Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Loitering within tent

[trigger warning: state violence]

Why aren't the people in charge simply ignoring the Occupy movement? It's not obvious to me.

Petitions, protests, marches, letter-writing campaigns, voting - all can be and are largely ignored by elected politicians. A representative who is already sympathetic to their cause can use these things to be more forceful in Parliament. With consistent effort of this sort over many years, then the number of sympathetic representatives in Parliament can be grown and public opinion can be altered - but this is an extremely slow process and as, for instance, the blatant racism or heterosexism shown by some MPs today demonstrates, can be ignored at will by an unsympathetic representative.

The "ultimate sanction" of making them lose elections is only a statistical deterrent. A party may occasionally lose power temporarily - though that was going to happen anyway - but individual representatives in safe seats (and there are equivalents in almost all electoral systems) can stay in office as long as they want.

So, given that, what is it about Occupy that stops it being ignored. Look at it entirely from an abstract point of view - ignore the aims, just look at the methods.

  • A protest march will, if it's large enough, block off multiple streets in a major city for several hours. Normal day-to-day life is disrupted over a large area. Then, everything returns to normal, and it gets pushed back in to the pile of previous marches.
  • Occupy take an area of public space, put some tents up, and stay there. The vast majority of the city continues as normal - indeed, from a distance, it's not obviously there - and even nearby it's generally relatively straightforward to walk around them. Generally, far fewer people are participating at any one time, in any particular Occupy location, than would appear at any medium-sized protest march in the same city.

The only thing that makes it more "disruptive" than a protest march is the permanence in a public space. But alone, that's not particularly disruptive1. They may be a reminder of something governments and the powerful don't like to be reminded of - but they should be an easily avoidable and ignorable reminder. The late Brian Haw camped outside Parliament for years without changing policy, and only really made the news on the (many) occasions where they tried to have him removed.

Likewise, while the Occupy movements are - to a greater or lesser extent - trying to develop alternatives to the established order, that they're doing so in a square in the rain, instead of on an internet forum or on a commune somewhere out of the way, shouldn't be particularly threatening. It's not as if people merely walking by are going to pick up the interesting details of that, as opposed to a few messages and slogans on signs.

It seems fairly obvious to me that if the governments and powerful had completely ignored Occupy Wall Street, giving non-committal platitudes about the right to protest and "they can stay if they want[, I don't care]" if anyone asked, then it would not have reached the numbers it has - across North America and Europe - and not have received anything like as much press coverage.

Occupy LSX has pretty much only been in the news since it started over disputes as to whether they should be "allowed" to stay there or forcibly removed. The reasons they're actually there are getting very little press coverage. If they'd been passively allowed to continue without interference, then they'd still be there, of course - but no-one who didn't physically go past them would have noticed.

Similarly, the recent attacks on Occupy Oakland - and now New York and Seattle, at least - and the slightly less aggressive ongoing policing and "health and safety" disruptions of the sites - may have deterred some people from attending ... but they've also kept the protests in the news, encouraged the protestors, often grown their numbers overall, and made them think that their strategy is working.

Gandhi's "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win" statement has been repeated to the point of cliché about Occupy - but while their eventual victory (and what that might mean, anyway) is still nowhere near inevitable, they're larger in number and angrier as a result of governments and the powerful not being content to remain at the "ignore" stage.

So why try to repress them so much? It can't be the ideas alone. There's nothing new in their ideas (and that is not a criticism!) - and there's nothing new about a significant angry minority holding those ideas. The economic collapse has made more people receptive to those ideas, and the Occupy camps mean that (a few) more people hear about those ideas.

It also can't be about permission to hold those ideas and express them publicly. The only part unique to Occupy is "in a square" or "in a tent". Again, if ignored, they wouldn't be powerful there.

It can't be personal inconvenience or conscience. If the powerful had those, then plenty of other forms of protest would either be more rapidly effective, or more heavily restricted, or both.

It can't be about "health and safety" or other such concerns. The only health and safety potentially being affected is generally that of the people inside the Occupy camps - which they obviously don't care about. Yes, the protests may after legal argument be found to be breaking some technicality of the law. But probably most protest marches could after the fact be found to have done the same. It's largely irrelevant to whether they can be ignored, and it's more focus on enforcing every single law at once than ever gets applied anywhere else. Enforcing laws - and making up new laws to enforce - is a means, but it can't be the end in itself.

It shouldn't be about personal fear - hundreds of thousands of people in a square like Tahrir Square can be threatening to a government: that's enough people that if they did turn out to be armed revolutionaries they could do some serious damage to the government even if the police and army stayed loyal - and a sign of enough popular support that a dictator can't rely enough on their loyalty. So Egypt's government fell.

But a few hundred people? Maybe a few thousand at the biggest? That's not dangerous. They're not even particularly close to government buildings, or the offices of the truly powerful. Even if they were all armed to the teeth if they tried anything violent they would go down very quickly in the "fatally failed revolutionaries" list. And clearly if they were armed and shooting, the loyalty of the police and army is nowhere near weak enough yet in North America or Europe to end up defecting: the recent police assaults on Occupy should show they don't have a problem there.

So - there seems to be nothing to lose by simply ignoring Occupy like they ignore every other protest and fringe movement. And much more to lose by attacking them through the courts and through violence, thereby increasing anger and public sympathy. So why pick that strategy?

I really don't get it. What do the rich and powerful know that I don't that makes Occupy so specifically threatening to them that they're willing to take such disproportionate and panicked action to try - counter-productively - to stop them? What am I missing here?


1 If the public space is "across a major motorway" or "in the middle of Oxford Street" or "right where you wanted to build a block of flats" or "in front of the gates of a military base", then it's definitely very disruptive. But that's not what Occupy is doing.