Yesterday’s Capitol Subjectivity, or WTF

by zunguzungu

So, here is part of what I did yesterday:

I’m struggling to find a way to give it context. And it needs context. Watch it if you like, but also understand how much you will not see in those images, or how much those images obscure. I feel like it’s precisely the function of a spectacle like that one to take up all of our attention, so that we can’t see anything else. It takes a complicated problem and makes those complications go away. This is what it does, and we should think about how and why.

I could try to slow it down, to put it in perspective. In that video — taken by my friend Gina — you will see about a ten minute segment of a day-long protest at the California state capitol; you will see a confrontation between dozens of people and dozens of police turn — stupidly — into a confrontation between hundreds of protesters and then at least as many police, for absolutely no reason at all, to no effect, and with no productive results. But this, it seems to me, is why the police made it happen, whether they knew it or not. This is what they were there for.

After all, despite all the “I’s” I’m using here, yesterday was a big and complicated day, for many more people than me. Thousands of people marched on the capital, with a thousand different stories for why. And if it was a protest against many things, by people of many different ideological persuasions, you could also sum up what we were all united in favor of in one word: universal public education. Barely a generation ago, California had a university system that provided a free, world-class education to all the California high school graduates who could get in; you don’t want to romanticize it too much — it had serious problems too — but you also can’t underscore that fact deeply enough. A generation ago, a California high school graduate with good grades could go to one of the University of California campuses and get a degree that was at least comparable, in every way, to the degree you’d get from Harvard or Yale, and pay almost nothing for it. Today, a degree from one of these public universities will cost you more than a degree from Harvard or Yale. They are no longer public universities in any meaningful sense of the term: they are now publicly-subsidized, state-run private universities. In a very concrete way, in fact, their function is to train workers (so businesses don’t have to) and produce new technologies and expertise (so businesses don’t have to), and to use tuition funds to do it, thereby quite effectively funneling money out of the middle class into the financial sector, which sucks up student debt like candy.

And, of course, this is only my particular aspect of the issue; this is only why was there. In the general assembly in the capitol rotunda, I was in a small group with undergrads from three different UC’s — who each saw the problem a little differently — a San Francisco middle school teacher (who talked about the plague of standardized testing alongside massive budget cuts), and four totally impressive students from Richmond High School who wanted us to talk about inequities in the state’s funding of local schools, another powerful engine of inequality. They talked to us in English; they talked to each other in Spanish. And then there was an older couple who were advocates for public education and wanted to talk about holding a new constitutional convention for the state of California’s government. I’m not sure I have enough words to describe all the different ways that those issues play out in practice, nor did we have enough time to discuss it, there and then: the police had blocked off the hallways and were only letting media in, separating the people actually in the rotunda from the other 2/3rds or so of the protesters inside the capitol. If you had to pee — and people tend to need to pee — you had to leave, and you couldn’t come back. But people persisted until 5, and after a long discussion of what demands to make, close to 70 occupiers chose to be arrested rather than leave when directed to do so. As a result, it becomes possible to summarize the story into something like this headline, from the LA Times:

“Activists protest education cuts at Capitol; about 70 arrested.”

All the media stories tell the same story, more or less. And I’m not even in media critique mode here, just noting that when you need a simple story — and corporate news media always wants as simple a story as possible — the police function, neatly and efficiently, to give them one. A messy reality becomes a number. How many were arrested? 70. Even if it’s only “about 70,” the formulation allows it to seem like the real number we’re approximating — which might be 80, or 68 — is something important, that if we knew that, we would know something important. Obviously, this is not true: it is precisely the point hat knowing how many people were arrested tells you something about the protest, but not something all that important about it.

