In a truly Orwellian move, last week the UCPD insisted that nonviolence is violence, saying that “linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.”
In fact, that’s exactly what a nonviolent protest is. But this patently false claim is revealing of an implicit assumption on the part of the UCPD — that nonviolent protest is not simply resistance or demonstration sans violence. Rather, the UCPD is relegating nonviolence to that feel-good, unprovocative dissent permitted by the city in advance, at an agreed upon location and time, away from high-traffic areas so that no one is inconvenienced. That way nothing is risked — not money, physical harm nor the resoluteness of our ideas.
The late trend toward overbearing regulation of protest, as Naomi Wolf noted recently, is a startling encroachment: “In 70s America, protest used to be very effective, but in subsequent decades municipalities have sneakily created a web of “overpermiticisation” — requirements that were designed to stifle freedom of assembly and the right to petition government for redress of grievances, both of which are part of our first amendment.”
These complaints aside, the UCPD has made an important point to the protesters’ merit. In a sense, linking arms and refusing a command is much more violent than any baton thrusts to the gut. Here it seems that the UCPD has been brushing up on cultural theory. Consider, for instance, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s “Violence.” In that work, Zizek asks us to expand our perspective in order to see beyond instances of bludgeoning subjective violence, and to look instead at the “contours of the background which generates such outbursts.” Rather than be distracted by the spectacle of the UCPD breaking the ribs of passively resisting students, we ought to consider the other systemic or symbolic violence involved.
So how can linking arms and refusing a police order be construed as violent? Is it not merely an omission of action? Walter Benjamin, in his “Critique of Violence,” contends that a nonaction can indeed be violent. He uses the idea of a general strike to make his point, but it applies equally to last week’s attempted occupation. First, much as with a general strike, there is the typical disagreement on the natural right to act in such a way. As we’ve seen, the occupiers claim a right to assembly that exists naturally, outside of police discretion, while the administration and law enforcement contend that the right to assembly was not intended to be used in this way. Further, a labor strike that is essentially devoid of direct subjective violence is still characteristically violent when it involves things like coercion, extortion or threats. And here, we must admit, those protesters linking arms did indeed exact an injury upon the UCPD.
The blow was not to any officer’s ribcage, but to the legitimacy of the department itself. The united and courageous refusal of the occupiers to leave threatened the UCPD’s automatic authority. Certainly, one can argue that this happens at many demonstrations and in all cases of civil disobedience. But here the threat to their authority was more forceful, because it carried the weight of the Occupy movement as a whole, which is fundamentally a rejection of all that we have taken to be self-evident: the inaccessibility of our democracy, the exercise of First Amendment rights only under convenient conditions, the prevailing system of debt relations and severe wealth inequality.
Or perhaps the UCPD is simply blaming the victim. By now it’s clear that the greatest blow to the UCPD’s reputation has come from the spectacle of their direct subjective violence. For in that moment, which has now been immortalized by the media, the department was reduced to a cartoon, to the quintessential authoritarian villain of anarchist kitsch. If the UCPD was formerly anything other than this, then they are absolutely justified in denying that the protest was nonviolent, for they have sustained the gravest injury.