Not Just a Bunch of Hippy Anarchist College Students
Among the six of us, we have 15 kids. Meeting for the first time, we sat on the bench talking about our children. I have two, I said. Derrick has one daughter. Roger said he had four while Patrick boasted of eight children. No, this wasn’t at a park or a playground. This was on a Wake County, North Carolina Jail bench after having been arrested after an Occupy Raleigh protest.
According to the online site Occupy Arrests Project, the occupy movement has witnessed 5607 arrests to date. Not since the Vietnam anti-war era have political protests yielded this number of arrests. Most of the media conversations about the Occupy arrests have focused on the possible orchestration of the crackdowns or an intensification of a police state. However, what has also been remarkable is that a broad spectrum of people is willing to push the limits and face arrests and police brutality.
I did not anticipate my arrest on Black Friday. I had survived protests and strikes at Occupy Oakland and at Occupy Cal in Berkeley without injury or arrest, so I was not expecting any confrontations with mall cops. I was videotaping an Occupy Raleigh protest at the Crabtree Valley Mall while in North Carolina for my dissertation research. One of my co-defendants, Patrick O’Neal, 55, went onto the very stage in the sprawling food court where his children would be performing Christmas music two weeks later. He had his daughter, Mary Evelyn, 6, on his shoulders, and started talking to food court diners about the Occupy Movement. Soon after, the crowd, including many shoppers, started clapping and chanting, “Human need, not corporate greed” and “We are the 99%.”
Other protesters went up on the stage to join O’Neal. The mall cops then approached the stage, along with the Raleigh city police. Without even being asked, the protesters immediately stepped off of the stage and walked out of the mall with the officers, expecting a simple warning. However, police officers handcuffed me and five others, including two people who had not participated at all. I videotaped most of the event, including O’Neal putting his hands against the outside wall with his daughter still on his shoulders.
Many of us have seen the iconic photos of these confrontations, such as the 84 year old woman with a teargased face from Occupy Seattle or the former police chief from Philadelphia arrested at Occupy Wall Street. Americans feel emboldened. Yet, it’s not just the stereotypical young anarchist. Certainly, college students have played a critical role in liberation movements around the world by being in a position to take more risks, and they certainly are putting their lives on the line now. But the Occupy movement has reached a broader constituency than the young. As O’Neal, my co-defendent joked, “A family that gets arrested together stays together.” However, the risks are real, as one of my co-defendants worried whether or not the company he worked for would retaliate against him for the arrest.
The diversity of people willing to face arrest has led to even more people supporting the occupy movement. For instance, the publicity around two-time Iraq War Veteran Scott Olson, one of the first of many victims of police repression, triggered a groundswell of support for the Occupy Oakland movement to take to the streets. A shrine, a Web site, and countless signs honored this sacrifice. In other words, the viral videos of the repression, such as the University of California – Berkeley baton crackdown on students linking arms or the meme sensation of University of California—Davis teargasing, have only strengthened more participants’ resolve to engage in civil disobedience.
The west coast port shut-downs this past week inspired a lively debate at the Port of Oakland during an impromptu General Assembly (GA) on whether or not to continue the port blockade to protest police attacks on activists at other ports. The GA voted to shut down the port for another shift in response to the brutality.
Repression has done anything but stem the tide of the Occupy movement. For instance, campus police violent reaction to a UC Berkeley encampment created a response that went much further than the few laughs from Stephen Colbert’a quip, “When they say it's crunchy, I didn't realize they meant students' rib cages.” Instead, it triggered an enormous amount of support around campus and the world. During the night-time beatings, I was at an Occupy Oakland General Assembly debating, of all things, non-violent tactics. I received tweets and texts of the brutality. I quickly left the GA with a few people to head over to the UC Berkeley campus to support my fellow students. The response that night was overwhelming. I saw crowds swell from a few hundred at 9pm to a few thousand by 11 pm. It was not just students who showed up but other Bay Area citizens, as well. I spoke to a school teacher who said, “I just had to come and show my support.”
That night, the Occupy Cal GA voted to strike the following week. One key difference I noted between the subsequent strike actions and previous demonstrations against fee hikes from the past three years is that it was not just the social science and humanities students participating. People showed up from the hard sciences, often buffered from budget cuts because of corporate donations. Moreover, at the strike, many of the signs reflected the outrage against the brutality, not just the economic issues. One read, “demographers against police brutality.”
Sociologist Jeff Goodwin argues that the level of state repression is in direct proportion to revolutionary participation. In other words, more repression leads to more participation. Other theorists, though, argue that if the rate of repression gets too high, participation wanes. Nonetheless, I’m baffled why the Department of Homeland security hasn’t read social movement theory to know that the Occupy movement has touched a nerve and repressive attempts to put out the fire will only make it spread more.
The civil disobedience people are now willing to take varies in risk. I recently met with some Occupy Raleigh and Occupy Chapel Hill protesters who wanted to learn from Occupy Oakland. But I think limits are being pushed pretty far already in North Carolina – from arrests at a shopping mall and taking over an abandoned building to posting signs up on the pristine Capitol steps (read Confederate symbol) and marching without a permit and blocking traffic in Chapel Hill. Yet just because a port hasn’t been shut down or a General Strike hasn’t been called doesn’t mean actions aren’t bold defiance. I was just one of 33 arrests in Raleigh so far.
Perhaps, though, I had been out of the South for too long, as North Carolina was my home for 15 years. I didn’t think twice about videotaping protesters in a shopping mall. As a former documentary filmmaker, I had shot footage in the jungle of the Philippines with the New People’s Army. Maybe the mall, the epitome of American capitalism, is more of a tipping point then I thought. Alas, though, after being released from jail that night with the promise to return for a January court date, I went to explain my arrest to my children. My son, age 8, said, “If they put you back in jail, Mommy, I’m going to do something to get back at them.” Exactly.