by Joe Shea
December 5, 2011
POOR MR. POSSUM
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - The video footage of Lt. John Pike of the University of California at Davis casually hosing down a group of unarmed, non-violent protesters with pepper spray on Nov. 18 has been compared to the fire hoses and police dogs turned on civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Ala., in the early 1960s.
That comparison is close to the truth. Undeterred by the cameras recording this act, Pike calmly walked up and down the line of about two dozen students, who are sitting on a sidewalk with their arms linked, and laid down a steady stream of pepper spray at point-blank range for about 30 seconds.
Two of the protesters were taken to hospital, while 10 others were arrested. According to the of the UC-Davis Campus Police, Annette Spicuzza, the officers used force because they were surrounded by students and feared for their safety.
The pictures and videos told a different story, and sparked outrage around the world.
UC-Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi tried to defend her handling of the incident. Instead, she provided some of the most powerful imagery of the movement.
Upon leaving a news conference the following day, Katehi was greeted by hundreds of students lining the sidewalk to her car. They sat with their arms linked, and they sat in deafeningly loud silence.
The only sound on the video of this protest is her footsteps on the sidewalk as she walks past the silent students. As James Fallows of The Atlantic wrote on his blog, "As a moral confrontation, this is a rout."
But there were other scenes as powerful last week.
Retired Philadelphia Police Capt. Ray Lewis showed up in his dress blues at the Nov. 17 protest outside the New York Stock Exchange. He was arrested.
That arrest produced the powerful image of a career Philadelphia police officer, in full uniform, with his hands behind his back, surrounded by his supposed New York brothers and sisters in blue, as a helmeted sergeant binds his wrists with plastic zip-tie handcuffs.
Lewis had apparently been going to Zuccotti Park for several days before his arrest, supporting Occupy Wall Street. In a video that was taped a couple of days before his arrest, he said, "All the cops are just workers for the 1 percent, and they don't even realize they're being exploited. As soon as I'm let out of jail, I'll be right back here - and they'll have to arrest me again."
According to the New York Observer, Lewis was released the next day, and all charges were dropped. He said he was treated well. "One said, 'You've got the biggest balls,'" Lewis told the Observer. "Another said he had the utmost respect for what I'm doing."
To me, the image of the week, perhaps of the first two months of Occupy, was that of 84-year-old Dorli Rainey after she was pepper sprayed by Seattle Police on the night of Nov. 15.
In the picture, milk is dripping off her face, the field expedient remedy for neutralizing the chemicals in pepper spray. She is being escorted by two men. She is looking directly at the camera with a slightly dazed, but determined expression on her face.
Rainey is a retired Seattle school teacher and a veteran of many protests. Appearing on "Democracy Now" two days later, Rainey deflected the attention away from her experience.
"But the thing really is not about me getting pepper-sprayed," she said. "It is a much bigger issue than that, and I would like everybody to keep that in mind: that, while we're getting pepper-sprayed, other issues are not being heard. And that's my problem. I feel issues become a major focus to the detriment of the real issues that cause this whole problem."
She is right. If Occupy gets media coverage at all, the focus is always on violence and the frame is always brave police officers versus angry hippies. The images of violence flash across the screen, and the casual viewer reflexively sides with the police, because the police are our friends who protect us from evildoers, while the protesters are just dirty, freaking hippies.
However, the good news is that after its first two months, the Occupy movement has had an effect.
A search of the Lexis/Nexis database shows that between October 2010 and September 2011, the number of news articles with the word "Inequality" in U.S. newspaper averaged about 400 a month, ranging from a high of 559 in March 2011 (the peak of the Wisconsin protests) to a low of 301 in December 2010.
In October 2011, the number of stories with the word "inequality" rose to 1,259.
The same pattern can be seen with the phrase "richest 1 percent." It went from 19 in October 2010 to 174 in October 2011. Likewise for "greed," which went from 728 in October 2010 to 2,285 in October 2011.
That's a good sign. Most Americans do not share Washington's obsession with austerity. A Gallup poll taken in early September showed that lowering unemployment and boosting the U.S. economy are the top two policy priorities, and that Democrats, independents and Republicans all agreed those were the top two.
The connections between 30 years of political, economic and social policies designed to benefit the richest 1 percent at the expense of everyone else are becoming clear to more and more Americans every day. We can thank the Occupy protesters for that.
But Occupy is not over. The strategy is beginning to shift from taking over physical space to taking over ideological space. You can certainly expect protesters to show up at various places and events where their presence can set the agenda. And you can also expect that, in an election year, Occupy will seek to inject the issues of economic inequality into the political discourse.
Occupy will likely not be endorsing candidates, or siding with a political party. It is wise enough to know that its power comes from not being aligned with a candidate or a party, but through redefining our nation's priorities and offering an alternative vision to the current politics of greed and fear.
But mostly, it is the moral courage of people like the students at UC-Davis, Dorli Rainey and Ray Lewis that will keep this movement alive. The pepper spray and clubs have come out, but the cops and the elites they work for don't yet realize you can't arrest an idea.
AR Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.