Civil Disobedience by the “Occupy” Movement Is a Challenge to Our Rulers

Summary:  Expansion of the Occupy movement onto colleges might greatly expand its size, improve its appeal, and change its goals and methods.  This poses a challenge to the government, which so far has successfully contained and supressed its protests.  The heavy-handed methods used so far might fail, or even fuel the movement’s expansion.

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of ’75. … Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary …
Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau (1849)


  1. Protests, always a challenge to the rulers
  2. How to compel obedience: moving the crowd
  3. The struggle to gain the moral high ground
  4. For More Information about the protests and the evolution of US police methods for crowd control

(1)  Protests, always a challenge to the rulers

To government officials civil disobedience is inherently revolutionary.  After the order to disperse, the very existence of a protest crowd is a rebuke and challenge to their authority.  Fortunately that usually involves violating laws, justifying police arrests.  The protestors will not cooperate, hence police violence becomes necessary.  Allow people to violate some laws with impunity creates potentially ugly precedent — and diminishes public respect and obedience.  But how many people agree with this logic?

The attack should not have happened, of course.  The rice farmer had been perfectly right; the Federation could not afford to risk its own great cities to punish the villagers of Venus. He was right — from his own viewpoint.  A rice farmer has one logic; men who live by and for power have another and entirely different logic.  Their lives are built on tenuous assumptions, fragile as reputation; they cannot afford to ignore a challenge to their power — the Federation could not afford not to punish the insolent colonists.

— Chapter X of Between Planets by Robert Heinlein (1951)

(2)  How to compel obedience:  moving the crowd

There is no good way to disperse a crowd.  Cavalry works, as MacArthur did with the WWI veterans in the Bonus March (Wikipedia).  Massed armed force also works well, although it sometimes escalates badly (eg, Kent State).  The standard solution is tear gas to break their cohesion, then the police haul them away as individuals.  Here are two perspectives on police methods.

(a)  From CBS News:

Charles J. Kelly, a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant who wrote the department’s use of force guidelines, said pepper spray is a “compliance tool” that can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters. “When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them,” Kelly said. “Bodies don’t have handles on them.”

After reviewing the video, Kelly said he observed at least two cases of “active resistance” from protesters. In one instance, a woman pulls her arm back from an officer. In the second instance, a protester curls into a ball. Each of those actions could have warranted more force, including baton strikes and pressure-point techniques.  “What I’m looking at is fairly standard police procedure,” Kelly said.

(b)  Article by Peter Moskos (Asst Prof of Criminal Justice, CUNY), Washington Monthly, 18 November 2011:

This UC Davis pepper-spray incident from yesterday, in which campus police sprayed a group of protesting “Occupy” students who were sitting on the ground, was just brought to my attention. I don’t know all the facts, but as a former cop-turned-academic, there’s one thing I can say.

In the police academy, I was taught to pepper-spray people for non-compliance. Ie: “Put your hands behind your back or I’ll… mace you.” It’s crazy. Of course we didn’t do it this way, the way we were taught. Baltimore police officers are too smart to start urban race riots based on some dumb-ass training. So what did we do to gain compliance? We grabbed people. Hands on. Like real police. And we were good at it.

Some people, perhaps those who design training programs, think policing should be a hands-off job. It can’t be and shouldn’t be. And trying to make policing too hands-off means people get Tased and maced for non-compliance. It’s not right. But this is the way many police are trained. That’s a shame. (Mind you, I have no problem using such less-lethal weapons on actual physical threats, but peaceful non-compliance is different.)

… And if police need to remove these students, then the police can go in four officers to one protester and remove them. Lift them up and take them away. Maybe you need one or two more officers with a threatening baton to keep others from getting involved. It really can be that simple.

People don’t hate the police for fighting off aggressors or arresting law breakers. They do hate police for causing pain—be it by dog, fire hose, Taser, or mace—to those who passively resist. And that’s what happened yesterday at U.C. Davis.

