Monday, November 21, 2011

Occupy: Symbols and substance

For the last five days it’s been the viral video that showed, starkly and painfully, just how much Us Versus Them has become an unwritten law of the land. A group of Occupy protesters sits locked arm in arm outside on the campus of the University of California at Davis. A police officer walks up to the group holding a can of pepper spray, a law enforcement staple whose main ingredient, oleoresin capsicum, is said to burn and irritate the eyes and mucus membranes with a brief but frightening fury.

In the video, the officer then methodically begins spraying the protesters, soaking them down with the ease and alacrity he might bring to the task of carpet-bombing the bougainvillea with insecticide in his own back yard.

The reaction to Friday's Scoville-scale corporal punishment was swift, spirited and eloquent; calls for the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi started quickly, followed by an overdue reassessment of our nation’s police forces and their increasingly militaristic arsenal.

But the images in that video stay with you; in their own way they’re as powerful and potentially galvanizing as the grainy black-and-white footage of young black men and women being blasted by high-pressure water from firehoses in the Jim Crow South. And for many of the same reasons.

The Occupy movement is morphing from a protracted but spasmodic revolt into a true movement whose reordering of national priorities could yet usher in a pivot point of vast social change in America. Now the movement is crossing the symbolic Rubicon; among other reasons, you can thank the power of a visual culture for that.

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In recent weeks, the Occupy movement has crescendoed in the national conversation. City by city, encampment by encampment, it's becoming like something out of the "bonfire of the vanities" — not the 1987 Tom Wolfe novel that explored the lives of American haves and have-nots in uber-rich 1980’s New York, but the events in 1497 when supporters of Girolamo Savonarola gathered to burn objects of temptation and sin in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence.

On Thursday, Nov. 17, on a "Day of Action,” Occupy protesters turned their populist fire on the inanities of government and the banking system with street actions and encampments in New York, Seattle, Portland (Ore)., Los Angeles, Burlington (Vt)., Oakland, St. Louis, hundreds of other locations in the United States, and several more outside the U.S.

That night in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, where it all started two months ago, the New York City Police Department physically threw people out of the park. The City's Finest did what they could to throw a cone of silence around things, imposing a media blackout and banning news copters from filming overhead.

But as you'd expect these days, cell phone cameras did what the mainstream media couldn't do: report what was happening. On Twitter and Facebook, and in the ultimate village square we call YouTube, there was evidence of a government attacking its citizens and preventing the other media from reporting it.

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Those clashes just reflect the social polarities that have long been a part of American society. Want another example? In a recent promo for the "Your Money, Your Vote" Republican candidates'  debate on (NBC-Dow Jones owned) CNBC, in a cynical mischaracterization of the Occupy objective, a voiceover asks, "How will candidates end the war on wealth?" The ad also includes images of the Occupy Wall Street protests:

But there’s proof that some of this literal rage against the machine is paying dividends. On Nov. 14, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved Resolution 31337, a measure in support of the Occupy movement “recognizing and supporting the peaceful and lawful exercise of the First Amendment as a cherished and fundamental right in the effort to seek solutions for economically distressed Americans at the federal and local levels,”

From the resolution: “The City will review its banking and investment practices to ensure that public funds are invested in responsible financial institutions that support our community.

“The City will examine the number of home foreclosures in Seattle, the geographic neighborhoods in which the foreclosures are occurring, and lender information on homes involved in the foreclosure process.”

With the resolution, the city pledges to “continue to address economic inequality and wealth disparities by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender,” and to seek “maximum possible funding for Early Learning and Basic Education” programs from the state.

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This action, more than symbolic but less than substantive (at least right now), comes in the wake of recent Occupy protests at Chase and Bank of America branches in Seattle — protests that had results with bigger teeth.

A few weeks back, on Nov. 5, Bank Transfer Day, about 700 people switched their money from the major banks to the Boeing Employees Credit Union. Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien pulled his own money out of Wells Fargo.

Bank of America, reeling from customer withdrawals, had already decided on Nov. 1 to back off on imposing $5 debit fees for customers to use their own accounts. “Our customers' voices are most important to us. As a result, we are not currently charging the fee and will not be moving forward with any additional plans to do so,” said BofA co-chief operating officer David Darnell in a press release.

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But every good movement needs a literal symbol or two (and no, not the Guy Fawkes masks that have been around in protests since “V for Vendetta” was released in 2006). Something fresh. That was delivered on Thursday night in lower Manhattan, when protesters and the public looked up at the Verizon Building near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, and had a Bat-signal moment. There about midway up the building was what's apparently become The Logo of the Occupy movement, the figures “99%” in black against a light background. Citizens to corporate titan: Can you hear me now?

That was one potent expression of the power of symbol. Another one happened in Seattle on Tuesday night. Seattle police pepper-sprayed a group of protesters who, by all accounts, were acting peacefully before their encounter with the cops. In the incident, several people were overcome by the spray, including a pregnant woman, a priest and Dorli Rainey, a long-time activist who’s 84 years old.

Joshua Trujillo, a photographer from the news Web site, took a picture of Rainey being led away from the encounter, eyes streaming with the water used to wash out the police pepper spray.

Often, it takes a single image to bring big concepts down to earth, to give a movement a human dimension. The Rainey photograph may be that shot, the distilling Madonna image of the Occupy movement — in much the same way of the photograph of 84-year-old Milvirtha Hendricks, who sat covered by a blanket designed like the American flag, outside the New Orleans Convention Center the day after Hurricane Karina roared ashore in August 2005.

Rainey’s presence at the rally, where this incredibly plugged-in octogenarian was briefly rendered her sightless, puts the lie to the idea that the Occupy movement is the captive of the young: high-hormonal troublemakers in black hoodies adorned with the A-in-circle that stands for “anarchy.” Rainey’s presence there shows how a battle for the future — maybe the battle for the future — is going down not along the convenient dividers of generation and politics, but (like movements before this one) on the truer, deeper fault lines of right and wrong.

Her presence, along with hundreds of other senior citizens, baby boomers and others across a range of ages, may be the best kind of symbol for Occupy: a symbol that points to the substance underneath.

Image credits: 99 logo at night: Via Current TV. Direct Action poster: Occupy Seattle screengrab: KING5 Seattle. 99% on Manhattan skyline: © 2011 Amber McLinn. Dorli Rainey: Joshua Trujillo/

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