It is the work of the police to simplify things. When something too complicated is happening — the wrong kind of complicated — the police do their job by applying force and fear to make the situation into something simple. They will take the noisy democratic space of discussion and slow, difficult realization of contradiction, complexity, and empathy — that even when it works best does not resolve easily or cleanly — and they make it into something that we can feel like we understand, even when we don’t. I am not even in “complaints about police” mode, here; I’m just describing the process by which an unruly space like this stops being what the word “democracy” signifies:

So that we can fall into the illusion of thinking democracy is something like this:


The purpose of occupying the Capitol was to make this contrast clear, and to vocally reject the latter’s subversion of the former’s legitimacy. That’s all, even if it’s almost everything.

But let’s go back to the video I started with, because that’s what I remember most from yesterday, that stupid, senseless, and scary ten minutes in which the size of a Clydesdale became really physically tangible. It’s what makes it impossible for me to write a dispassionate, objective, voice-from-nowhere piece of reporting, making me write this semi-narcissistic and self-centered thing I’ve written instead. Because in some sense, taking the momentary experience (that you get a little bit of, from watching Gina’s video) and adding context, trying to render it coherent by pulling back, actually takes you away from something really fundamental about the experience itself, the way a sudden incoherent experience of chaos, of force, of size, of fear, and of rage changes your brain in that moment. And so, because I’m trying to understand that experience, how it works, why it happens, what it does to us, this is not the most coherent piece of writing I’ve ever written, nor should it be. You should understand that my experience yesterday was the experience of being rendered incoherent, which seems an important thing to maintain, even in a piece of writing from the day after. But you should also see the way it robbed me of perspective, and I think this — however personal it might have been to me — is actually a generalizable experience of police. Is it? I don’t know. I only see that Clydesdale very easily right now, while everything else is fading. I feel my own body in that moment, and I have less time to think about anything but my own experience. And I feel like that’s what it’s for, and that’s what it does, and why it happens: that it controls what you feel and what you can’t.

Anyway, if you watch that video, you’ll see a lot of people looking angry and a lot of police looking tensely bored. At the start of it, you’ll see a protester from Occupy Oakland being told that he has to leave, because he’s not part of the protest (or you’ll see what happened right after he was singled out for this special treatment, and everyone else came over to see). There was some nonsense from the police about how he wasn’t allowed to have a sign — that the officially permitted protest was over, so no one was allowed to have signs — but you will also see in that video that people with signs were everywhere. It’s only that people of his demographic profile were not allowed to have signs, perhaps? Or that people from Occupy Oakland were not allowed to have opinions about education? The absurdity of it was what we were all feeling, and so we went over to try and understand.

We never really knew what was going on, though, first because we heard so many conflicting explanations for why a single protester had no right to be there. In the video, for example, you’ll hear a cop on a bike tell us it was an unlawful assembly. A few minutes later, I heard a police officer tell a young female undergrad from Cal, who was sitting with a sign on the capitol steps, that it was fine to have a sign as long as she wasn’t waving it around; in his words (or my rough paraphrase), “if they see you with the sign, they’ll want to know why they can’t have one too.” Don’t flaunt your right to petition government for redress of grievances or they’ll all want one, I guess… Another police officer told me, later, that technically, none of us were supposed to be there — as the permitted protest had ended — but they weren’t going to make a thing about it as long as people were orderly. It was California State property, he said, and obviously what he meant was that, since it was the property of the state, the agents of the state had the choice of whether to allow us to be there or not. Being a resident of the state was not meaningful in that context; being a Californian did not give you a right to be present. Being on California property meant the police could decide who was and wasn’t allowed to be present. And they decided that this particular person had no right to be there.

I was standing near him when the police started hassling him, in the middle of a really mellow crowd. I’m sure they thought they could pick him out and send him home without incident, but what they did had the result of turning a mellow crowd into a tense WTF crowd; nothing the police said made any sense, and as they tried to physically separate him from us, they progressively transformed the WTF into rage. I started walking towards him to see what was happening, for example, and a bike cop saw me approaching and rode — at full speed — directly in front of me, putting his bike between me and the scene, and ordered me to keep my distance. Absurd force creates rage, and when a heavily armed police officer suddenly starts giving you orders — preventing you from understanding the situation by the implication of force — it is hard not to feel that rage, hard to contain it. The raw edges of arbitrariness cut and grind against minds that by their nature want to understand. And so, in a matter of minutes, the entire lawnful of people who had previously been simply sitting and talking in the sun, were suddenly transformed into an unlawful assembly.

