NY Conversation November 2011

As anyone who reads NY Conversation‘s online incarnation may have already read, your correspondent spent a bit of time down at the Occupy Wall Street march in Washington Square recently. As I wrote at the time, I’ve generally been skeptical of protest movements over the years, both because they generally involve strident people demanding fundamentally inconsequential things via cheap megaphones, and because the fact that my political views are of a generally left-wing bent invariably means that attending marches involves spending time with the sort of irksome hippies for whom political engagement means playing bongos and riding oversized unicycles.

Happily, Occupy Wall Street wasn’t like that. Or, if it was, it wasn’t only like that. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the march was that a very broad spectrum of society was represented — sure, there were the hippies and their bongos, along with the rent-an-anarchist minority who invariably turn up at all such events, but there were all sorts of others: old ladies with small, nervous dogs; families with large, expensive prams; tourists; students; and even the occasional businessman.

Ordinary people, in other words, not rabble-rousers who are out to “destroy jobs”, as Michael Bloomberg rather hysterically claimed afterward, but who are largely fed up with… well, everything, really. I doubt many of the attendees want to storm the barricades and shut down the stock exchange, or run the banks out of town, or any of the other sensationalist motives that have been ascribed to Occupy Wall Street over the last couple of weeks. Most of them looked like they were there to voice a sort of general existential discontent, and then go home and make dinner.

Crucially, it was also an entirely peaceful affair. As such, it’s been with a sense of impotent despair that I’ve read the reports of the police violence at Occupy Melbourne last week. Of course, I wasn’t there, but I can’t imagine the protesters in Melbourne were too different to the amiable crowd down at Washington Square. Ordinary people. Whatever you think of their views, they deserved better.

And perhaps the most depressing thing about the Australian media’s coverage of the violence in Melbourne has been the general sense that the protesters were a bunch of ratbags who didn’t do what they were told, and got what they deserved. Maybe they were ratbags. Maybe they didn’t do what they were told. But police brutality is never OK, no matter who it’s directed at. The rush to argue that the police “had to use force” has demeaned everyone involved. And while the stance of the Herald Sun et al isn’t surprising, the contempt with which protesters have been portrayed is startling — in the US, not even Fox News, with its “Occupy Wall Street Kicks Hungry Homeless Out of Park” headlines, has been quite so vituperative.

Some of the protesters may well be idealistic and naive, but it’s a sad state of affairs if idealism is something to sneeze at. It’s certainly nothing to beat around the head with a baton. And I can’t help but wonder what is that Australia has found so objectionable in the Occupy Movement. It seems to play both into an abiding complacency — hey, we’ve got a beaut economy, what’s to complain about? — and also into an hostility to anything that challenges a way of life that has made Australians one of the most well-off people in the world. After all, who’d be more hostile to a protest against selfishness than the terminally selfish? Hi, Andrew Bolt!

Anyway, whatever you think of protesters’ views, they’re free to speak their mind, and to do so without getting beaten up — and the violence at Occupy Melbourne looked pretty terrible. People here have asked me about it repeatedly, apparently more troubled by it than the Australian media. Does Australia really want to be a country where the police wade in and break up peaceful protests? Be careful what you wish for, and all that. Because a couple of nights back in Oakland, a young man was shot with a “non-lethal” round at a protest, and left with a fractured skull. He’s currently in a critical condition in hospital. Let’s hope nothing like that happens if there’s another protest in Australia. But after the way protesters have been treated, I don’t feel overly optimistic.

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