Saturday, October 8, 2011

With the Police and the People in Cesar Chavez Plaza

Making nice with the occupiers of Cesar Chavez Plaza seems to be the way the local police forces have decided to present themselves after the apparent confusion over various matters concerning the arrests the other night, including very odd charges ("remaining in a place of riot" [actual charge is "failure to disperse"]), and the ultimately bogus ban on arrestees returning to the Plaza "for life," neither of which were intentional. Well. Sure. Whatever.

I was witness to and recorded part of a bridge building encounter yesterday between a member of the Sacramento Police Department, Officer Deputy Chief Sam Somers, obviously highly skilled in community relations, and members of the Occupation. There was no resolution -- of course not -- to the various issues raised, but there was a cordial and extended discussion with the officer and a number of those present, and that defused any sense of confrontation between the police and the occupiers that may have lingered from the day before -- or maybe from other incidents.

Whether issues surrounding police conduct in general rather than the specific police conduct in this instance can be deferred indefinitely -- which seems to be the goal of some of these encounters -- remains to be seen. The problem of policing is part of the institutional breakdown and failure that has led to the uprisings we're seeing. Efforts to make nice -- on both the Occupation's and the police force's behalf -- are well and good, but open handed generosity at this point will be meaningless when or if the crack down comes.

The overall spirit of the Occupation here is very different than in New York. Many of those who are participants here have little or no idea what is going on in New York; they probably have very little interest in it in the abstract, and in many cases, they have very little access to information about it apart from what's in the papers and on the news. They are not chained to an Ipad or laptop computer and so they are not following it the way some of us have been.

All of the excitement of the movement, therefore, is generated locally.
Local participants don't necessarily follow the local Facebook or Twitter feeds let alone all the live and recorded streaming video coverage on the internet. They may instead see one of the numerous television news items about the Occupation or they may read something in the paper, and they come down to the Plaza to see for themselves.

What they see is as spontaneous an ad hoc community as they are ever likely to find. It is self organized and now, with the advent of an internal security committee, it is largely self-policing. There are still many criticisms of these Occupations in New York and all over the country for being "unorganized." They are quite well organized but on a different model than most people are used to, something observers have a very hard time dealing with. They are not hierarchical (at least they're not supposed to be); they operate on principles of equality and participatory democracy, in spirit, they are demonstrations of how an anarchic society -- or a direct democracy -- can function on a limited and dispersed scale. Come to think of it, is the only way anarchy or participatory/direct democracy can work at all.

I was discussing the leadership issue with a gentleman in the Plaza yesterday. There are people involved who either want to assert leadership or who have it thrust on them while others tend to be passive or want to be led. This is human nature, and I don't think it is worthwhile or desirable to go against it. The participatory model that's been developed by trial and error primarily in the European and North African uprisings and revolutions seems to me to be a remarkable way to combine the underlying needs of human nature with the more abstract processes of a functioning direct or participatory democracy. In other words, people can be leaders without being designated as such, and people can be passive or active followers without being suppressed into those roles. People's roles can switch depending on circumstances and need. The lack of a permanent hierarchy is a tremendous benefit in a social and democratic sense because people can take on responsibilities when and how they are able depending on need rather than being assigned roles that are more or less burdensome and "official."

But this model is so different than the models most people are adapted to and have come to expect that there can be some real culture shocks when first encountering it. There can be additional culture shocks when a highly authoritarian and structured organizational model, such as that of the police, confronts a diffuse but purposeful and democratic model such as most of the Occupations use.

I'm kind of astonished at the levels of sheer cruelty that have emerged from some of these encounters, especially in New York and San Francisco, though there have been elements of culture-clash cruelty and arbitrary imposition of authority in other encounters as well, such as the arrests and dismantlement of the Occupation camp at Westlake Plaza in Seattle, followed by the mayor's expression of support and conciliation with the Occupation, including granting permission to rebuild part of the camp at Westlake and to occupy it indefinitely, together with urging the Occupation to Occupy elsewhere, such as, for example, City Hall Plaza in Seattle -- where there are restrooms. You see. Convenience and reasonable accommodation. "It's all good!"

