Occupying the Conventions? How Protests Will Change Politics-as-Usual in 2012
Every era has an iconic image, like a protester standing up to a tank in Tiananmen Square, a military officer shooting a handcuffed Vietnamese prisoner in the head at point-blank range, or the famous zeppelin Hindenburg crashing in flames. These images can end wars, destroy industries or memorialize a moment for a nation forever. The image speaks to us through its raw potency and ability to freeze an instant into a frame. It becomes iconic because it captures a particular cultural zeitgeist. These two elements – authenticity and timeliness – grant such images power.
In the autumn of 2011, a video of the casual pepper-spraying of peaceful student protesters at UC Davis by a police officer dressed in full paramilitary gear gave America a new iconic domestic political image. The video, posted on YouTube, immediately became a cultural sensation, showcasing the willingness of American security forces to use chemical weapons on peaceful Americans posing no physical threat. This iconic video didn’t appear from thin air, but was preceded by months of organizing work and a network of tent cities set up around the country. It now stands as a visual accompaniment to linguistic innovation, the creation of a new language of 21st century depression: the 99% versus the 1%.
The message of these tent cities was simple: America is in a depression; do something! And elites did. They used pepper spray and military force to evict the protesters. The action was casual and detached, like an exterminator patiently ensuring he had sprayed enough cockroaches. The cavalier attitude among officials was nationwide. After clearing Zuccotti Park in a late-night paramilitary raid, Mayor Bloomberg later boasted that the police were his “private army” and that New York City has the seventh largest armed forces in the world.
That is why the video became iconic, that such a moment was frozen in time.
The Pepper-Spray Precursor
In 2008, in a similar episode, journalist Amy Goodman was arrested outside the Republican National Convention. The arresting officer didn't like that she was standing where she was standing, so he took her into custody. And he did it right in front of a video camera. This action became a widely circulated YouTube video that reached nearly a million views, and Goodman later won a large settlement against the police for her troubles. At both the Republican conventions and in the Occupy protests, constraining and arresting journalists was par for the course.
Yet this moment, a precursor to the Occupy arrests in the face of a para-militarized, federally funded local police force, catalyzed no lasting cultural resonance. The creativity of the activists and journalists in Minneapolis/St. Paul equaled that of the occupiers, with independent videographers at the Minnesota video journalist outfit the Uptake, anonymous Twitter feeds, and zombified protesters holding funny signs ( "Zombies don't kill for oil" and “Brains not bombs”). Security in Minneapolis/St. Paul was provided by a quasi-military presence of men in wraparound sunglasses driving Humvees through a downtown cordoned off and divided into colored zones, funded by the federal government through a multi-million-dollar "anti-terrorism" grant. There were lavish parties funded by corporate lobbyists inside the convention area, attended by politicians, delegates and journalists. Meanwhile, protesters were constrained in official "Free Speech Zones" where the rabble were penned up to offer their meek chanting far from the earshot of the powerful. You couldn't find a better example of the 99% versus the 1%.
The creeping authoritarianism that has become part of the normal landscape of politics was on display in 2008, but that was the moment of hope, change and post-partisanship. Goodman's plight and what it revealed about the true nature of power in post-9/11 America and the chilling creation of paramilitary zones around our political conventions were left out of the narrative.