Sunday, November 20, 2011

Glenn Greenwald on UC Davis Pepper-Spraying: Contagious Acts of Defiance, Courage, and Conscience

Glenn Greenwald reflects on the pepper-spraying of peacefully demonstrating students at UC Davis two days ago.  As shocking as the sadistic image of a policeman blasting students in the face with pepper spray while they sat on the ground is, it is not an aberration, Greenwald maintains.
We now live in a police state "in its pure form," he argues.

American culture has a long history of employing violence against those demonstrating for their rights--to instill fear in everyone else in the populace about what might be the consequences if they show solidarity with a minority group seeking rights.  (An aside, but a relevant one here: as Joshua Holland notes recently, though we now like to applaud ourselves on the "advances" we made with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the brutal reality is that a significant percentage of Americans disdained the Civil Rights protesters and did not support them.  A Gallup poll in 1959 found 53% of Americans indicating that the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision to integrate schools was "more trouble than it was worth," and the same percentage reported in 1961 that lunch-counter sit-ins and other peaceful demonstrations were hurting the Civil Rights cause.)

In Greenwald's judgment, the orchestrated, planned, widespread acts of police brutality we're now seeing in response to the Occupy movement are designed to make people afraid to sympathize with or participate in Occupy protests.  And the traditional American reflexive response to such protest movements--to try initially to break their back and disperse the protest--has been exacerbated by several developments in the post-9/11 era.

For instance, the federal government has lavishly provided urban police forces with military equipment designed to handle terrorist situations, so that the police have an unparalleled ability today to intimidate American citizens today.  Look at the video of the UC Davis pepper-spraying incident to which I linked last evening again, and you may be struck, as I was, by the amount of heavy weaponry and shielding equipment the police used in their response to a peaceful student sit-in.  The students in the video are human beings.  The police, by contrast, look like menacing aliens who have just landed from a far-off martial planet: our police, designed to assure our safety, operating in opposition to us as an alien force equipped with lavish weaponry, to intimidate us as we express our first-amendment rights.

In addition, we American citizens have now tacitly accepted and we casually live with the erosion of our civil rights and with claims on the part of the federal government that it should have the right to suspend rights in a situation of perpetual war.  Our entire culture has been militarized since 9/11, and the majority of us simply live with that situation as if it's normal and to be expected.  As if it's tolerable or even desirable . . . . 

This is how Greenwald sums up the situation in which we now find ourselves in a police state "in its pure form."  But then there's hope.  Greenwald's conclusion is this: the most important gift the Occupy movement offers American democracy at the present moment is that it is making acts of defiance, courage, and conscience contagious.  He writes,

This is the most important effect of the Occupy movement: acts of defiance, courage and conscience are contagious. Just as the Arab Spring clearly played some significant role in spawning, sustaining and growing the American Occupy movement, so too have the Occupy protesters emboldened one another and their fellow citizens. The protest movement is driving the proliferation of new forms of activism, citizen passion and courage, and — most important of all — a sense of possibility. For the first time in a long time, the use of force and other forms of state intimidation are not achieving their intended outcome of deterring meaningful (i.e., unsanctioned and unwanted) citizen activism, but are, instead, spurring it even more. The reaction to these protests are both highlighting pervasive abuses of power and generating the antidote: citizen resolve to no longer accept and tolerate it. This is why I hope to see the Occupy movement — even if it adopts specific demands — remain an outsider force rather than reduce itself into garden-variety partisan electioneering: in its current form, it is demanding and re-establishing the indispensable right of dissent, defiance of unjust authority, and sustained protest.

And it is precisely this contagion of defiance, courage, and conscience that the powers-that-be fear most of all in the Occupy movement.  And this is why they are determined to break the movement's back at any cost, in advance of the 2012 elections, which could be strongly affected by voter revulsion against what the super-rich elite have done to our democracy--if movements of protest throughout the nation succeed in awakening an anesthetized populace to the reality in which we now find ourselves.

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