Built for Battle

Americans are built for battle. We can’t help it; war is built into our language. We fight for our right, push against disagreeable opinions, take offense to comments, bullet our powerpoints, strategically and tactically participate in politics. As Lakoff and Johnson note, even our verbal interactions are rooted in notions of combat. Claims are indefensible, explanations are attacked, points are targeted, arguments are demolished, ideas are shot down. English, it would seem, is a language predicated upon nostalgic imaginaries of epic battles and legendary victories.

Thus it’s unsurprising that we shape our press, our stories, and even our social movements into lines of offense and defense, antagonists and protagonists, heroes and villains. On Sunday, November 27, I reflected on these notions as I watched fellow Occupy Philadelphia protestors prepare to face Mayor Michael Nutter’s fast-approaching eviction deadline at the City Hall encampment. Joined by friends who hadn’t visited the camp in weeks, I felt like we were going to battle for what we believed in, and that the idiom had come to life. This battle was more literal than figurative.

The previous Friday, Mayor Nutter officially announced a 48-hour notice of eviction requiring the Occupy Philly encampment to leave Dilworth Plaza. The week before, he had instructed the city to post signs around the camp announcing the imminent renovation of the public space. The lines were clearly drawn. The eviction became a call to arms for both supporters and our heavily armed opponents. And according to familiar memes and tropes of war, people responded to that call.

Occupiers were tense and nervous, not sure when the “enemy” was planning to arrive. Many were haunted by now familiar 2011 Occupation protest images: police officers from coast to coast pepper spraying protestors; a smiling photo of a critically wounded veteran shot point-blank in an Oakland Occupation eviction; a bloodied face in Occupy Wall Street protests; the bright spotlights of late-nightcamp raids, the LRAD devices, and the innumerable metal barriers that are symptoms of the security state. The homeless and other more vulnerable occupiers were evacuated from the site throughout Sunday leading up to the 5:00pm deadline. Bail funding and legal hotlines were secured. The drum circle, which I hadn’t heard at the Occupation in quite awhile, returned and bellowed a fierce rhythm of loud, powerful beats.

I still couldn’t help but think, as I witnessed this fire and energy, how all of this gearing up felt so essentially American. We come from a country that pours almost seven times more money into defense and security than education. We live in cities that spend, according to recent numbers, millions of dollars to evict political tent cities while slashing budgets for the sick, unemployed, and homeless. We are, in short, always ready for conflict, but never prepared for peace.

The Occupations, to their credit, have worked against this paradigm of violence. Their livestream and direct democracy participatory practices reflect a commitment to transparency, their non-hierarchical self-governance defies the traditionally stratified approach of American leadership, and many of them have participated in non-violent direct actions. The Occupy movement strives for transformation and revolution, but I wonder how far we can get from the conflict embedded in our very words.

On Wednesday night, November 30, I was exhausted—mentally, physically, and emotionally.  The evening before, I was up late working when I received a text shortly after midnight announcing that the police presence was building at Dilworth Plaza and that the eviction was imminent. After the text’s information was confirmed via email and Facebook, I grabbed a sweatshirt, jumped on my bike, and headed toward City Hall.

I went to be a witness to whatever was about to transpire. Many people like me were committed to not engaging the police at all. What would we do in the face of two SEPTA buses full of police officers, several bicycle cop squads, and a couple hundred more armed men? We had no guns or other weapons, nor the will to experience the kind of brutality we’d seen occur around the country. We only desired to be there, to protect others with our presence and to carefully record as incidents unfolded.

The police promised to issue three warnings before moving in on the plaza. Some people grouped together on the ground, hooking arms, while the rest of us readied ourselves to vacate the site and move across the street. With each warning, and as we watched more and more police arrive at Dilworth, our nervousness increased. Helicopters flew overhead, police vehicles blocked access to every street around City Hall, and cops pushed in from all sides. It was like watching a grown man threaten a child—overwhelming, incredible, and infuriating in its grossly unnecessary show of force.

After the third notice was given, the group of Occupiers linking arms suddenly stood up and began marching, surprising both the police and other supporters. Ecstatic at this turn, we walked after them, being followed by police on bikes. Throughout much of the night police officers used bicycles as moving barricades, keeping us from walking down sidewalks without warning or explanation.

The show of force and our vocal calls to the public worked to a certain extent—our crowd grew to nearly 200 people. Eventually, I realized that the only guaranteed power on our side was our presence; we had nothing else. Had the police stayed only at the eviction site, the story would have ended around 1:00am. But the police wanted their elimination of Occupy Philadelphia to be complete. They weren’t satisfied with removing us from the campsite; they wanted to remove us from the city, in its entirety.

They followed us for the next few hours, blocking us, pushing us back with bikes, hitting at least one person with a nightstick, charging horses into a crowd obeying police orders by standing on a sidewalk, trampling one woman, and ignoring our questions about where it was they wanted us to go. At one particularly poignant moment, the Chief of Police grabbed a symbolic tent we were holding as we stood away from the eviction site, collapsed it, carried it across the street, and threw it onto the plaza without uttering a word of explanation

That night completely changed my understanding of the police state. I understand brutality, the corruption of police officers accustomed to power and to making instinctive decisions premised upon racist, sexist, and heterosexist commitments. I even understand the sense of being “above the law,” as reflected in the way that police officers frequently break even the most trivial laws, such as speeding or parking ordinances. But I was not prepared to see police officers obstructing their faces and badges, presumably to avoid the kind of national attention and identification that individual police officers have received due to their actions in other Occupy protests. One senior officer even attempted to block my photo of another bicycle policeman who had struck a protestor in the head. I was surprised to police officer. I wasn’t expecting to see police officers telling press what they weren’t allowed to photograph or arbitrarily arresting dozens of citizens without explanation or warning. Fellow protestors shouted much of the night: “Who do they protect? Who do they serve?” The answer is that it wasn’t us. The raw power of a locally situated and vast paramilitary force armed with weapons of war was apparent, and its potential as a threat to the public was overwhelmingly clear.

I still find myself wondering if there is a way to reframe the debate, to retell these stories, to resituate society and the law in a way that doesn’t undermine their possibility and reify notions of battle. The early news stories about the eviction stuck to the expected narrative conventions: reporting erroneously about protestors breaking barricades and resisting commands to explain the unprovoked use of police force. The mayor and police chief reported the eviction as a success and congratulated themselves on the restraint they showed during the massive militaristic strike against unarmed citizens in the middle of a city known as the birthplace of American democracy. The hypocrisy, the efforts to spin descriptions until they’re out of step with reality, the lack of accountability in the face of these lies—it disappoints me deeply. And I know we have a long way to go.

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