The one per cent punish us for wanting what they say we can’t have.
There’s such a thing as riot ennui. Having spent over a year watching youtube videos of police on various continents violently assaulting peaceful protesters, I thought I’d lost not interest, but perhaps a certain capacity to be shocked by raw footage of tear gas, teenagers with blood running into their eyes, young men being pulled out of wheelchairs, police horses being driven into crowds of unarmed protesters with nowhere to go. This is the new normal. People taking to the streets, because conscience or desperation lead them unavoidably to those streets to stand against austerity, and being beaten back and beaten down by armed state heavies, time after time after time, in developed and developing countries. This is what democracy looks like.
For those of us who give a goddamn about a fair and sustainable future, these images have become routine. Do anything at all to make your feelings about financial feudalism known other than shuffle slowly and silently from one state-sanctioned march point to another and you can expect to be punished, hurt and arrested. It’s worth taking a moment to sit back and think about what that means. Quotidian as they may have become, Miami-model policing and intolerance of political dissent of any kind are not inevitable. They are deliberate political choices made by world governments who have run out of counter-arguments to anti-austerity protests that don’t come at the end of a police baton.
It’s been a year now – exactly a year this weekend, in fact, since the Parliament Square kettle. But there are still moments when the routine becomes unfamiliar – when you understand with renewed rage that these images must never be allowed to become part of our psychic furniture. Watching this youtube clip of a young woman in Melbourne being stripped to her underwear and thrown to the ground by police, you feel your breath catch in your throat. There have been far viler, bloodier videos this year. But there’s something in the grim, determined way that the officers, male and female, pull the girl out of her costume and shove her to the ground as she cries out “don’t take my clothes off” that makes the hairs on the back of your arms stand on end.
It’s the sense of ritual humiliation that’s truly chilling. It’s the pointlessly brutal demonstration of who is weak and who is strong in this game, and the grim, sour humourlessness of it all. It started with a joke: three anti-capitalist protesters at Occupy Melbourne, forbidden from having tents, dressed up in enormous tent-shaped costumes and made at least twelve police officers chase them around a park in the city-centre. “Come on, it’s all in good fun,” says a disembodied voice behind the camera as the officers finally march, disgruntled, out of the park. Later, the police return, and proceed to strip the young woman of her costume, refusing absolutely to see the funny side of this harmless piece of protest theatre.
That’s not the most unsettling thing, however. The most unsettling thing about the video is the comments underneath, which are as usual the run-off channel for all the slurry of human vindictiveness that is somehow supposed to matter less online. One of them reads: “Got wot she deserved!!! Do as you are told and the police wont ‘harrass’ you!!! [sic] Get a job.”
Courage and desire
There it is. Right there. For anyone who ever doubted, for those who continue to doubt that women’s liberation and the fight for socio-economic justice are part of the same struggle against complicity and complacency. Dare to speak your mind? Dare to make trouble? Dare to wear a short skirt, a hoodie, a bandana, a placard, an ingenious costume in the shape of a tent? Well then, you deserve to be hurt and humiliated. You deserve to be frightened and bullied and beaten. Sit down, shut up. Get a job and work till you drop like the rest of us, and if you can’t get a job then get on your belly and beg like the rest of us. You deserve it. You asked for it, by daring to make your desires known, by showing your anger, showing your heart, showing your skin. Be quiet and do as you are fucking told. Bitch. Scrounger. Benefit scum. Hippy. Whore.
The most dangerous thing in the world for the one per cent is desire. Unsanctioned desire, desire for things that we can’t be made to buy, things like power and sex and and social justice, is always dangerous when it can’t be controlled. The only possible solution is to punish the desire and blame the victims for inviting that punishment.
Women and Occupy
It’s not that the Occupy Movement has always been a haven for female power, sexual and otherwise. The axes of oppression rarely run perfectly parallel. Consider, for example, the second image down on the Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street tumblr – a site claiming that rank objectification of young female activists is a celebration of the movement, deservedly torn to dialectical tatters by feminist bloggers when it first emerged – which suggests that images of the violent arrests of young women by faceless police officers should be considered sexually arousing. Because nothing gets a young manarchist hot and heavy and ready to smash the state like a crying girl in handcuffs.
That’s to say nothing of the alleged rapes that have occurred in the Occupy encampments, leading to the formation of women’s working groups and systems like the Safer Spaces area, set up to provide a safe sleeping space for female occupiers worried about sexual assault. Whether or not it is the case that the world outside the encampments is vastly more threatening to women, the role and status of female-identified people within the Occupy movement is not just a PR issue to be dealt with, potential ammunition for hostile tabloids. What would really ruin not only the reputation but the ethical fortitude of Occupy would be any suggestion that allegations of rape, sexual abuse and structural sexism within the movement are not being taken seriously.
This movement needs women, just like the world needs women. Women know what it is to swallow desire, to be dishonest about the lives we want to lead and the power we want to challenge. A new world will not be won until women and the underprivileged have the courage to express their desires without fear, and until their notional allies have the courage to listen.
Things change. In just under a year since the university occupations in London of which I was a part were evicted, I have seen UK Uncut and the student movement change and expand, descending at times into weary bickering, elevating at times into moments of powerful clarity that the intensity and adrenaline of full-time occupation dosometimes not allow. This is what remains, after the clouds of smoke and pepper spray have cleared: a scar over your friend’s right eye. A tendency to twinkle your fingers upwards like a goon when you agree with a given statement. And the idea of solidarity – to paraphrase Tom Geogohan’s words in “Which Side Are You On”, one of the few remaining loves that dare not speak its name – as a value that can be lived in practice.
Now, after months of escalation, publicity and counter-attack, the first stage of the Occupy movement is over. Most of the major encampments in America and across the world have been evicted – the latest, Occupy Boston, was cleared by police just this morning – and the challenge now facing Occupy is to decide which scars will not be allowed to close, which gestures will remain ingrained, and which realities will not be permitted to pass into memory.
The hunger for justice is catching. No wonder the police and local city authorities have been so keen to describe these protests as smelly, filth-ridden, contagioun, walking into evicted campsites in Los Angeles and elsewhere in Hazmat suits for the benefit of those tame members of the press only too happy to smear around the ‘unsanitary hippies’ stereotype. Desire, and the courage to express it until power has no choice but to listen, is a terrifying prospect to anyone with vested interests in the status quo. Of course they call you dirty. Of course they call you sick. The idea of democracy has always been infectious, and right now it is spreading like a virus around the developed world, with Occupy as its main vector.