I almost wrote a variation on this post a couple of days ago, to mark the anniversary of the passing of Rosa Parks. Time got away from me and it didn’t get written, but that was before I woke up this morning to find that the US has gone crazy.
Please don’t take this the wrong way. I am not anti-American. I’d rather live in a world where the US is the major superpower rather than a regime like, say, North Korea. Frankly I think that’s just common sense, but let’s not kid ourselves, America, and the rest of the Western democracies, do have their moments of barbaric stupidity.
So in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Earlier today, Occupy Oakland was attacked by police, leading to children, the disabled and the elderly being tear-gassed and (possibly) shot at with rubber bullets.
There will, of course, be reasons given for all this – tired police, rogue protestors throwing bottles, people just following orders – but you can’t look at pictures of a wheelchair user shrouded by tear gas and wonder what the hell’s going on. Let’s not forget there were apparently cops from 15 different agencies present; if you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, you sure don’t need an army to police an overwhelmingly peaceful protest.
It’s not escaped notice that Tea Party rallies, at which people openly carried guns and proudly used violent rhetoric, didn’t get gassed. I get that different strategies need to be used, but it’s the contrast between the two that raises uncomfortable questions for Western democracies; who is protesting and what’s being defended?
This is partly why the “We Are The 99%” line leaves me uncomfortable. There are now 7 billion of us, which makes the 1% 70,000,000 people. That’s still a big enough group in which we can throw people we disagree with – corrupt bankers, sure, but where do the police fit in all this? Or St. Paul’s Cathedral? And while I like Obama, his campaign’s Tweets bragging about fundraising sit uncomfortably next to those from people getting arrested because they’re concerned about the influence of money on politics.
(That’s why I like the 7 Billion Actions site, as it’s a nice reminder that everyone has their own story; heck, even the bus driver who wanted Parks to give up her seat had had a similar encounter with her before, giving the whole thing something of a narrative. We’re the 100%, even when we want to hate each other’s guts.)
But then it’s kind of difficult not to get a bit them-and-us when rubber bullets are used. Freedom of speech, the right to have our voices heard, is a democratic cornerstone. Sure, ask protestors to move on if they’re creating a risk to public safety or something, but actually suppressing protest is something else entirely. It’s especially sad to see it happening in the States, with its history of radical protest leading to something positive (the Boston Tea Party, Civil Rights, Stonewall Riots, women’s suffrage…).
I admit that I’d be less sympathetic if it was the EDL, KKK or Westboro Baptist getting tear gassed, but they’re allowed to speak. The rest of us are still allowed to mock them though…
I have no idea where the Occupy movement is going. I do know that things will get ugly if politicians don’t stop being dismissive of concerns, or if the police continue their strong-arm tactics. 2011 has been a weird year. Let’s hope it doesn’t end with more violence.