photo by Wayne Tilcock, Davis-Enterprise
By now, I assume you’ve seen the monstrous (yet ultimately inspiring) footage of the UC Davis students being pepper-sprayed by campus security. The leisurely way he sprays them directly in the face, like you or I would spray ants with a can of Raid, is horrifying.
Have you ever been pepper-sprayed? I got just a whiff of it years ago in a club on New Year’s Eve. For reasons unknown, some demented prankster sprayed it into the air and half the room started choking. It was like breathing in millions of tiny shards of glass. I’m still proud that, despite my raspy gasping and dry-heaving, my immediate reaction was a rare moment of heroism in which I ran across to my confused, as-yet-unaffected friends, grabbed their hands and barked, “WE’RE LEAVING!” as I pulled them through the convulsing, choking crowd and out the door. I later heard that security caught the culprit and beat him bloody. Good.
That minor dose remains one of the most unpleasant things I’ve endured so I was completely livid this weekend at seeing students taken to hospital with chemical burns and coughing up blood after being sprayed directly in the face with military-grade pepper spray.
“How do we know it wasn’t deodorant?” joked one of my more conservative friends on Facebook,
“They have been camping for a while without showers right? Corporations provide the filtered water, corporations make all the tubs, shower heads, towels, soaps, shampoos, etc. so having a shower would be hypocritical if they’re protesting, right?”
Now my friend admits to a bit of stirring-the-pot here but this response upset me because, well, I thought we talked about this and his comments are yet another echo of the official American right-wing framing of the Occupy movement: the protesters are spoiled children without a work ethic, denouncing the corporations whose teats they suckle from. Naive at best, a threat at worst.
This message resonates with a man who was part of the military and has worked hard for what he has but my friend seems to assume that none of the Occupy protesters have worked just as hard, that they begrudge his success, or that their actions will somehow interfere with his life. I sent him this masterful letter from Max Udargo to this Marine who feels the same way, telling protesters, “Suck it up, you whiners.”
I love Udargo’s letter because it sums up not just an argument about current politics but an entire philosophy, a paean to goodwill and community in the grim midst of our “winner-take-all society.” To illustrate his point, my friend sent me this clip of conservative pundit Bob Whittle which, just for fun and in the interest of a healthy point/counterpoint, I’ve paired up with a classic rant from comedian George Carlin, his polar opposite:
These are the two competing messages the public is hearing around the Occupy movement: “SHUT UP, EVERYTHING IS FINE” vs. “GIVE UP, WE ARE ALL FUCKED.” I don’t think either is correct but if I’m going to be lectured to about my work ethic, it’ll be by the award-winner who toured the comedy circuit right up until his death at 71 over the unproduced Hollywood screenwriter begging for money on his website.
The one thing that offends me in Whittle’s editorial (I’ll ignore the lazy straw-man arguments and air-quotes for those of us who’ve never heard of a “farmer”) is his loving ode to corporations at the end. This is the conservative mantra as critics of Occupy Wall Street are always talking about iPads — how can these socialists be carrying a product from a corporation run by Steve Jobs, the brilliant capitalist? Huh? HUH??
It’s embarrassing. Jobs ran a company that creates and produces well-designed products that people enjoy. The Occupy protests are about government’s collusion with a tangled network of unregulated financial institutions that leveraged bad debt against bad debt until the whole scheme melted down the world economy in 2008 yet they now enjoy massive bonus pay thanks to bailouts from the public’s taxes. That’s a big, big difference.
No, even this ranting lefty doesn’t automatically hate corporations — I tend to think of them as like the TV character Dexter, helpful psychopaths we can work with but must always keep an eye on. Whittle here is terrifying when he enthuses about Kraft (ick) or Monsanto (yikes) or BP (is he fucking kidding??).
“You should be grateful,” he insists, “You should thank them.” This is the message to the Occupy movement and anyone else who might rock the boat in favour of change: obey your masters. Others have it worse. You’ll take what you’re given and you’ll like it. Now sit down, shut up, suck it up, whiners.
I resent this messaging and not because I’m a whiny Occupy protester, I resent it because I’m that Marine. Yeah, go ahead and laugh but, for what it’s worth, I’m as much a self-made man as he insists he is. I too spent years working 70-80 hours a week at two jobs to pay off my student loans. I too believe in a meritocracy. Years ago, I made the decision to walk away from a fairly well-paying but dull office job in favour of being a low-paid freelance writer. Best decision I ever made.
