I was shocked and dismayed to hear on NPR’s “Marketplace” program on Friday, a reporter from the New York Times, dismiss "riots" in Barcelona as “nothing new”, suggesting that Spain, and perhaps specifically Barcelona, is routinely given to street violence. This disgraceful distortion is fast becoming a hallmark of financial reporting, and needs to be addressed head on by those of us who care about truth and democracy.
For many years, I visited, or lived in, or spent my time writing about Barcelona, from up close. I worked there as an independent journalist, a publisher doing market research, a translator and as a poet trying to get by on what is available to the tourist-artist. I met people who lived their lives in Catalán, in Castellano, in English, in Hungarian, in French, and who held all manner of jobs, almost none of them well-paid.
After the dignity and inspiration of the Arab Spring, what we are now witnessing in the United States has been an inspiration to millions of people who long to have a voice in their society. Yet some city governments are ordering the use of paramilitary assault tactics against unarmed civilians engaged in constitutionally protected peaceful assembly and free expression. In Oakland, we have now seen two displays of overwhelming, deliberate, combat-style police actions against unarmed civilians exercising their basic rights.
Video has emerged clearly confirming eyewitness reports that Oakland police fired directly into crowds of unarmed demonstrators with tear gas and flash-bang grenades. Scott Olsen, now famous the world over, was shot in the face when police fired “non-lethal” rubber bullets directly at protesters’ heads, at close range. Video shows a combination flash-bang/teargas grenade being fired directly into the middle of a crowd of people attempting to tend to him as he lay bleeding on the ground.
The city of Oakland is experiencing a deep crisis of conscience, amid what appears to be the moral confusion of its administration. The mayor, who had marched with the Occupy Oakland demonstrators, has now ordered not one but two paramilitary strikes against nonviolent protesters, in which tear gas, “flash-bang” grenades, rubber bullets and powerful sonic pulses were fired directly at unarmed civilians.
There are calls for attempted murder prosecutions against some of the officers. Thousands are now demonstrating against clear violations of constitutional civil liberties, caught on video. The reaction has spread across the country, and some have questioned whether the mayor should resign.
An ex-Marine is now in the hospital, reported in critical condition, and authorities say the paramilitary tactics were justified. New video has emerged clearly showing a policeman firing directly at a group of unthreatening unarmed civilians simply attempting to assist a man injured by the attacks. To many, the crisis seems incomprehensible, even moreso because the mayor herself previously marched among them.
The most vital question, however, is how can the people of Oakland rally to the Occupy cause, without further inflaming tensions in a city where the elected government openly violates basic civil liberties? What strategy should the demonstrators adopt in order to maintain and defend their rights to peaceable assembly, free expression and to seek redress for grievances, that will allow them to show how steadfast nonviolence wins the struggle against brutal aggression?
Oakland police have reportedly cleared out all Occupy Oakland protesters, demolishing a tent city and using overwhelming force and physical violence to do so. Unconfirmed reports suggest that tear gas and rubber bullets were used, many may be injured. According to the @OccupyOakland Twitter feed:
#occupyoakland attacked by 500 cops in suprise assault. tear gas, rubber bullets, shotguns, flash bang grenades. Many injured. - 10/25/11 8:20 AM
KTVU is also reporting on the arrests. Oakland police reportedly warned shopkeepers to open late and to have their employees come in late, a warning that has prompted some to speculate they had planned to use violence and to have, as a result, a chaotic scene they did not want residents and workers to witness.
The Occupy Wall Street movement—now being called “the American Autumn”, after the Arab Spring, or the September 17th movement, after the day it got started in lower Manhattan—is now completing four weeks on the scene. Yet we can still be astounded to hear so many incredulous “experts” unable to understand how a grassroots movement, infused with the zeitgeist of very problematic times, is working toward anything constructive. What is the meaning of this? Why don’t they have a ready-to-go list of demands? What are they asking us to think?
It’s actually very simple. It’s self-evident, but if you’re at a loss, you can also go to Zuccotti Park, or to any of the Occupy Together protest sites, and just talk to people, and what did not seem evident will rapidly become so. The meaning of the Occupy Wall Street movement that is spreading across the United States like wildfire is: democracy. The unifying sentiment, which is actively put into practice every day at Occupy encampments, is that citizens have a right to participate. They are building a participatory process to restore the principle of informed citizen participation to our political system and our economy.
Yesterday, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Brookfield Properties (owners of Liberty Plaza and Zuccotti Park) announced they would use police to clear the square for “cleaning”, and that protesters would be welcome to return, so long as they abided by the rules of bringing no tarps, no tents and no sleeping bags, and never lying down in the square. The announcement prompted an immediate call to supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement to gather at Zuccotti Park at 6 am (one hour before the planned eviction) to peacefully resist attempts to clear the square of protesters.
This morning, with over 5,000 people occupying the park, Brookfield Properties announced it would postpone the planned attempt to clear the square by force. The announcement has been the latest in a series of PR disasters for Mayor Bloomberg, who had always, until now, been able to consistently convince most New Yorkers of his independent views, his common sense thinking and his informed moderation. He has now been compared to disgraced dictator Hosni Mubarak, due to the perception that he prefers using police action to disperse dissenters than to allow a peaceful assembly of citizens to continue.