Ever since the protest started in Zuccotti park, there has been a lot of bickering over the substance — or lack of — the #OccupyWallStreet’s main slogan: “We are the 99%”. Many people have been pointing out that their opinion has never been asked for in terms of opting in or out of this constituency. Almost immediately, a counter-movement of “We are the 53%” sprang up, meant to not-so-subtly underscore that only 53% of Americans pay federal income tax which, as the vocal members of the 53%-movement point out, pays for the social benefits of those who choose to camp out at parks and do nothing.
Actually the 53%-movement itself provides a very good reply to those who are complaining that the 99% movement is nowhere near as broadly based and representative as the title would lead us to believe. The fact that someone is paying taxes in no way means that one would hold the opinions voiced by the 53%-movement, evidenced by the fact that almost half of the people at Zuccotti park are actually employed full time. So yes, 99% movement does not represent the 99% of the population, and 53% movement does not represent each and every American taxpayer – hopefully we can put this issue aside now.
However, as the police departments across the US have stepped up the pressure against the different #occupy movements, it seems a very important development is taking place. While there have been clashes between the police and protesters (notably in Oakland), by and large the US protests have been remarkably peaceful. That is – peaceful from the side of protesters. Not so from the other side.
The first instance of excessive and unjustified use of force came from September, when the NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna’s pepper spraying two women got caught on video that immediately went viral. This was the first time when #OWS movement was picked up by mainstream media in other terms than a mere mention or expression of bewilderment. The second such case was that of Iraq veteran Scott Olsen getting hit to the head by a tear gas canister in the course of Oakland protests. A video of unconscious and bloody Olsen also started circulating immediately, and sparked instant protests in a number of cities — that in turn were countered with substantial force. Having apparently learned the lesson, when evicting the Zuccotti Park on November 14, the NYPD arrived unannounced at midnight and proceeded to block the access of the press (and even told the CBS helicopter to “vacate the airspace” above the park) — with the stated reason of aiming to “provide protection” for the media. Unsurprisingly, this caused an uproar.
Most recently, there have been two related incidents in the East coast university campuses — in Berkeley and UC Davis — where police has been dispersing crowds on campus grounds while resorting to substantial violence. Berkeley was first, and here you can read an excellent essay on what happened there. And then, on this Friday, there was a sit-in at UC Davis campus, where some 50 students set up their tents and refused to leave. The university officials decided to hail in cops in full riot gear, who then proceeded to pepper spray the sitting protesters — with everything caught on video, of course.
The handling of the case has, again, sparked an outrage. There’s this public letter to Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi of UC Davis, a person responsible for calling in the cops, that has gathered more than
seven thousand ninety seven thousand signatures of support by now. The police officer who was casually spraying people had his name and contact details published on the internet — and is unlikely to be able to use his e-mail or phone anytime soon.
Now, while the #OccupyWallStreet may be far from being able to resonate with anything close to 99% of americans with their message (or the respective lack of it, as many would point out) — here we are entering a whole new territory. Americans are — and always have been — fanatical about their First Amendment rights. The right to free speech, assembly and protest are as close to sacred in America as anything can be. And this is where the #OWS movement has been gaining a lot of ground lately. When americans see images of police beating up, handcuffing, pepper spraying and tearing away people who have simply linked up their arms while sitting on ground in their campus, they tend to be less interested in whatever reasons those people may have had to sit down and refuse to move at the first place, than their right to do it if they so choose.
And this is where the tipping point may be a lot closer, where the 99% may well be something real, rather than merely a cool sounding rhetoric.