Many in the Occupy Together movement, particularly those of us involved in Colorado, were disappointed and chagrined when reports started rolling in early Saturday evening that there had been arrests made at Civic Center Park in Denve. Unlike earlier in the week with Occupy Oakland, the reports charged that protestors antagonized police; accompanying photos showed an officer on the ground, video of angry young men pushing against the police line. In the end 20 people were arrested. Recriminations have flown across social media sites, (full disclosure, I also participate in the Occupy Denver social media, both as a representative of Anthropos Mundorum and as an individual) and nearly all attention has been focused on the conflict between these protestors and the police. There is still much that needs to be said about the confrontation, and I have some thoughts below. But that focus on the conflict has drawn attention away from what really happened on Saturday, and it is important that Colorado, and others in the Nation, know.
For the third Saturday in a row 2,000 Coloradans from across the state filled Civic Center Park. It was nice to see many of the same faces that I saw previously, as well as new faces, especially parents with their young children. I also spoke to quite a few veterans of the civil rights era; their sentiments were the same- over and over I heard how good it was to see “young people involved”, something that always makes me chuckle a little. This group of protestors marched through the city, demanding that our democratic system of government be restored, and that the unparalleled influence that corporations have over our lives and our government be broken. It was a really beautiful, peaceful march that was impressive in its size and scope. I’m pretty sure we picked up some people along the way. The public let their feelings be known about the march; passing cars and truks honked in support, people came out of stores and clapped and cheered. I’ve literally heard one heckler in the last few weeks, and instead have seen so much support from the public. The march stopped traffic as police had to cordon off a route, so many of us waved and thanked the people in their vehicles, and most seemed patient with it
Even during Saturday’s march, though, there was a group of people being disruptive and confrontational. Mostly “kids” in their teens and early twenties, who were a little overzealous decided to literally take the march into the street and started blocking traffic. Cars driven by the 99% were stopped in the middle of their lanes, or forced to veer around these protestors. Another man, who may have been alone but seemed to self-style as their leader, was screaming violent slogans against the police into his mega-phone. Those of us around him tried to drown him out with our chants, and ignore him. When I expressed my dislike with blocking of traffic, I was viciously verbally attacked by this man. I will admit, I was pissed. This guy had me seeing red for awhile, and I wasn’t the only one. I felt like he was coopting the protest for his own inane agenda. Others with me dismissed him as being disturbed. He may have been, and he deserves our compassion if that is the case. But what I took away from the march was that after a month of protests we are starting to see the fracturing that may be the death of the movement.
In some ways I thought it was ridiculous that I was focusing so much on this incident. After all, I had a new friend, a retired teacher from Littleton who was incredibly well informed about Colorado and National politics. I had spent my afternoon with thoughtful, intelligent individuals who wanted change, not just for themselves, but as a matter of course for humanity. It had been a good day.
About an hour after I left the showdown began with police. I won’t go into details as I would only be recounting what I have seen on the social media threads and the news. There are a couple of points that should be addressed, however.
It has been interesting to see so many people across Colorado and the nation identify protestors who espouse or use violent tactics as “infiltrators” and “agent provocateurs”. Many people involved in Occupy Together really think those we are protesting have sent in their own agents to sabotage us. I don’t dispute that there may be some isolated cases of this. Largely, I dismiss this claim, partly because I don’t think “they” have to. Occupy is a broad umbrella movement, and that means that we are going to attract individuals from across the political spectrum, including some who believe in more violent tactics. This is the double-edge sword of being a leaderless movement- we have created a system where all thoughts on the correct way to proceed are equally weighed and there is no mechanism for drawing those on the fringe into our middle ground.
I also dismiss this idea because it isn’t what occurs in political actions. Accusing those who violate “our” rules of conduct as being “outsiders” is a tactic that has been used by governments and those in authority for centuries to dismiss dissent (c.f. Tilly 2003). It is a tactic we saw in the “Arab Spring” when Mubarak and Assad attempted to denigrate the grievances of people in the street by claiming that they were “foreigners” or “Al Qaeda”; and we have seen it used against those of us in the Occupy movement when we are described in the media as carnival kids or freaks. Let us not make the same mistake. Instead, we need to address these issues. While we can remain a leaderless movement, the organizers and participants need to ensure that we are clear in our on-site rhetoric as well as in our social media postings about 1. our intentions and 2. the acceptable tactics we will employ to achieve our goals.
Finally, police confrontations have become more and more frequent in the Occupy movement over the last couple of weeks. City and State administrators have lost their patience; instead of recognizing that Occupy protestors are voting, tax-paying citizens entitled to basic constitutional rights, many localities have quickly passed laws imposing curfews, prohibiting “food tables” and lodging, and in other ways creating obstacles that violate the right to assembly and attempting to limit free speech. This should be unacceptable to every American, regardless of whether you support the Occupy movement or not. We cannot support our elected leaders using expedient legislation to deny any one their right to dissent.
Various law enforcement agencies are sent to enforce these new regulations. When a municipality sends law enforcement dressed in full riot gear and wielding weapons and “chemical agents”, those municipalities do not intend a peaceful confrontation. A municipality only deploys militarized law enforcement as a show of force against a presupposed criminalized citizenry. I will never understand the discourse that equates the civilian on the street, even if he has a rock in his hand, with the militarized policeman. We either accept violence or don’t. There is no moral ground for condoning it for one group but not the opposition, particularly when the condoned group is state-sanctioned law enforcement and the opposition are citizens demanding social justice. The aggression of civilians, and that aggression shown by some protestors in Denver on Saturday, does not excuse the brutal reaction by DPD.
Unfortunately, that is exactly where our conversation about this event finds itself today. Literally 1% of the Occupy Denver protestors got involved in a violent confrontation with Denver Police, and that is what is making the news, not the 99% who marched peacefully for their inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.