Seeking to rebalance the world and make the major changes needed to bring about financial justice are laudable aims, but rarely achieved easily. Those ‘doing quite nicely, thank you’ out of the current system can hardly be expected to hand over the reins of power and, more crucially, the cash, without putting up a fight. Meanwhile those involved in the Occupy protests are discovering that the police forces of the world have amassed some astounding toys to use against people armed with nothing more threatening than placards and a belief in a brighter future.
This has led to some shocking, but perhaps not surprising, incidents at the sites of protests. In the States, University of California students were on the end of some particularly vicious police actions. As Conor Friedersdorf writes:
The U.C. police officers are dressed in riot gear. They’re given guns, batons, body armor, face shields, and spray canisters of pepper spray. And they’re sent out in force. If they were in a video game they’d be ready to face off against some bad-ass foe with machine guns and assault rifles. We’re used to seeing officers like that in pitched battles on the street, or about to rush into a house filled with drug dealers. These guys are facing teenagers blocking a sidewalk.
The riot gear itself demands a significant response, whether the situation warrants one or not. And if the pictures being sent from phones to generate a howl of outrage also convince a few would-be protesters that demonstrating isn’t worth getting a plastic bullet in the head for, then the actions have succeeded, according to Glenn Greenwald:
If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed… many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power.
Perhaps with a similar motivation, UK protesters have been caught up in protracted legal battles following arrests. The case against the ‘Fortnum and Mason 145’ took a year to rule that members of UK Uncut protesting against tax-dodging were guilty of intimidation – for outrages including a game of volleyball – and to fine them £1,000 each towards the cost of a prosecution which can only have run at a loss.
Similarly, UK Uncut protesters in Brighton waited months to learn that they were to be acquitted of criminal damage for gluing themselves to the windows of tax avoiders Top Shop, although five of the group were convicted of recklessly causing criminal damage for knocking over some mannequins. For such temerity they were fined £200 each, after a two-week trial the costs of which will have run into thousands. In such trying financial circumstances as the UK finds itself, spending such sums can only be justified for the message it sends to others thinking about involving themselves in dissent.
The title of this post is taken from ‘Killing an Elephant’ by George Orwell, quoted in the Atlantic article above, in which he notes that all this weaponry and repression creates a prison as much for those wielding the power as those being crushed by it:
Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.
We all have to live in the same society, after all, and even if you have oodles of money in your own bank account, it can only do so much to insulate you from the suffering of your neighbour. When even the mega-rich can see that things are broken, how long can change be delayed? As Matt Taibbi observes:
…the powers that be in this country are lost. They’ve been going down this road for years now, and they no longer stand for anything.
All that tricked-up military gear, with that corny, faux-menacing, over-the-top Spaceballs stormtrooper look that police everywhere seem to favor more and more – all of this is symbolic of the increasingly total lack of ideas behind all that force.
In that case, every baton charge, pepper-spraying and trumped-up arrest brings us closer to the moment when we realise that to live as if money is more important than people, putting our faith in the markets and failing to provide for the many so that the few can live gilded lives behind gated community walls, is beyond stupid. Those taking such treatment from the police and standing firm are to be applauded and supported in whatever way possible, as for now, they are all that stands between us and what Hunter S. Thompson knew:
In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together:
Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely…
If these protests have ‘them’ so riled, they must be doing something right. How to turn the anger on both sides into a brighter future for the many will be the next, greater challenge.
Artwork by Barney Meeks