Let me start this by saying that I’m not an expert. I’m thousands of miles away from UC Davis, and the only thing I’ve seen is the video. Which you should watch, right now. I don’t know exactly what happened, or how. I don’t even know exactly how I feel about the occupy movement. I’m largely in agreement with the broad sentiments behind the occupy movement, and I have a great deal of respect for their methods. I’m not entirely sure how much impact that the movement will have on our political system — especially compared to the Tea Party movement, which has had a clear and direct impact on the Republican Party and, as a result, national politics — but I think that such uncertainty speaks to many of the occupy movement’s complaints. After all, why shouldn’t elected officials be responsive to large, organized groups of people? Isn’t it their job to be responsive to their constituents?
Within the past week or so (depending on whether you count from the eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park in New York on Tuesday, or the earlier actions against protesters in Oakland’s Ogawa Plaza), municipal governments seem to be moving toward a more confrontational stance against occupiers. While this cannot be unexpected — occupiers are self-consciously in violation of most cities’ camping/residency ordinances — it’s more than disappointing that a number of these actions have operated almost as military raids. Where protesters resort to violence, police are right to respond with force. Where people are gathered peacefully, even if illegally, assault under cover of darkness, supported by tear gas and pepper spray, is inexcusable. Such an action cannot result in peaceful dispersal. Such an action is designed to engender confusion of response. In the case of a rioting mob, this confusion prevents a focused, violent response. In the case of a nonviolent encampment, it prevents safe withdrawal and engenders confrontation.
One of the clearest examples of the use of disproportionate force is the response of campus police at UC Davis to a number of student and non-student protesters occupying a site on campus. Occupiers set up tents on the university Quad on Thursday, and camped overnight. After requesting on both Thursday and Friday morning that occupiers remove their encampment, campus police (apparently supported by officers from other local units) were sent in riot gear to remove the tents. Occupiers linked arms and sat down to form a human chain between the police and the encampment. Police response was to assault the students with pepper spray.
It’s not my goal to provide an authoritative account of exactly what happened. I wasn’t there. What I want to do is to respond to a pair of extraordinary events captured on the video. The first, as you would imagine, is the spraying itself. I’ve read a great deal of reaction to the nonchalance of the officer who sprays the occupiers, much of it criticizing his apparent indifference to the violence he’s inflicting (or even accusing him of relishing it). At least from my own remove as a viewer, that doesn’t strike me as extraordinary, or as terribly important one way or the other. I’m not really concerned over whether the officer felt bad about what he was doing, or if he just felt that it was part of his job. I’d actually like to focus attention in a slightly different direction — at the beginning of the video, the officer is actually already behind the line of occupiers, and he steps over them — without any interference or resistance — to get back in front of them in order to be able to use the pepper spray.
While the police goal was apparently to remove an encampment — that is to physically remove the tents rather than at that moment to disperse the protesters — it’s not totally clear whether that happens. The video shows a few occupiers being dragged away, but no tents, up or down, are ever visible. The police are focused on the few members of the human chain, but they’re not apparently sure what to do with the surrounding people. There’s a visible shift between about 2:50 and 3:30 in the video from a non-helmeted cop rather agreeably (or at least without an outward show of terrible concern) asking a man with a large video camera to move back, to officers forming a line along the sides of the paved walkway and starting to withdraw.
The second extraordinary moment comes at about 6:00 when the group addresses the now protectively huddled police and offers “a moment of peace” where officers can leave safely and will not be followed. The blog Excremental Virtue wrote powerfully about this moment of grace. I’m not totally in agreement with Excremental Virtue’s assessment of the officer holding two bottles of pepper spray — I agree that he seems to be the same officer who sprayed students at the beginning of the video, but he also seems to me to be telling his colleagues to move back rather than “that he’s immune to the students’ appeal; he’s not even bothering to listen” — but it’s clear that something extraordinary has taken place.
At 4:30, police have pulled themselves into a column and are moving backward. They are surrounded on three sides by a group of people that are moving forward as police move back. I have no doubt that the police feared for their safety, whether or not they initiated the conflict. An aggressive action by either an officer or a member of the group would likely have led to the police adopting anti-riot tactics.
But that’s not what happens. Someone in the group (I have no idea who) calls for a “mic check,” and even more importantly, the group of people knows how to respond. The gestures of the occupy movement become language when they become recognizable. A group chanting “shame on you” suddenly is able to speak, be understood, and responded to. Force is no longer the only option on either side.
In that moment, the human microphone not only allows the group to address the police and announce its nonviolent intentions, it also allows the group to talk to itself. Before the mic check, everything is responsive. The police are attempting to withdraw, but the group is staying close to them. The group doesn’t have any way of knowing whether the police are afraid for their safety or if they simply think that their job is done and want to make a clean getaway. The police don’t have any way of knowing whether the crowd has agressive intentions or whether they’re trying to stay close to make their feelings heard. Given that both the police and the group are several different individuals, a little bit of each is probably true at the same time. The human microphone allows a message to get to everyone. When the microphone announces that the police can leave and not be followed, it’s telling the crowd to allow the police to get some distance. One person says the right thing, to everyone, and it becomes the intention of the group as they speak it.
The moment that the human microphone becomes not just a tool for group communication, but a tool for in-the-moment group action is the moment when it really has to be taken seriously as a tool, as technology. The moment when the gestures adopted by a group of people in New York become organically and immediately meaningful to a group of people under stress in California is the moment when they have to be taken seriously as language. The moment that a group of occupiers collectively decline to respond with violence to an act of disproportionate force is the moment that the movement grows up.
I’m a bit of a pessimist, and largely immune to the rhetoric of victory that follows many occupy actions, but this is a victory. It’s hard to remember that the goal of civil disobedience is to be arrested, in fact, to insist upon it. Even so, police were wrong to resort to force in the face of a line of nonviolent disobedience. It’s a credit to the occupy movement — which must by now be described as a movement, sharing language and engaging participation across broad removes — that it has the tools, the language to not respond in kind.