Watching that video clarifies some things, but not others. At about minute four of that video, you’ll see two cops on horses push a small section of the crowd away by riding their horses through us. I was one of those people, and it was scary as hell; those horses are huge, and you get out of their way. It came out of nowhere, was completely unexpected, and made no sense. It made me so furious that my hands were shaking, so it’s a good thing I wasn’t holding the camera. Which is why, if you watch that section of the video and can’t figure out what’s happening or why, what they’re trying to accomplish, you’ll understand exactly what was happening: a couple of maverick peace officers decided to ride their horses through a crowd to scare us and intimidate us, and precisely because we couldn’t understand what was happening or why, because it’s scary when a huge animal like that rides towards you, they got what they wanted. They softened up he crowd. It is scary even if you aren’t a small child, and since there were small children in the vicinity, it was particularly rage-inducing to see police officers so callous of people’s safety and so senselessly set on re-imposing order. But the larger point about that moment is simply this: two police officers on horses tried to clear a crowd of hundreds, or seemed to be (that’s why at minute 5 you can hear Gina and I yelling “Is this an order to disperse?” and the officer sort of saying “erm, yes”), and it both freaked us out and made us very, very angry. When a bike-cop tells us it’s an unlawful assembly — at 5:12 –not that behind him you can see a crowd still milling around, unlawfully I suppose, but cradled in the law’s endless benevolence.

Anger seems clarifying, but I don’t think it is, a day later, my voice hoarse from a minute of shouting. It simplifies in the same way as fear or force, and takes your attention away from everything but the visceral moment itself. And this has nothing to do with how appropriate that anger may or may not be. Now, I’m not moralizing about being angry, or saying that we should be more disciplined and not get angry and shout and stuff. I was so angry that my voice and hands were shaking violently, my brain was dizzy, and I had to sit down a moment after a really unsatisfactory conversation with another bike cop (minute 5:30-6 or so). But thinking about that anger clarifies why the police might ride a horse through a crowd, next to children, to make it easier for them to remove an individual they’ve arbitrarily decided to remove: you can’t think or speak when a Clydesdale is walking through you. And so the fact of racial profiling — the fact that a black person has been told he cannot have a sign and must leave, in the midst of a crowd of mostly white people with signs who are allowed to remain — disappears behind a wall of fear and anger, masked by the fact of quasi-military police force all around you.

After that, two things happened and nothing happened. The Occupy Oakland protester the police had singled out slowly walked off the Capitol grounds — and his restraint was impressive, by the way — eventually “escorted” by police on horses, bikes, and foot. The capitol was purified of his dangerous sign, which read “Education Not Incarceration.” And then, between 200 and 300 police in riot gear showed up, and stood between us and the Capitol, in two rows, military style, with another couple hundred police on all sides of the lawn. They could easily have kettled us all if they wanted, and we were afraid they wanted to, and we waited for them to do it. But when the crowd continued continued to do the same nothing we’d been doing, and after hours of (not) doing it, the police left.

What happened yesterday? I ask myself this question because I don’t know the answer, and because the fact that I can’t say is part of the answer. I wish I could tell you that I had good discussions about education with fellow Californians; I did, a little, here and there, with people in my small group in the middle of the rotunda, with some friends. There is more I should say about the other 8 hours we experienced together. It was an amazing experience to sit there with them, all of us, and to be with all of us outside together. I wish I could say more about it, that there was more to say. But it all recedes in my mind, until the main thing I remember from yesterday is my rage at a policeman riding a horse into me, for no reason and for the same old reason.