I now enjoy a life of flexible schedules, cascading deadlines, bursts of profit, walks with the dog, call display for bill collectors, late-night writing bursts and grinding poverty. I don’t have a cottage like my friend because I quite simply haven’t earned it yet. If I hated people who made more money than I do, as conservatives claim, I’d be hating virtually everyone I encounter on the subway. I don’t complain for myself but for those who haven’t been as lucky as I have. My support for the Occupy movement is based not on wanting more money but on our ever-shrinking right to dissent, that we are not living in a meritocracy and that for too many, the game is no longer fair but utterly rigged.
The irony for me is that, on Friday night, I was asked to be on the other side. I’ve moonlighted as a security guard for events these past couple years (still those two jobs!) and the organizers of an Occupy Toronto panel discussion hired security to protect its venue, as with any event where hundreds of people are invited and liquor is served.
What intrigued me was how the diverse crowd of activists young and old were immediately put on edge by the presence of a female Toronto police officer who stationed herself at the front door. A trio of university students shambled in, one had painted a black maple leaf across his face (oh, Canada!) and the cop rushed in behind them, pointing at me and the other guard I was partnered with.
“That’s them!” she hollered at us, “They’re the Occupiers! Keep your eyes on them!” She thrusted two fingers in a V at me, then at her eyes, then at me again. Ridiculous.
“I see them,” I said, “It’s fine.” (Translation: don’t tell me how to do my damn job.) I’ll be the first one to admit I’ve been tetchy towards the police ever since the G20 debacle. I like a calm environment and, like it or not, police rattle people.
Her panic over the Occupiers(!!) was an eerie prelude to the awful news from the UC Davis campus I’d be reading the next day. She annoyed me but my partner felt her edginess was justifiable.
“Why?” I asked, “Look around.” It was a diverse crowd but heavily slanted in favour of older NDP types. I’d been chatting with a white-haired woman who’d been a friend of Jack Layton‘s and I beamed when she admired my Movember moustache.
“If anything happens to this room,” I joked, “the sales of Joni Mitchell CDs will be cut in half.” Nevertheless, he insisted that Occupy events in other cities had gone badly for cops and protesters alike.
“In Seattle this week,” I said, “they pepper-sprayed an 84-year-old woman. That’s just insane.”
photo by Joshua Trujillo, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“Well,” the other guard argued, “if she’s yelling and grabbing at you, how would you stop her without using a stick or something that would hurt her?”
“If we can’t physically, gently restrain an 84-year-old woman, we’d have to seriously reconsider doing this job!” I said through gritted teeth, amazed at having to argue the point and at how too many people don’t seem to consider pepper-spray or tazers as harmful.
Now look, I’m not going to pretend that everyone at this Occupy event was Gandhi. There was some aggravated heckling during National Post writer Matt Gurney‘s comments and at least three people who were clearly mentally ill. I talked to one guy who was twitchy and ranting and possessed of deep and terrible daddy issues, the very image of the useless hippie Whittle and his ilk mock, but that was one guy out of hundreds and still deserving of some respect and compassion.
Consider this excerpt from the blog of angry right-winger “the Phantom:”
Hippie punching is never a bad idea, you ask me. Frigging little weenies want to play flash mob, push people around and screw up traffic, they should feel some pain.
A fine won’t make much of an impression, but pepper spray in the eye is a memory that will last a lifetime. The stupid chick in the picture above won’t be quite so quick to lip off to the cops next time, no doubt about it.
Charming. When fascism comes to Canada, it’ll be met with celebration on Sun TV but “hippie-punching” isn’t new. Mocking the disaffected has been a popular pastime even before there were hippies. No sooner had the ’50s writers calling themselves the Beat Generation insisted on a radical new vision for America than their image and arguments were co-opted and mocked, turned into Bob “Gilligan” Denver‘s goofy ‘Beatnik’ character on the Dobie Gillis sitcom. Later, of course, the real hippies were Vietnam-war protesters, their obviously necessary message immediately turned into a punchline as well.
This is how dissent is typically marginalized but, if it grows too big and too wide and too deep, as these Occupy protests are threatening to, then it’s time for force. That’s what we’ve been seeing all week and it’ll get worse before it gets better. I’ve no idea if these Occupy camps will ultimately accomplish anything or even if they’ll ultimately prove to be a good idea at all but they have got us all talking about things that matter far more than the Kardashian marriage.
What I am sure of, however, is that I’m being urged — by friends and foes alike — to show less compassion towards my fellow citizens who are out there being activists for change, while also being urged to show more compassion towards corporations or cops in riot gear. That’s just ludicrous. Suck it up, you whiners.