“the decision as to what constitutes a breach of this freedom is never yours to make”

by zunguzungu

My internet-friend Brian (who I had the pleasure of meeting for coffee in Seattle in December) wrote this piece on revisiting Zucotti Park in NYC, the day before it would be (briefly) reoccupied:

Once a physical space has been deemed contentious—a site where active dissent has taken place, and threatens to again—it must be closed off and policed by any means necessary…You are ostensibly “free” to walk into the park and sit down, and you’re free to relax in the thin sunshine, read a book, listen to music, or converse with friends and strangers. The police make a big display of letting this emaciated definition of freedom stand unchallenged, for the moment. Not everyone is immediately photographed or questioned or removed from the grounds. There might be months without beatings, arrests, or overt brutality. There might be any number of things you could do before the police suddenly decide that you’ve exceeded the limits of the permission they believe they’ve granted you as a citizen.

The point is that, in such a space, the decision as to what constitutes a breach of this freedom is never yours to make. It’s the policeman who decides when your sitting becomes loitering, when your free speech becomes inflammatory, or when your right of assembly has transformed, through some bizarre alchemical process, into disorderly conduct. The definition of a police state is not restricted to acts of violence and terror. It must also be understood as that condition in which the police, the authorities who direct them, and the special interests they protect all work in tandem to invest the police with sufficient authority to make those decisions for every civilian in their purview. And again, this is something that many of us who have lived in different districts or whose skin may be of a different color often only come to know in relatively innocuous circumstances like this, where what has long been the brutalizing norm elsewhere extends its reach into those spaces that more naïve people had believed to be somehow outside of it.

I had a similar kind of experience the day after Occupy Cal was was attacked by police in November, discovering that — according to arbitrary police fiat — certain patches of grass were “closed” and others were not, for no reason other than that this space had recently experienced the psychic disruption of dissent and repression. No actual protest was going on at the time; nevertheless, the grass was “closed” because a police said so. And as Brian is right to point out, in so many ways this is a more worrying trend to watch than the occasional and (from a PR perspective, disastrous) explosions of actual physical violence we’ve come to see as normal police behavior (not to mention being located much more neatly along the continuum from the directly racialized policing that a white guy like me rarely experiences personally). After all, the whole world was watching (in at least a metaphoric sense), and was horrified, when UCPD officers were beating students. Once those videos were shown on national news (and on Stephen Colbert’s show), the administration had to go into full retreat.

But now, as Occupy Cal is hit with stay-away orders and criminal charges – from the same DA who is using stay-away orders to “tame”  Occupy Oakland – “the whole world” hears quite little about it; as space is quietly re-territorialized as off limits to citizens, for reasons that never need to be made clear, the public outcry is minimal. And yet, while police violence is always, at least ostensibly, in reaction to something, the re-territorialization of space via police occupation and surveillance is always, fundamentally, an effort at pre-emption, predictive policing, even — in the most literal sense possible — a prior restraint on the public’s right to assemble and demand redress of grievances. What is chilling, in every sense of that word, is (as Brian puts it)

…how dozens of police can feel completely comfortable monitoring even small and harmless social groups with bored and unwavering impunity. And this was the one thing that struck me most about the nature of the police in this twilight time, as they leaned against their cars or cracked jokes with their co-workers: “the police” is really the name for the conjunction of brute force and the absolute inability to imagine.”

They have been here in more frenetic times, to tackle, arrest, kettle, beat, and pepper-spray, and they have every reason to believe that the conditions under which they decide to engage in these acts will reappear soon enough. Before the mere presence of crowds will send them into attack mode again the next night, these police will stand here quietly and stare today, or make small talk amongst themselves, or count the minutes until their mind-numbing shift is over. Sometimes they even reach out and seem congenial, engaging in miniature conversations with those they’re simultaneously monitoring.

Next week, I and a bunch of folks will gather outside the building where the university administration has its offices, California Hall, at a few minutes before noon, and we will mike-check orate Kafka’s The Trial at them. We’ll do this because it’s stunningly appropriate,  a great book, and a way to do what it is we do on the university in public, together. The fact that such an utterly non-confrontational and non-violent activity as that will be surveilled by campus police — for every single minute we are out there — is something we can take for granted. By now, I even know where those cops will stand, and which ones will most likely get the duty.

I know this because we’ve been picketing that building consistently for almost two weeks now — in various different ways — ever since we learned about the criminal charges against our friends and colleagues. But even before that, for most of this semester, I and a handful of friends had been going out every Wednesday and mike-check-ing poetry at the administrators. It was a very modest protest, intended to be no more than a thing we did without expectation, as much a re-affirmation to ourselves as any intent to put our bodies on the gears and make the machine stop. It was utterly unthreatening. But even when (at our smallest turnout) three people stood thirty feet from an administrative building — when three people read poetry to themselves and to the world — a police officer would be sent out to stand twenty feet away and quietly surveille us. With any luck, a reading of Kafka will help us understand why.