(3)  The struggle to gain the moral high ground

None of these methods are photogenic.  That matters so long as the the public has little sympathy for the subjects.  Hippies, brown people, homosexuals — the wide public sees violence against them as necessary housekeeping.

Violence against nice white college students — like our children — sparks outrage and potentially even resistance.  Political conflicts, like 4GW, are largely struggles to claim the moral high ground.  What the public considers inappropriate violence (ie, against people like us instead of them) can quickly redefine the teams.  Labels of the good guys and bad guys can be definitive in a highly moralistic society such as the US.

Hence the struggle played out on our mass media to position the “Occupy” protests as legitimate or illegitimate actions.  Their spread onto the college campuses opens a new phase.  However politically incoherent the movements goals, college students are a potentially explosive demographic.   Large, subject to emotional fads, largely free of the time and wage constraints of working citizens — and sympathetic to the mass public.

Will Occupy movement metastasize — spreading and changing its goals and methods?  We can only guess and watch.

(4)  For More Information

(a)  About the protests

  1. Local police forces are now little armies. Why?“, Nieman Watchdog (of Harvard), 6 October 2011
  2. Too Much Violence and Pepper Spray at the OWS Protests: The Videos and Pictures“, Garance Franke-Ruta, The Atlantic, 19 November 2011 — “The dousing of seated, non-violent students with a chemical agent at U.C. Davis should provoke a call for restraint. These images show their experience is not unique.”
  3. Yes of course pepper spray is a torture device“, Digby, Hullabaloo, 19 November 2011
  4. California campus police on leave after pepper-spraying“, CNN, 20 November 2011
  5. The roots of the UC-Davis pepper-spraying“, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 20 November 2011

(b)  Valuable articles about the evolution of US police methods for crowd control

(1)  Excellent introduction:  “Why I Feel Bad for the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. John Pike“, Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic, 19 November 2011

(2)  “Ordering Dissent: Political Protests and the Police Response in the Post 9/11 Era“, Todd Lough, Gemma Halliday and Maya Dobrzynski, Western Journal of Criminal Justice, Spring 2010

(3)  “Securitizing America: Strategic Incapacitation and the Policing of Protest Since the 11 September 2001 Terrorist Attacks“, Patrick F. Gillham, Sociology Compass, July 2011 — Abstract:

During the 1970s, the predominant strategy of protest policing shifted from ‘escalated force’ and repression of protesters to one of ‘negotiated management’ and mutual cooperation with protesters. Following the failures of negotiated management at the 1999 World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle, law enforcement quickly developed a new social control strategy, referred to here as ‘strategic incapacitation’. The US police response to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks quickened the pace of police adoption of this new strategy, which emphasizes the goals of ‘securitizing society’ and isolating or neutralizing the sources of potential disruption. These goals are accomplished through:

  1. the use of surveillance and information sharing as a way to assess and monitor risks,
  2. the use of pre-emptive arrests and less-lethal weapons to selectively disrupt or incapacitate protesters that engage in disruptive protest tactics or might do so, and
  3. the extensive control of space in order to isolate and contain disruptive protesters actual or potential.

In a comparative fashion, this paper examines the shifts in United States policing strategies over the last 50 years and uses illustrative cases from national conventions, the global justice movement and the anti-war movement to show how strategic incapacitation has become a leading social control strategy used in the policing of protests since 9 ⁄ 11. It concludes by identifying promising questions for future research.

(c)  Articles about the militarization of our police

  1. Is Homeland Security spending paying off?“, Los Angeles Times, 28 August 2011 — “A Decade After The Sept. 11 Attacks, Federal And State Governments Are Doling Out About $75 Billion A Year On Domestic Security. Whether The Spending Spree Has Been Worth It Is The Subject Of Increasing Debate.”
  2. The decade’s biggest scam“, Salon, 29 August 2011 — More about DoD lavishing military hardware on the police.

