Fighting for the dream of America

This isn’t supposed to happen here.

Oh, I’m not that naïve; I know it happens here. I understand the long and harrowing history of the brutal power of the State being brought to bear upon its citizens. I know about the water cannons, the dogs, Chicago in 1968, Kent State. I understand that, to many blacks and Hispanics who have long borne the brunt of racial profiling and excessive force, the violence of law enforcement comes as no surprise. I’m aware that, in this country as in all others, power never easily concedes — and when faced with a real threat to the status quo, the forces that protect the social and political elite are ruthless and strong. I suppose it’s only to be expected.

But just because brutality is unsurprising doesn’t mean that it’s any less unjustified, or that it doesn’t deserve our horror, disgust, and undimmed outrage. Dammit, THIS ISN’T SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN HERE.

I’m an American by choice. I grew up in a country where state-sponsored violence was common, where corruption was endemic, where journalists and politicians were locked up or exiled for speaking truth to power, where a dictator faced with mass unrest didn’t hesitate to send out tanks to sweep the crowds of protesters off the streets. I came to the United States expecting a different deal; I knew that crime and corruption exist here too, but I was (and I continue to be) inspired by the ideals that constantly call on Americans to rise to the challenge of building a better society — one that recognizes the right to free speech; to peaceful assembly; to freedom of religion and of the press; to protection from unreasonable searches and from cruel and unusual punishment; to a guarantee of due process. A society of laws, not of men, and one where, above all, the right to free and nonviolent expression is enshrined as the very heart and essence of a democracy. I fell in love not with the imperfections of the real America — of which I’m very much aware — but with the dream of America, what Bruce Springsteen calls “the country we carry in our hearts.”

Sometimes, though, the reality stands in such stark contrast to the dream that it’s enough to break your heart a thousand times over. And the reports and images out of UC Davis have made it painfully clear to me, as nothing else has, how much that dream is under siege.

It’s not just in Davis, of course. If nothing else, the Occupy encampments around the country have managed to reveal the conflict between protest and status quo in almost unbelievably black-and-white terms: it’s nonviolent protesters versus the thuggish police enforcing the will of the corporate state, over and over and over again. The police forcibly evicted OWS from Zuccotti Park and callously trashed the People’s Library. Clad in stormtrooper gear, they pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters in New York, in Denver, in Portland, in Seattle; wielded batons and unleashed tear gas and rubber bullets in Oakland; pepper-sprayed a pregnant young woman and an 84-year-old lady; fractured the skull of an Iraq War veteran with a tear-gas canister; and the atrocities go on.

Now they’re enforcing media blackouts and arresting reporters. They’re striking unprotected students with billy clubs. And at Berkeley they’re beating up professors and poets. Former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass:

Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The billy clubs were about the size of a boy’s Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down. [...]

My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.

NONE of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is “remonstrate.” I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, “You just knocked down my wife, for Christ’s sake!” A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm. Some of the deputies used their truncheons as bars and seemed to be trying to use minimum force to get people to move. And then, suddenly, they stopped, on some signal, and reformed their line. Apparently a group of deputies had beaten their way to the Occupy tents and taken them down. They stood, again immobile, clubs held across their chests, eyes carefully meeting no one’s eyes, faces impassive. I imagined that their adrenaline was surging as much as mine.

[...] One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.

If these accounts of violent repression don’t set off an alarm in everyone’s head — an alarm that Naomi Wolf, for one, has been trying to sound for years — then I’m not sure what can.

I’m keenly aware of the bitter irony that these kinds of crackdowns on free speech are precisely what my family wanted to escape when we emigrated to the US. And when I recall that, back in “the old country,” the tanks dispatched to quell the crowd actually stopped in their tracks, and that the soldiers refused to fire on the people; and when, these days, I read in the news that the country’s former president has been placed under arrest for electoral fraud — the nation’s leader actually being held accountable for her crimes, in a way that George Bush and Dick Cheney never were and never will be — I have to wonder, at least a little, if perhaps my family had moved in the wrong direction.

I do see hope. As I wrote in my last post, the UC Davis video shows the ugly side of America on full display — but it also shows the students rising to the moment, refusing to respond with violence, unflinchingly asserting their rights, and stubbornly practicing the peaceful civil disobedience that is just as much a genuine American tradition. (The next night, in another incredibly powerful display, they confronted the chancellor who authorized the police raid — not with outraged chants but with devastating, shaming silence.) In New York, volunteer librarians are rebuilding the People’s Library book by book. In Berkeley, as a response to the ban on camping, the protesters have attached tents to helium balloons and floated them into the sky: as Robert Hass beautifully observes, “occupying the air.” And in cities everywhere, encampments are razed and protesters are evicted — but they keep coming back. They keep coming back. This, too, is America — the dream of America, bruised and bloody, refusing to die.

There’s plenty of talk of what the Occupy movement needs to do now (see here, here, here, and here), and I agree with much of it: Occupy needs to expand, to incorporate other strategies to get the message out, to embrace (eventually) some kind of leadership structure in order to participate in the political system and enact the legislative reforms that will have real impact on society. But even as the movement diversifies, I don’t think it should abandon the goal of occupying real, physical space. For the value of taking up space in the real world — as events at UC Davis and elsewhere demonstrate — is that it shows, more vividly and viscerally than anything else, just what people are up against when they call for a radical rethinking of society, and just how viciously the status quo and its police enforcers will fight back. To abandon the encampments, to retreat into the safety and modern familiarity of online forums, is to be silenced and ignored.

But something is awake, now, something that demands full expression, a cry from the bottom of the American soul.

And I don’t think we’ll be easily silenced this time.

(Photos by Wayne Tilcock and Brian Nguyen)

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