Means to Change: Public Space Occupations

Posted: June 22, 2014 in Anarchism, Livin' in the USA, Politics
Tags: , , , ,

Anarchist Cookbook front cover

(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015)

The tendency of governments the world over to crush public space occupations, and their frequent brutality in doing so, is an indication of the effectiveness of such occupations.

Overseas, one need look back no further than three years ago to see the central role the Tahrir Square occupation played in the overthrow of the Mubarak regime (1941-2011) in Egypt, despite that regime’s brutal attempts to break up the occupation. Look also to the Tiananmen Square occupation in 1989, and its murderous suppression by the Chinese government, in which the military killed several hundred demonstrators.

One notable aspect of the Tiananmen occupation was its peaceful nature and the very moderate demands of the demonstrators. These things made no difference to the regime. It was frightened to death of the Tiananmen occupation, and chose to crush it with troops it brought in from outside the (Beijing) region, for fear that those based locally wouldn’t shoot demonstrators.

Bonus Army-AHere in the U.S., suppression of public space occupations is also the rule, both currently and historically. One prominent example occurred in 1932, with the “Bonus Army” of over 40,000 unemployed World War I veterans and their families occupying public space and setting up an encampment in Washington, D.C.; they were demanding early payment of bonuses the government had promised them in 1924 for serving it during the war. The federal response? The government sent in the army (under the command of right-wing icon Gen. Douglas MacArthur) to drive them out, killing two people in the process.Bonus-B

More recently city governments in apparent collusion with the FBI, DHS, and corporate security firms shut down Occupy Wall Street encampments all across the country in 2011/2012 in what appeared to be a coordinated wave of attacks, sometimes with deliberate brutality. This was despite the peaceful nature of the encampments,  the generally moderate demands of the protesters, and the fact that most of the city governments responsible for the police attacks were controlled  by the supposedly progressive Democratic Party.

The Occupy movement, and its suppression,  here in Tucson is a case in point. (It was obviously not the most significant occupation; I mention it only because I directly witnessed it, and to a limited extent participated in it.) The Occupy encampment here originally occupied a little-used park in the downtown area (Armory Park). Over its first few weeks, the encampment gradually grew. At its high point (when it was shut down), the Armory Park encampment  might have held a hundred people staying overnight and two to three times that many during the day.

With that shut down, the city gave the encampment adequate notice. They evidently thought the occupiers would just disperse and go away. They were wrong. A new, encampment sprang up in an almost entirely unused, even smaller downtown park  (Veinte de Agosto Park). When the city shut it down, it gave almost no notice–two hours–before the cops moved in.

Finally, a third encampment sprang up on a strip of vacant land adjacent to still another park (De Anza Park). The city shut it down in fairly short order, on transparently false grounds (blocking the sidewalk–an outright lie). There, the cops simply showed up, trashed the campers’ belongings, and illegally arrested people.

Why were governments, city and federal, so frightened, so motivated to suppress Occupy encampments? The stated reasons for the suppression were obvious falsehoods. The authorities nationwide routinely cited public safety concerns, despite the fact that the encampments were self-policing (no drugs, alcohol, violence, or sexual harassment, etc.), and almost all of the relatively few problems were caused by homeless people attracted to the encampments because of free food (provided by supporters in the community) and a safe place to sleep; those causing problems were quickly invited to leave. (In the case of the final shutdown here in Tucson, the reason police cited [blocking the sidewalk] was blatantly false, as anyone driving by the encampment, which faced a major street, could see).

The real reasons for the repression? The government and police had lost control of the spaces occupied by the encampments. Never mind that the encampments were textbook examples of free speech and free assembly for nonviolent political purposes, that they were democratically run, that they were self-policing, and that they were providing a safe place, a home, for the homeless. No. The fact that the cops and government were no longer in total control was intolerable to them.

And as the encampments grew, the fear of the authorities grew. So, to hell with the right of free political speech, to hell with peaceable assembly. The authorities invented pretexts and shut down the encampments, often with a great deal of police brutality (as in Oakland).

This explains the panicked reactions of the city and federal governments (whose FBI and DHS heavily infiltrated Occupy encampments), but what value did the encampments have beyond exposing the hypocrisy and lust for control of the authorities?

There were several. They gave participants an experience of direct democracy, no matter how imperfect, in stark contrast with the corporate-controlled farce that passes for democracy in the U.S.  They gave participants many opportunities for voluntary cooperation, in contrast to the “normal” authoritarian manner of organizing work. They helped participants overcome the disempowering isolation that is a plague in this country; there is strength in numbers–something almost impossible to appreciate as an isolated individual. The encampments politicized at least some of the homeless. They spawned other political projects, notably the occupation of vacant and abandoned buildings. And they were gathering steam–attracting more and more participants–when the police shut them down.

In short, the Occupy movement provided its participants with a glimpse, no matter how imperfect and short lived, of what life could be like in a free society, and it showed real promise of fostering further, fundamental change.

Other public space occupations will likely show similar promise, and will almost certainly face similar repression.

 

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Comments
  1. Free speech is important. Great post!

    Like

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