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Occupy Wall Street. What Are We Watching?

When I was teaching in China, some of my students would become defensive at my criticisms of a regime that consistently silenced voices of dissent through the easy back-and-forth of scalpel to sledgehammer; a regime that appeased a vast majority of their populace even while exploiting them with the vague and omnipresent threat of looming, senseless violence; a regime that was justified by its own people on the reminder that not so long ago the terror and famine that blighted the Middle Kingdom was much, much worse.

These same students would often become smug when news of corruption, censorship, violence and lack of representation in America came, exaggerated through state-run television, to China.

“See?” they seemed to say, “America, the great country that it is, is just as bad as China.”

But neither point is true; we are not, now, such a great country and we are not just as bad as China.

Today, as I watched a video of a police officer pepper spraying non-violent peaceful protesters at UC Davis's campus, my three year old daughter came up to me and sat in my lap.

“What are you watching?” she asked me. And I couldn't think of how to reply. It may be the first time that she's asked me a question that I couldn't answer.

Most of us know that the picturesque version of American history that we grew up with in our public school social studies textbooks is at least half a lie. America has a past steeped as much in blood as in liberty, and not nearly as much of that blood has been sanctified by progress as we would like to admit. Our country isn't great exactly, but it's one that is overflowing with potential. It's a country that stands for something symbolically whether we want it to or not, whether we deserve it or not. Perhaps it is that symbolic America clashing with the material America that is manifested in the emotion of the Occupy protests.

I've had some pretty strong criticisms of the Occupy movement, the same as many of us, liberal, conservative or anything in between. I've listened to the Protest Chaplains, my peers at Harvard, come back from Occupy Boston and express their concerns over small factions within the movement that want to promote violence, and their concerns over a lack of vision and coherence.

In a class on utopia the other day, it was suggested that the downfall of Occupy could be the difficulty of imagining solutions to problems as broad, systemic and sweeping as those that our country faces, and these are real difficulties. Because it is clear that something is fundamentally broken. It's terrifying how broken things are, and how our middle class, as it is squeezed and threatened more and more, is divided.

What sickens me more than the degradation of our country's representative politics, more than the destruction of our country's economy, is the recent spout of police violence across the country towards peaceful protesters, of which the nauseating video of pepper-spraying students is just one very notorious example. Say what you will about their politics, or their lack of politics, but the way the police have been used is un-American.

I can sympathize with critics of the movement who point out that the protesters have no legal right to encamp on privately owned land. I think that issue is complicated by the public-private relationships involved in publicly subsidized ownership and maintenance of privately-owned public parks, but that's an entirely different issue from what I can only call police brutality.

How does it make sense to pepper spray students in their faces and then drag them away without trying to drag them away first? How does it make sense to use batons to break the ribs of students and teachers before forcibly attempting to disengage them from their peers in order to arrest them? How can we justify police responding to a woman offering herself up for arrest, her hands extended before her for cuffing, by dragging her savagely across the ground by her hair? How can we justify it when police pepper spray protesters who are standing on their side of the police barrier?

Whether you think you're part of the self-proclaimed 53%, those hard-working individuals who pay income taxes and, frankly, benefit enormously from the social programs that the government runs, or you're one of the self-proclaimed 99% who have had their lives progressively forced into a surreal tragedy by the failing economy, we should be able to agree that the response we're seeing to these protesters is unpatriotic.

“Get a job!” police yelled at protesters. “Get a job!” Gingrich told them. “Get a job!” says the 53% movement in opposition of Occupy.

“We want a job,” many of the Occupiers are saying. “We have a job,” say others.

But for a moment, let's forget the rhetoric. Let's assume that the Occupiers are as lazy, stupid, rife with a sense of entitlement, and as narcissistically exhibitionist as their opponents would have us believe. And with all of that in mind, let's watch uniformed police offers gush pepper spray onto their faces because they wouldn't move when asked. Let's imagine them coughing up blood for hours in the emergency room. Let's watch them dragged unresisting across the street by their hair. And let's ask ourselves, collectively, “Is this how America should treat protest?”

What are we watching?

Christopher Michael Luna is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist


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