Winter is Coming to Occupy Wall Street

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The following commentary was contributed by MYD member Jon Reznick.

The allergic reaction of the state to creative protest is fueling creative protest.

Clausewitz, the German military theorist and author of the seminal book On War tells us that out of the dominant characteristics of both belligerents “a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.”

I made an uncovered assumption when I started writing about the Occupy movement in October, and I’d like to begin by revising that assumption. In my first rumination I viewed the aborted raid of Zuccotti Park on October 14 as a sign that the city either could not or would not pay the political cost of sweeping the movement out of their encampment, though I allowed for the need of the movement to remain vigilant.  Promptly, the story came out that several local public figures had interceded, persuading Brookfield Properties to withdraw their request to have the park cleaned, and so on that dawn, I thought a dialog and some kind of accord would be reached.  Things certainly proceeded as if this would be the course of events.

Though I do report on my perspective, and though I try not to editorialize my opinions here, it was hard not to let a sense of victory just from having taken part in that night infuse my thoughts.  I imagined the city had just tried its all-in attack and was overwhelmed by the response from the movement and the press, thus making it impossible to crush the movement through municipal force projection. And I based my comparison of #OWS to the winter at Valley Forge on the assumption that military campaign season (to extend the metaphor) was suspended for winter. I failed to perceive that most of that cost was raised by how the movement and the press reacted to advance knowledge of an imminent raid. But I also was in the minority when I pointed out how erecting the tents represented a tactical overreach for the movement.

The City was embarrassed on 10-14 but remained in control of its NYPD, the courts, and of vast sums of cash. To them it was a bop on the nose — a memo that they’d have to bring their A-game in suppression tactics to deal with this. And “those damn kids” had just built unsightly tents, and shown every sign of staying, breaking a few odd laws, and continuing to be a nuisance. The Murdoch papers mercilessly flogged stories attempting to invalidate the movement based on the externalities of its presence. Lost jobs, closed businesses, busted commutes, real human interest stories.

But what had seemed like an all-in sort of assault had really been a feint.  Then things got hot in Oakland, California. Tear gas was deployed. A US Marine veteran was hospitalized. One of my friends who has organized with #OWS from the beginning commented “This is a shooting war now.” I watched enough of the live stream of Oakland to provisionally agree.  Reportedly, a DHS phone call coordinated 18 cities who discussed what techniques were and were not totally awesome in suppressing peaceful demonstrators.

Right when things were otherwise getting kind of dull, when the creative energy of the movement here in the city, cramped by tents, was beginning to recede just so against the encroaching cold and dark (all in my opinion), @questlove tweeted “Omg, drivin down south st near #ows. Somethin bout to go down yo, swear I counted 1000 riot gear cops bout to pull sneak attack #carefulyall”

The City went by the book. They planned a raid in secrecy to prevent the movement and the press from catching on. As Gothamist reported:

“The NYPD planned Monday night’s raid of Zuccotti Park for weeks, starting soon after its first attempt to clear the park failed in October. Only top brass knew the raid was coming and the officers involved—mostly rookies and borough task forces—were told Monday night that they were going to do a mobilization drill under the FDR, not evict a peaceful protest…”

Gothamist’s police source further describes the characteristics of scheduling the raid, and the use of certain counter-terror techniques the police had been drilling on the Zuccotti Park crowd last week.

A national day of action had been planned for November 17th. I had two photo events I was doing that night, one for a candidate, and one for a really cool NGO. I was not planning to go to Foley Square at all.  I’ve photographed rallies there many times this year, and this one promised to be colder and darker than all the others, which had all been midday affairs on warmer weekends. The truth is also that planned rallies in fixed places reward the police for using those metal sawhorses. And I have started to dislike covering rallies because of the threatened, trapped feeling that increasingly comes with them.

Several of my friends in the city government took beatings, abuse, and were arrested for their attempted intercessions. I am not Colonel Kilgore from Apocalypse Now. If you perforate my beach with artillery, I will not declare that beach safe to surf and insist that you do so alongside me. But I do like to think I would go almost anywhere in the world to tell the stories I find compelling. And I would like to believe that if I had a personal responsibility to constituents, I would exercise it right up into the same blows and indignities my elected friends suffered. Taking risk on can be a defining element in one’s work, because your upshot might be in achieving a feat or in capturing a story no one else even gets close to. This is how I see myself, anyway. I am not explaining this to cast myself as some sort of tough guy veteran, but to set up the following contrast: I realized that my initial hesitance to cover #N17 was not that my schedule was stacked against it (ultimately I made it work, and had accepted the other gigs while subconsciously declining to cover #N17). The initial reason I was declining to cover what would be an important day in the movement whose story I am personally committed to doing my part in telling was that I recoiled from what I knew would be an unsafe, uncomfortable and potentially combustible condition created artfully and professionally by the NYPD. I recognize that I had been chilled against participation by the implied threat of danger from the NYPD despite having been 12 years a New York City resident.  But when I learned of the contempt shown for the press during the raid and its aftermath, I started to regret my decision to take other bookings.

Two or three days before the rally, my friend George Martinez who would be fronting the Global Block Collective as the house band for the rally invited me down to shoot his performance from the stage at the event. At first, I turned George down and told him I was already shooting two events that night, but as I became painfully aware of the subconscious feeling I have just explained to you, I texted him and got details such as the start time, because I realized I wanted to make it work and do the rally. I wanted to explore my own thoughts and experiences on “public safety.” Though I was able to glide right into the rally space and get into the SEIU staging area as promised, exiting later was more difficult than it has ever been for me.

The following day, a UC Davis Police Officer pepper sprayed seated students for the crime of peaceful non-compliance. And this put into clear focus for me how delicate the balance may actually be now. Think back to the metal sawhorses. As long as people don’t cross them, what is your protest?

The original image of Pepper Spray Cop really matters. The meme has become so powerful and so popular because — we laugh when it hurts and this really hurts. We are all legitimately scared now. Bad people monopolize force. And our turning that ugly event into comedy is a kind of defiance against the very fear that sort of thing engenders. The sort of fear that nearly kept me from the rally at Foley Square. I might have joined the march on the bridge if I had not booked my evening. And I might not have booked my evening elsewhere if I did not fear being tricked, trapped, arbitrarily arrested, and possibly having my livelihood threatened in the name of “public safety.” Always in quotes here.

Since I began writing this story, a fresh front opened on the campus of Baruch, where cops were vigorous in demanding compliance yet again.

The truth is this, the Occupy movement has not up-armed, nor does it rely on violent rhetoric, despite the divisiveness of its cause. But the hysterical reaction of the state to this movement has two effects. On one hand, it shows the movement is truly on to something. On the other hand, it will increasingly align the movement as anti-state.

“The defeat of the enemy . . . . presuppose[s] great physical or moral superiority or else an extremely enterprising spirit. . . . When neither of these is present, the object of military activity can only be one of two kinds: seizing a small or larger piece of enemy territory, or holding one’s own until things take a better turn.” Thus “two kinds of limited war are possible: offensive war with a limited aim, and defensive war.” – Clausewitz

© 2011 Jon Reznick - Whose streets?