Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Governing the Occupy Movement through Crime

In many cities, including most prominently Oakland and New York, tent encampments on public spaces by the Occupy Wall Street movement have been cleared in early morning raids by police (read about the Oakland situation here). This time, at least, police violence seems to have been minimal. But what is regrettable is the use by city leaders of the lame excuse that "crime" problems necessitated the end of the encampments. It may be that the Occupy Wall street movement must generate new meaningful actions to build its momentum, but the claims that the encampments were generating unacceptable levels of crime is both false and reflexive.

To the latter point first. The gist of the argument behind this blog, and the book, Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear,is that political leaders facing a chronic legitimacy deficit since the late 1960s have frequently used protecting citizens from crime as the least problematic way of justifying the exercise of power.

In Oakland this played out in almost comic precision. Hemmoraging legitimacy after first clearing the plaza in a violent police sweep and then letting the Occupy encampment be reestablished Mayor Jean Quan seemed paralyzed with indecision about what to do about the camp until a murder on the periphery of the encampment last week gave her a crime cover. Having supported the goals of the occupation and accepted encampment as a protest tactic the Mayor now found an imperative requiring the preventive clearing of the site (read the full story in the SFChron here):

"The encampment became a place where we had repeated violence and, this week, a murder. We had to bring the camp to an end before more people were hurt."

[Based on radio reports this morning, Mayor Bloomberg is also citing public safety as a prime reason for clearing Zuccatti Square.]

While the details of the murder investigation are unknown to me, there is little reason to believe from what we know thus far that the encampment created a context that made such a killing more likely. Far from it. As media attention to the encampment has disclosed to many casual observers, Oakland has loads of homeless men, many of them battling symptoms of mental illness, life long drug abuse, and the soul destroying impact of mass incarceration. The city also has lots of young men punished and pushed out of schools and toward jail (read Victor Rios' superb book Punished for more on that) whose search for dignity takes them into deadly games of gang competition and related honor violence. These troubled populations, frequently churned by law enforcement, prison, and parole, has been a source of crime and insecurity in Oakland for decades; Occupy Oakland didn't bring it there, and based on published reports did not make it worst.

Indeed, as a criminologist I would suspect the encampment may have provided a temporary context and social network that was very positive for individuals marginalized by the empty rungs on Oakland's post-industrial economic ladder and generally punished by government interventions. For a short period, many of these individuals found themselves gathered in a common political and social enterprise with highly educated and employed people who generally don't share the same social network. A more confident mayor of Oakland might have invited the Occupy Oakland movement to set up satellite Occupy encampments in some of the hard pressed Oakland neighborhoods where young people desperately need a positive pro-social movement to be involved in which gives them hope and dignity while teaching them tools of political involvement and non-violence.

What ever the Occupy movement does next it should be judged on cogency of its message and the dignity of its tactics, and not stigmatized by a crime problem that belongs to Oakland, its Mayor and its police department.

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