is Greece a foretaste of what will materialize here?   

Congress seems determined to ignore the Occupy protests, hoping they will wither away.  And Obama seems mostly interested in co-opting them for his own re-election purposes. This means that the clash between an unresponsive corporate state and the 99% will only intensify in coming weeks.  Will the Occupy networks come up with a political strategy to effect a transformation or reform of the system?  We may soon face a test of whether our constitutional system has itself become an illusion that no longer works.