(d)  Other posts about the Occupy movement

  1. Occupy Wall Street, another futile peasants’ protest, 5 October 2011
  2. How do protests like the TP and OWS differ from effective political action?, 26 October 2011
  3. See the power of our ruling elites, displayed by the picture of a kitten, 28 October 2011



7 thoughts on “Civil Disobedience by the “Occupy” Movement Is a Challenge to Our Rulers”

  1. My bet is that the Occupy Movement will lose the majority of its steam as we slide into the colder months of winter. Do you feel that it will survive in some form by the time spring comes around and what will it look like?

    1. The seasons are irrelevant to political protests in the US. They force tactical adjustments, but little else.

      Will they catch on and spread? It is like predicting the success of a movie or new restaurant. We cannot reliably forecast crowd enthusiasm, no matter how confidently gurus announce they guesses.

      My guess is that the movement will have little lasting impact EVEN if it grows. And like any poorly conceived mass movement, it could easily mutate into harmful form.

  2. Machiavelli wrote quite a bit about protests in The Discourses. He felt that protests, strikes by the plebs, are the strength of a republic as they are the only thing that will lead to new laws or reforms that redress the imbalances between the aristocrats and the plebs.

    Here is reference on civil disobedience in The DiscoursesChapter 4, page 11 in {this} version. The book is well worth reading though I did skip his chapters on military tactics.

  3. FM is quite correct that we cannot predict the outward success or failure of the movement, based on their largely non congealed mission. What is most interesting, to me at least, is how the country handles the mere existence of a nationwide protest. This has not happened in our generation. We have seen protesting from the turbulent 60s and thought of it as an anomaly, something America may have grown out of. The next 12 months will re-educate, or perhaps evolve our multi-tiered society’s awareness of our republic.

    It has been said that America will not ever have another revolution because the common man BELIEVES he has too much to lose during the disruption. FM mentions that the protest has changed consideration based on what color the protesters are. This is very astute although very sad. I struggle to decide which is more genuinely an act of a free society, the minority protestor willing to set fire to the house next door to his own to make a statement, or the white suburbanite who brandishes his shotgun to prevent such a thing.

    One thing is for sure, the battle waged over OWS is not whether their political agenda is viable, but it is about whether they can keep the attention of the masses. Their success is tied to ‘air time’ not message. I believe their only brilliance is that they understand that the media will decide their message anyway, so don’t bother getting hopes up that the media will report a fair interpretation. Let the media turn the protesters into people, not message. The imagery is what is important, just like the newscast from the tornado stricken town, it captures your attention, but you just never take any action.

    1. Thank you for that insightful comment. You I plicitly raise a powerful question: Given their incoherent message, can they have a substantial impact on US politics — no matter if they continue or even modestly expand their protests?

      Another scenario is that they develop a message, or are captured or cooped by an existing political faction. Much as the Tea Party was, from it’s origin as a protest against bank bailouts into shock troops for the bank-friendly (or even bank-owned) GOP.

  4. I think that they are being groomed as the Tea Party was. The oft described ‘Invisible Hand’ of democracy is at work here. I believe whenever there is weight behind an issue or moment that Hand comes into play. OWS is still formative and hands-off per se. Soon, it will be morphed into a political platform test bed. Perhaps put into action to counter the GOP primary front-runners to help ensure Obama’s strength through the winter and spring of 2012. They are also so formless that should the economy improve, Obama can claim victory over the OWS movement as their lack of agenda turns into success for Obama’s agenda for 2012.

  5. I think Robert Reich has it about right: “The First Amendment Upside Down. Why We Must Occupy Democracy

    You’ve been seeing this across the country … Americans assaulted, clubbed, dragged, pepper-sprayed … Why? For exercising their right to free speech and assembly — protesting the increasing concentration of income, wealth, and political power at the top.

    And what’s Washington’s response? Nothing. In fact, Congress’s so-called “supercommittee” just disbanded because Republicans refuse to raise a penny of taxes on the rich. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court says money is speech and corporations are people. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision last year ended all limits on political spending. Millions of dollars are being funneled to politicians without a trace.

    And a revolving door has developed between official Washington and Wall Street – with bank executives becoming public officials who make rules that benefit the banks before heading back to the Street to make money off the rules they created. …

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