Percentages, Politics, and the Police

Percentages, Politics, and the Police

THE GENERALLY INCLUSIVE and indefinite nature of the politics behind the Occupy movement has been both its virtue and vice. Or, to put it in less moralistic terms, the ideological flexibility of the occupations — in New York, and beyond — has generated extraordinary opportunities while at the same time presenting real limits to a serious challenge of capital's domination. 


A mutation of both the university occupations of 2009 (where the slogan "Occupy Everything" was brought to life) and the "movement of the squares" in Egypt, Spain, and Greece, these American occupations have managed to draw forth a variegated crowd of generally anti-capitalist character in city after city: Anarchists and socialists, disenchanted liberals and trade unionists, teachers and teenagers, street kids and college kids, the entire motley crew growing rather than fading away, moving from novelty song to popular genre with a breadth and rapidity that would have commanded utter disbelief in August. And it is apparent that the refusal to decide in advance on the exact political content of this movement — and instead suggesting that such a content will emerge through the process of struggle — is very much part of what has allowed for this sequence's unfolding and brought so many people out into the plazas of our cities. The notion of the 99 percent is part of this inclusiveness, but it's also an emblem of the real limits here. 


Central among these limits is the incoherent stance often taken toward the police by the occupiers, or, more specifically, the organizers of the occupations. It can only be of the greatest significance that this issue has emerged as the central matter of debate; it secures the suspicion that the question is at the center of the occupation movement's politics, and its fate. 


But this hypersignificance remains opaque. Again and again, these occupations have featured scenes in which protesters beaten and pepper-sprayed by the police have insisted that their oppressors are also, in their way, part of the 99 percent. Occasionally, in New York, there is a more complicated fantasy in which the only truly oppressive cops are the supervisors — "whiteshirts," after the white (rather than blue) shirts they wear, but also because obliquely referencing class status — whereas the blue-collar cops are only reluctantly doing their jobs. 


At the same time, there has been more and more criticism of collaborationist policies toward the police, and an increasingly acrimonious debate within the movement, initiated in many cases by its anarchist and anti-statist wing. Occupy Oakland, for instance, has refused to cooperate with the Oakland Police and its General Assemblies feature long lines of people who speak eloquently and bluntly about police violence in the city. So there is a debate within the movement, one that the brutal police repression of Occupy Boston, happening just as Occupy Oakland was getting under way, has in some regard brought to a head. 


In an ironic turn, on the same day as the repression of Occupy Boston, n+1 published Jeremy Kessler's "The Police and the 99 Percent," a virtual compendium of the fallacies, apologetics, wishful thinking, and historical misprisions assembled to defend the strategy of police compliance. Alas — and curiously enough for a journal with a brief but consistent record of critique — the article sides decisively with compliance and complicity. In doing so, it misunderstands the character of the occupations; the recent history of the movement of the squares; the role and history of the police in relation to antistate and anticapitalist movements; the position of non-violence; and accepts exactly what is most problematic and disabling about the formulation of the "99 Percent."


Kessler approaches the issue of the police not from a moralistic position — he does not insist, for instance, that we must approach the police with loving kindness, lest we produce bad vibes or bad karma — but from a strategic one. He thinks that confrontations with police dissuade a putative "middle-class," including union labor, from joining the occupation. The only possible recourse is to live up to the Occupy movement's promise of including the superplurality of the "99 Percent." The movement must, therefore, establish links with the police by appearing more like the police themselves, in cultural terms. It should establish itself as, well, kind of normal-looking and non-threatening. This might encourage the police toward a quiet insubordination once the call to crack down on Liberty Plaza eventually comes.


The first thing to say about this is that what Kessler proposes has already been contradicted by the very situation he describes. The occupation in Zuccotti Park began as a relatively small encampment, and the initial police response was, as Kessler himself observes, "brutal." Videos quickly surfaced of police grabbing, tossing, macing, batoning, barricading, and arresting protestors without provocation; one video showed an officer telling another that he hoped "his nightstick would get a workout tonight." It was precisely the spread of these videos that drew the crowds, that made it impossible for the media to continue to ignore the protests; it was precisely the unmistakable images of a violent state apparatus mobilized to protect financial interests that revealed the nature of the present moment. The October non-surprise that JPMorgan Chase had previously donated $4.6 million to the NYC Police Foundation (the largest gift in the foundation's history) gave this relationship between the police and the financiers a headline, but the earlier images of police brutality at Occupy Wall Street had already presented more powerfully the same material fact, and it was these images that began to draw more protestors to Zuccotti Park. We can dispense with the notion that the specter of police violence is the real limit to participation by some phantom "American middle class." But we cannot dispense with the notion that police are violent and threatening, and that they will be — have already been — levied to break the occupations. 


