by Jesse Goldstein, City University of New York
Last night I went to a meeting at the Occupied Office, which is on the 12th floor of a union owned building in the financial district. At the door, which has been pasted over with images from the Occupied Wall Street Journal’s poster issue, a young man stood behind a small table.
“Are you here for accounting?”
“No, I’m here for a meeting.”
“Well the office is closed today, except for accounting. I’m really sorry about that.”
As I turned to leave, two more occupiers arrived, gave the man at the door a warm embrace, and walked right in.
I guess they’re with accounting.
I left, walking briskly up Broadway, passing by Zuccotti Park on the way to our backup destination. The park was enclosed by two lines of doubled up metal police barriers, just inside of which stood half a dozen security officers, exhaling deeply into their hands as they idled through the first painfully cold night of winter. A few cops also milled about, along with a single protester who had braced a smartphone enveloped in clear plastic a few inches from his face, the words “USTREAM RECAI ISKENDER” written in black marker on the plastic, his hands free to remain deep inside his jacket pockets.*
Behind this gaggle of freezing men, Zuccotti Park was vacant, quiet, and very well lit by rectangular yellowish lights embedded in the pavement, evenly distributed throughout the park. There was no litter, no traces of life, nothing. Just 12 cold men, occupying a park, one of them because it’s his political prerogative, 11 of them because it’s their job.
These men, all but the lone protester, are being paid to occupy Zuccotti park.
My meeting (which was about those poster images pasted on the door of the Occupied Office) and accounting (or the-group-formerly-known-as-finance) are both stories themselves, but I’ll save these for future posts. For now I want to reflect on the cops, public and private alike, who’ve been stationed in Zuccotti ever since the park was raided and cleared.
Here’s why I’m interested: The connection between the police and the 99% has been a contentious issue around OWS. For every protester hurling expletives at the cops, there is another attempting to reason with them, to turn them back to their ‘real’ allegiance, the people. One example of this sort of entreaty came the morning after Zuccotti had first been cleared. In a mad scramble, lawyers working with OWS had been able to get a judge to issue a restraining order against the cops – a legal victory, or so it appeared. At the park, just outside of the metal barricades that now encircled the park, a few individuals from the National Lawyers Guild were handing out copies of the ruling, with the sentence about a restraining order circled. Protestors – not all, but many – feverishly grabbed for these sheets, enthralled with the idea that they were arming themselves with the latest, strongest anti-cop kryptonite available. They thrust these papers into the faces of motionless cops standing guard around the park.
“You’re breaking the law!”
“Don’t you see, you’re breaking the law, you have to let us in!”
With images of cops arresting themselves dancing in their collective imaginary, they circumnavigated the ring of cops surrounded the park, telling each and every one of them that they were not in fact enforcing the law, but were actually breaking it.
As you might imagine, this wasn’t a compelling argument. The cops stood pat, waiting for further orders, and by late afternoon Bloomberg found a new judge who would lift the restraining order. So that was that.
A relatively common chant directed at the cops has been the pointed question: “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” Chanted aggressively, as a rhetorical question, it’s becoming clear to me that there are two different diametrically opposed ‘rhetorics’ posing this question, and therefore two very different answers laying just beneath the surface of our movement.
On the one hand, the police are ‘supposed’ to serve the people. This means that they are potentially good public servants that have been temporarily led astray by the bad motives of Bloomberg, Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, or whoever is imagined to be playing the role of puppetmaster. For this portion of the movement, police officers are seen as hard working public employees, whose incomes place them squarely within the 99%. They suffer the same ill fates of climate change, of eroded public infrastructure, and of a lack of civil liberties as the rest of us. They eat the same food, root for the same sports teams. Their nights are filled with the same must-see TV as our nights. Their children face the same terrible prospects as our children. Hence, on this basic human level, it follows, they are part of the 99%.
On the other hand, the police are ‘supposed’ to serve the bearers of wealth and power. In this case, the chant is not meant to shame the cops for doing their job improperly, but to shame them for consenting to do their job properly. They are paid to protect the interests of the rich from popular dissent, and this is what they are doing. While the people wearing police uniforms may be part of a shared humanity that is suffering at the hands of the 1%, when these people are wearing their uniforms they are taking orders directly from that same 1%, and providing the muscle to insure that people far richer than they ever will be are able to safely maintain their privilege. Hence, by the powers of Lockean transitivity** the cops are a mere appendage of the ruling class, and decidedly not part of the 99%.
So which is it? I really want to hear from readers how they make sense of this issue. I’ve got my own opinion – but I’ll save it for a follow-up post – and who knows, maybe my opinion will change once I hear from all of you?
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* The protestor’s name is Recai Iskender. He spends between six and eight hours at the park daily and is very friendly and approachable – if you’re near the park and see him, say hello! You can watch his live stream at: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/recaiiskender
** I’m referring to the Second Treatise, where Locke defends the colonial expropriation of North America through the divine right to work land – or pay to have it worked – and as such consider it one’s own private property: “Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut…become my property…The labour that was mine…hath fixed my property in them.”