For many participants, however, these elements of official cruelty and arbitrary imposition of authority and seemingly sudden turnabouts in official attitudes are not astonishing at all. They are the way things usually are in the world as it is, and that's why it is necessary to form and demonstrate another way to organize and maintain a functioning social and political model, and why it is especially important to demonstrate it as widely as possible.

When people see that there is an alternative, or rather that there are alternatives, plural, it can be a mind-altering revelation. "Oh. I didn't know things could work this way."

Critics of the movement still insist that its model cannot succeed. It never has, it never will; give up, be absorbed by the Borg and be done with it. If you want to be effective you have to model your movement after Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, period. End of discussion. No questions allowed. And you better dress better or nobody will take you seriously. Sit down. Shut up. Sing out. Do what you're told. Be silent. You can't get anything done without proper organization and required permits. Yadda, yadda, and yadda some more.

These critics become a sort of hilarious background noise after a while. Or really more like the persistent honking from the Clown Car. Or if taken seriously, they are the very model of Authority that has been so devastating to ordinary people and which has inspired these experiments in building a better future. Hello.

The encounter with Deputy Chief Somers in the Plaza yesterday was, I would have to say, "gentle," and intentionally so. The primary issue that was discussed with the officer I witnessed was the arbitrary nature of the closure of the Plaza overnight and how to work together to overcome that problem. In other words, how can the Occupiers be allowed to stay overnight?

The Deputy Chief Somers offered any number of rationales for the arbitrary closure of the Plaza overnight, but because the signs at each corner of the Plaza state that the plaza is closed between sunset and sunrise, while the activities of the Occupation are only prohibited between 11:00pm and 5:00am, 12:00 midnight and 5:00am on the weekend, other events permitting, the arbitrariness of it all was obvious and stark and subject to quite a bit of laughter. Laughter that nevertheless did not lead to a resolution of the problem.

No, camping is still a violation of the ordinance. Yes, and... ? Obviously, exceptions can be made. Well, yes, but the police can't make exceptions on their own. [Actually they can, and they do, all the time, but that's a different issue.] His argument was that: They have to enforce the law equally for all. And besides they don't have the resources to accommodate everyone's interests or requests or demands, the city being strapped for funds as they are.

But officer, came the counter-argument, the whole point of the Occupation is to demonstrate that we can take care of all those things the city thinks it must do -- even mowing the grass if need be -- so what is the problem?

His response ultimately was that it was an insurance issue. The city is self-insured, so consequently the city officials have to be very conscious of and careful about liability, and the liability issue is the main one preventing the Occupation being formally or informally allowed to stay overnight in the Plaza -- or any other public park in Sacramento. There are too many potential liabilities, don't you see? "We could get sued!"

I've heard this excuse for the official refusal to allow some activity to go on so many times over the years, it is tiresome and false. "It's the insurance; they won't let us take on the liability." Except of course when a city is self-insured, they most certainly can take on the liability. I've been faced over and over with an essentially bogus requirement to obtain multi-million dollar event liability policies -- or not do the event. Yet... the requirement can be waived and often is. They won't tell you that of course, you have to find it out. But 'The Insurance Excuse' is the standard gambit for refusing permission to do something -- without actually refusing. Refusing outright can open a civil liberties can of worms they'd rather not. So what they do instead is put the burden on those who want to hold an event or have an ongoing activity to meet what are ultimately arbitrary requirements, and if they can't meet them, it's their problem, not the city's. I've been through this process too many times to count, and gotten around it, too.

With regard to the Occupation, the issue is stalemated. There was one arrest last night of an Occupier who refused to leave the Plaza at closing time, but the general consensus was to obey the closure for Friday night and press the Occupation for Saturday night instead -- when there will be far more people out and about due to the Second Saturday Art Walk that brings tens of thousands into the streets every month.

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