It is hard to imagine anyone denying that it would be a good thing if the police were to take the side of the occupations. This is a far cry, however, from the belief that such a thing could reasonably happen. We must distinguish between analysis — an analysis of the concrete situation and accompanying historical record — and wish fulfillment fantasy. The latter tends, after all, to lead toward quite disastrous strategic and tactical decisions. In Tahrir Square — a place and idea toward which the Occupy movement swears fidelity — there was, despite some folks' hysterical amnesia on this score, no commitment to non-violence, no gesture of complicity with the police, and no hesitation in resisting the government's armed thugs. The Egyptians understood with clarity who their antagonists were, what their relationship to them was, and what would be needed to prevent the movement from being crushed by the folks with the guns and clubs. 


The argument that "the cops will eventually come to sweep us away" may seem to open onto the conclusion "thus the cops must be befriended" — but only if one somehow suppresses the very reasons that the cops will come in the first place, and the long history of the police in relation to popular militancy. Cairo is one such example; others multiply throughout history. On the other side of the ledger: few entries indeed. It is true that armies and navies have been known to take the side of the people in revolutionary moments, but they are in the business of taking and holding territory, a portable trade. Police are charged with disciplining populations. Were they to take the side of the population, they would be without a trade. Any serious reading of history suggests that the police everywhere maintain their fidelity to the task of performing as bodyguards for money, property, and power. 


Kessler offers a paradigmatic example of what Mark Fisher calls "capitalist realism," which always takes the form of something like the following: OK, kids, utopia sounds great, but let's let the serious people take over and work within the given limits of the world before us. The problem isn't simply that this involves quitting in advance of struggling, it's that Kessler's historical vision doesn't even follow the principle of realism, or, even better, of reality. History is not on his side. One of his assumptions is that the ultimate goal of the Occupy movement is to animate a new political majority, a new hegemonic force. There is no discussion, however, of the kinds of force such a majority might exert, of what it might do. There is simply the assembling-in-place of the great 99 percenters and their processual assemblies; these, Kessler assumes, are slowly, somehow, supposed to arrive at an actual political stance. Though this movement might go in any number of directions, it seems clear that if everyone follows Kessler's recommendation and agrees that the one thing they shouldn't do is alienate the "middle-class" — if the goal of the movement is simply to assemble and increasingly resemble the already extant social order — then it seems likely that the demand arrived at, eventually, will suffer from the tyrannical logic of the lowest common denominator. It will most likely take the form of a demand that everyone join the Democratic Party immediately to ward off the threat of Rick Perry or Mitt Romney.


Perhaps it's true, as Kessler notes, that only through agreeing to play by the rules and not offend the delicate sensibilities of the middle-class will the occupations become a true political majority. But it's not clear what's to be gained from such growth, if in exchange we make sure to refrain from doing anything that disrupts the smooth reproduction of the status quo. The filling of U.S. plazas and parks with millions of people doing little but complying is unlikely to bring even mild reform. No, to do that we'll have to resort to the old strategies of the strike, the blockade, sabotage and — one hopes — the occupation and expropriation of private property. 


Though numbers are, in many regards, decisive, they are not everything. This suggests there is another way we might interpret the Occupationists' deferral of content and emphasis on process, that it indicates a focus on what these occupations intend to do, and how they intend to do it, rather than what they say or what proclamations they release. This would bring them back to the ideas that emerged out of the original California and New York occupations, which insisted that an occupation was not a bargaining chip but an act of claiming the things we need to survive. Such occupations were not, therefore, about asking for concessions from the state, nor were they simply a launching pad for a new political discourse or a new hegemony. The sign "I am the 99 percent" retains its ambiguity; signs like "Capitalism Cannot Be Reformed" and "It's Class Warfare and We're Losing" less so. Such stances, still lurking beneath the slogans on Wall Street, might be one way to think about what is happening (or what could happen) in Zuccotti Park: people learning to provide for each other, now that it is quite clear that capitalism can't provide for them. 


LARB Contributors

Jasper Bernes is the author of We Are Nothing and So Can You (2015), a previous collection of poems Starsdown (2007), and is currently completing a book of literary history, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization, about the role of poetry in the postindustrial restructuring of labor. Excerpts from We Are Nothing and So Can You have appeared in Lana Turner, The American Reader, the Capilano Review, Hi Zero, Prelude, and elsewhere. His writing on contemporary politics and political economy can be found in venues such as The New Inquiry, LARB, Endnotes, and Viewpoint. He lives in Berkeley with his family and teaches in the English Department at Stanford University.

Joshua Clover is author of six books and has been translated into a dozen languages. His two latest are Red Epic (Commune Editions) and Riot. Strike. Riot.: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso). A columnist at The Nation, he is a cofounder of Commune Editions. He is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Davis.


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