(Via the eternally invaluable Louis Proyect)
Under the Giuliani and Bloomberg regimes the cold precision of the choreography imposed by the NYPD on protests rivals that of the Ballet Russe under Balanchine: since the Feb 15th, 2003 and Republican National Convention protest, the authorities have made use of a highly effective combination of carrots and sticks. Quiet and non-violent-by which is meant non-disruptive protests under the terms set by the authorities are tolerated. However, those stepping out of line, those who insist that protests do what they are supposed to do, i.e. disrupt business as usual and impose a cost on those primarily benefitting from its operation, are dealt with considerable harshness.
The response of demonstrators over the past few years has been to capitulate to these imposed conditions and thereby, often under the rubric of “non-violence”, allowing protest to become empty rituals. What is necessary now is that demonstrations reclaim their roots as a demonstrations of power, specifically, their ability to disrupt. And while the disruptions effected today, in the larger scheme of things were quite minimal, what a critical mass of the participants seem to implicitly understand is that disruption-the ability to inflict real costs on entrenched capital through unpredictable and spontaneous (i.e unchoreographed) direct action is a necessary condition for the success of any protest. If these protests succeed in growing with this assumption at their core, they have real potential to become truly meaningful. It remains to be seen whether they will do so.
A description of the remainder of the march requires the trite but, in this context, altogether accurate phrase, “violently dispersed by the police”, though this is, of course, usually applied to various third world dictatorships. One block south the police began to erect a second set of barriers with the purpose of dividing the march into smaller groups, separated by a block or so, arresting those who refused to get out of the street, and who resisted. The arrests were undertaken with considerable brutality which I was a direct witness to, and almost a victim of. The worst which happened to me was to have receive the full brunt of a body which had been slammed with remarkable force by a particularly violent and thuggish cop. Another encounter which I witnessed was worse and somewhat disturbing. A protester who had, I would imagine, prevented the erection of the crowd control barrier, was tackled and set upon by at least seven or eight cops administering a series of blows to all parts of the man’s head and abdomen. I had never seen a display of violence of such intensity and it was quite unnerving. The fact that the target of this display of brutality was black will probably not come as a surprise.
These are some of the events which seem worth reporting here. There were others which a more journalistically inclined (and trained) observer would no doubt relate. Rather than itemizing these I’ll close by mentioning a third reason for why I am somewhat optimistic. This is personal and even a bit sentimental so those who don’t know me might do well to skip the remainder of this paragraph. At the intersection of West 4th my friend Judd Greenstein who I had called earlier darted in the the crowd next to me. Judd, in addition to being probably the most gifted, passionate and communicative of the younger composers I know, is also one of the finest people-in the most simple and meaningful sense of the term. Pretty much unique in my circle of acquaintances, he is a reliable presence at these sorts of protests, having met up with me a year ago or so at a Wall Street protest following the bank bail outs. More significantly for me, this seemingly random encounter brought back for me one of my most treasured memories. At the Iraq war protest in Feb 2003, I was within a sea of bodies walking southward on the corner of 79th and Amsterdam, when I spotted within the crowd heading west my father Morris who was then eighty and my mother Rosamond who was now walking slowly having begun to be affected by the Parkinsons disease which would take her life this year. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. While they are not political activists (certainly less so than my father’s long time friend and colleague Chomsky) their investment in politics is real, though almost exclusively moral-dictated by a simple code which required them to actively protest when their government is enacting atrocities in their name, as it did in Vietnam during my childhood, and as it was about to do in Iraq. Protest is what every decent person did back then-it was not limited to an activist clique. There were lots like my parents back then.
Judd attended this demonstration for exactly the same reasons which my parents did nearly half a century ago, and which were defining events of my childhood. Protest is what decent people do when they are confronted with evil. Having both witnessed the thuggish crackdown south of Union Square, I was grateful to be able to be able take stock of the situation with him. His presence today was for me a validation of the possibility that there maybe some ultimate hope to be squeezed out of what now appears to be a fairly desperate trajectory into something approximating a police state-at least for those who do what is necessary to make protest meaningful.
Finally, a post-script: I’m writing this as the police prepare for what may be a final-and likely, if today’s events were any guide, intensely brutal assault on the encampment in Zuccati Park. As I have been posting on Facebook, this appears to me to be a Martin Niemoller moment for us-one where they are coming for a marginal clique, one which is the butt of jokes (including my own above) and regarded as absurd and insignificant by all but a few. Today’s NYT’s coverage of the protestors, predictably contemptuous and dismissive, sets the stage perfectly for this crackdown-and provides grounds for all the right thinking people who are the Times’ primary demographic to avert their eyes. The few decent people who find out about this may get on the subway and head to Wall Street to bear witness, and maybe even act. But I can’t say I’m in the least optimistic that anything like this is in the cards-certainly nothing approximating the display of force which we must martial to make a difference. All this is only further confirmation of Niemoller’s dictum: when they come for us there may very well be very few left to speak up.