Occupy Wall Street and the Criminalization of Non-violent Dissent

By Ritt Goldstein

Occupy Wall Street and the Criminalization of Non-violent Dissent. 45702.jpeg'Semper fi' is all one can say after watching video of Sergeant Shamar Thomas, a marine who indeed seems to proudly recall the oath he took to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States", the rights to peaceful protest contained in it.  In defending Occupy demonstrators, Thomas told NYPD that there was "no honor" in brutalizing unarmed US citizens, and that's a message that's long needed delivery.

Sergeant, I and many more gratefully salute you.

Days ago I watched video of an observer with the National Lawyer's Guild being struck by a New York City police scooter, screaming in obvious agony as his foot was pinned under it, and then actually being arrested.  I watched videos earlier in the protests of Occupy Wall Street's non-violent freedom fighters being pepper sprayed...one video, of four women simultaneously subjected to this torturous punishment, thankfully went global.  But history shows the price of popular change is too often measured in the agony of those pursuing it, and today's efforts, the struggle towards a genuine 'liberty and justice for all', are not proving an exception.

Every day I continue to read of a number of further instances of Occupy's heroes being pepper sprayed and abused, and every day their courage makes it difficult to recall a time that I've been prouder to be an American.  On many occasions, some years ago, I too was pepper sprayed, and I too was perceived by some as having committed 'a crime'...the 'crime' of Non-violent Dissent.

In 2005, a German film emerged that garnered critical acclaim for its examination of such 'criminality', the setting being 1940s Nazi Germany, the name of the film is 'Sophie Scholl - The Final Days'.  It examines how non-violent dissent has indeed sometimes been quite criminalized, sometimes even demanding the ultimate sacrifice.  Sophie, her brother, and a friend were tortured, then tried and executed by guillotine on February 22, 1943.

It might be well for those brutalizing Occupy to see this film, to be reminded of what kind of State uses brutal force against those brave souls with the vision and courage to attempt the righting of grievous wrongs.  It might indeed be well.

In 2006, New York Times film critic Stephen Holden wrote of the film: In a climate of national debate in the United States about the overriding of certain civil liberties to fight terrorism, the movie looks back on a worst possible scenario in which such liberties were taken away. It raises an unspoken question: could it happen here?  And, given the beatings, the abuses, and the pepper sprayings that have occurred, the question of how far from what's left of the Constitution our government might go is a good one, particularly if the Occupy movement continues to succeed and expand as it is. 

As ample video evidence has shown, too many today are far more interested in protecting privilege and property than people or their rights.  And perhaps fear -- a kind of fear that one is afraid to even acknowledge, especially to oneself -- long kept so many of us from strenuously objecting.

As readers may recall, it was only recently that 700 non-violent protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge under 'questionable circumstances'.  Many protesters claimed they were led onto the bridge's roadway by police, police alleging protesters presence on the bridge roadway was a crime, a 'crime' that allowed police to arrest 700.  However, an October 4th class-action lawsuit filed against New York City -- by a group of these protesters -- essentially labeled that police action 'entrapment'. 

While the mass arrest galvanized support instead of dissipating it, it would seem the fact of the arrest makes a statement as to the course some seeking to suppress dissent are willing to take.  The alleged involvement of a journalist for a right-wing magazine, American Spectator, in the mass pepper spraying by police at Washington's Smithsonian Museum highlights a further concern.

Of course, in a real way it's a measure of Occupy's success that such a 'climate of repression' exists.  However, perhaps the key question is what will the 'climate' facing the courageous become, how far will America's police -- police that are a real part of the victimized 99% -- actually go?

I am old enough to well recall the events of Spring 1970, a moment when the US National Guard opened fire on protesting students at Kent State University, killing four -- the 'Kent State Massacre'.  One such memory in a lifetime is too many.

There was a time when this writer once wrote laws instead of articles.  It was a time when I believed there were limits as to what one might face in a democratic society, even if one was 'rocking the boat'.  And, I did 'rock' things a bit, chairing a police accountability hearing in Connecticut's legislature, a hearing centered upon why an elected Statewide Civilian Oversight Board for police was needed, a board to prevent conduct such as that we are too often now witnessing, and worse. 

The hearing contained testimony from academics, police experts, politicos, activists and victims, with much of it nightmarishly riveting.  The hour long video of excerpts from that hearing tells a story, one of the fallacy that 'limits' to the abuse one may face do exist --  sometimes they don't.  Among many other things, an alleged murder plot upon an activist that made the Hartford Courant was discussed, as was police brutality, alleged rape by police, vandalism of a sitting mayor's own home, and considerably more.

While the video is from a few years back, it is worth watching today more than ever.

The Courant article on the alleged murder plot is titled 'Colchester Officers Accused Of Death Plot', and the opening line reads: A state police informant says he was offered $10,000 by two town police officers to make ''disappear'' a man who had lodged a brutality complaint against the officers.  I'll add that I'm writing this article from Sweden, and that some months after the hearing, life-threatening circumstances forced me to flee The States, my existence being one in exile since.

Fortunately, opportunities for effective protest have changed considerably in the interim, increasing numbers having become sufficiently aware to face the harsh realities that non-violent protest can mean, and thus able to face abuse to their fellows without their own fears leading them into denial of it.  There is safety in numbers, numbers which did not exist until recently, and it is indeed these numbers, these many, that will pave the path to change. 

One can look at instances of change occurring abroad, and indeed hope that 'America's finest' will too realize that they are, in fact, among the many.  It is 'we, the people' that are truly in need of their protection.

It has been far too long since 'we, the people' last came together, and far too long since 'liberty and justice for all' effectively disappeared from everything but the best of a collective memory we share.  But shared memories and dreams can become reality, doing so as each of our consciences points the way.

According to Wikipedia, the Sophie Scholl film contains a scene where a Gestapo interrogator says, "Without law, there is no order. What can we rely on if not the law?"  Of course, the circumstances too many police actions have recently shown do seem to pose questions about just what 'the law' today is.  But regardless, in her own time and place, the film depicts Sophie as simply replying, "Your conscience. Laws change. Conscience doesn't."

We know what is right, those of conscience know what must be done, and we also know the nightmarish price paid by those in a society that failed in doing it.  To borrow from an earlier time, to recall the struggle and success of America's proud Civil Rights movement, and to remind us that justice will be ours, I can only say that 'we, the people, shall overcome!'      

Ritt Goldstein
Copyright October 2011

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov