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.

Captured Narratives

I remember that year of narrative-scrubbing well. It was everywhere, but particularly focused on then-nominee Barack Obama. Obama's neoliberal leanings in Illinois were well-understood. They showed via his pivotal support of Joe Lieberman in 2006, his participation in Bob Rubin's Hamilton Project, and his backing of the education privatization group Democrats for Education Reform. Most prominently  he explicitly lied about his position on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the bill that immunized telecommunications companies from prosecution against illegal wiretapping. After pledging to oppose such a bill during the primary while under pressure from liberal voters, he voted for it after such pressure had lifted in the general.

Those parts of Obama’s record were excluded from the liberal narrative so he could become a candidate of hope and change, and then execute the policy framework to protect the banks that had been the initial investors in his presidential ambitions. This wasn't particularly secretive, much as Goodman's arrest reached a million views on YouTube yet was broadly ignored by the press. It was part of what Jay Rosen calls the “sphere of deviance,” or the “set of political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.” 

A Different Kind of Year

There are signs that 2012 may be a different kind of year.

For starters, we can expect significant protests at the party conventions, and this time, I suspect the press will pay attention. Political conventions are the center of political discourse in America. From 1980 to 2008, stale, corporate political infomercials matched the stale, corporate political state of our politics. The lavish spreads of food and drink, the heavy credentialing and associated social climbing, VIP rooms within VIP rooms, hustlers, groupies, hacks and lobbyists, delegates and party regulars -- all of it will represent the dominance of the 1%. The two- to four-day festivals of scripted schwag-infested boredom will remain as stale as they always were, but the exciting bit, the real debates over how our culture will be organized, will be in the streets.

In drawn-out presidential primaries, commentators often yearn for the excitement of an old-school political convention, where the outcome is not preordained. Will we have a brokered convention? How will the party platform be crafted? What are the factions? These questions are like catnip to insiders, and they do facilitate a debate about the country’s future. In 2012, it’s likely that the debate at the conventions will show up not in the convention halls, but in the clash between domestic security forces and protesters opposing the political forces inside the convention halls. Americans increasingly view the political system as broken and lacking in legitimacy– the latest numbers show Congress with a 9% approval rating. They will not be electing delegates to make their voices heard. If they show up at all, it will be to put their bodies on the line to do so.

We're going to see what happens when the cultural resonance of Occupy meets the increasingly militarized federal, state and local apparatus. Already, Tampa Bay Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, has made his attitude about Republican National Convention protesters clear: "These are people who are committed to mayhem, and if we're not careful they will incite it." This characterization of protesters as an existential threat justifies security spending on new weapons, which, in at a time of state and municipal budget woes, must then be used so that the money looks well-spent. The city has a municipal police tank, and initially considered buying predator drones. Instead it will spend much of its $55 million of extra security money on state-of-the-art surveillance systems.

The 99% will be outside the conventions. The 1% will be inside. There will be well-funded men with guns in between them. And that’s where the real political debate will be held. These domestic security forces are trained to look for and eliminate Occupy-style protests. Occupy-style protesters have learned that making noise in a clever and abrupt manner works in projecting their beliefs about the country and its political institutions. The national spotlight will be shining brightly on both conventions. But the speeches inside the halls are not where that spotlight will shine; instead, what we will take away might look a lot more like the iconography the political elites fear.

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