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U.N. Envoy: U.S. Isn’t Protecting Occupy Protesters’ Rights

Dan Froomkin, Huffington Post
WASHINGTON — The United Nations envoy for freedom of expression is drafting an official communication to the U.S. government demanding to know why federal officials are not protecting the rights of Occupy demonstrators whose protests are being disbanded — sometimes violently — by local authorities.

Frank La Rue, who serves as the U.N. “special rapporteur” for the protection of free expression, told HuffPost in an interview that the crackdowns against Occupy protesters appear to be violating their human and constitutional rights.

“I believe in city ordinances and I believe in maintaining urban order,” he said Thursday. “But on the other hand I also believe that the state — in this case the federal state — has an obligation to protect and promote human rights.”

“If I were going to pit a city ordinance against human rights, I would always take human rights,” he continued.

La Rue, a longtime Guatemalan human rights activist who has held his U.N. post for three years, said it’s clear to him that the protesters have a right to occupy public spaces “as long as that doesn’t severely affect the rights of others.”

In moments of crisis, governments often default to a forceful response instead of a dialogue, he said — but that’s a mistake.
(2 December 2011)

Occupy’s new grammar of political disobedience

Bernard Harcourt, Guardian
What is striking – and successful – about this leaderless protest is how it resists the meanings outsiders try to impose on it

… the evictions also raise deeper grammatical issues about the way in which we discuss the Occupy movement – even within our limited forums of free speech. I’ve argued in the New York Times that the idea of a leaderless occupation movement represents a new paradigm of political resistance – what we might call “political disobedience” – that demands a new vocabulary. I’d like to suggest here that it also calls for an entirely new grammar.

The syntax that the critics and pundits are using no longer seems to work. Statements to the effect that Occupy Wall Street should get an agenda or, as the Wall Street Journal disdainfully remarked, should stop engaging in “days of feckless rage”, no longer fully make sense. It is as if these grammatical formulations cannot be “heard” properly given the leaderless paradigm of the new resistance movement. They sound like the inaudible noise in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus – or, perhaps more familiarly, the “mwa, mwa, mwa” that adults make in Charlie Brown cartoons.

This is true even for the fellow travelers. So, for instance, when philosopher Peter Hallward contends in The Guardian that “we will need to convert the polemical clarity of the new slogan – ‘we are the 99%’ – into a commanding political standpoint,” somehow the syntax doesn’t work: it is not clear who “we” are, nor whom Peter Hallward is addressing. Are “we” assembled protesters on the internet, readers of the Guardian, “leaders” of a movement, or critics? …

The problem is, first, spatial. Normative statements about Occupy Wall Street – claims about what the movement should do – are functionally inaudible unless the speaker is physically occupying an Occupy space. Peter Hallward cannot audibly tell anyone what Occupy Wall Street should do – any more than the Wall Street Journal could – unless Hallward is physically “occupying” an Occupy space. And you can’t “occupy” while sitting at your computer or publishing an editorial. You cannot “occupy” at a distance from an Occupy site.

The problem, second and connectedly, is rhizomic. Because the movement is leaderless, there is no one to “speak to” apart from the assembled protesters at an Occupy site; and there is no way to “speak to” the resisters unless the speaker situates him or herself as a member of the resistance movement. Naturally, no one can “speak for” Occupy Wall Street. Under this new political paradigm, the resistance can only be “heard” from its space of occupation, and only then, through the coordinated voice of assembled discussion and potential consensus.

But beyond that, to produce an effective normative statement about Occupy Wall Street, the speaker needs to be physically occupying Wall Street. And not just physically present, but “occupying” that site, in the sense of having a self-imagination that they are part of the resistance movement. What it takes to “occupy”, grammatically speaking, does not necessarily require a tent or sleeping bag, nor even a poster (though that surely helps), but a self-conception that one is protesting. Mere presence does not even suffice. The journalist on the beat, the visiting tourist, the police officer patrolling the park, or the politician claiming to be responsive to the protesters’ demand, none of these would be “occupying” unless they took the further step of conceiving of themselves as part of the resistance movement.

Bernard E Harcourt is chair of the political science department, professor of political science and the Julius Kreeger professor of law at the University of Chicago.
(30 November 2011)

Hard Times at Occupy Boston

Sam Graham-Felsen, The Nation
… [Bookstore owner John Ford] won’t say the word, but it’s clear that he’s the de facto leader of Occupy Boston. When he talks, other Occupiers listen. When problems arise at camp, people go to John. “If certain people are producing good ideas, they get noticed here. But the deference is to practicality, not personality,” says John with forced modesty. One camper told me that Occupy is less a “leaderless” movement than a “lower-archy”; power is never seized, he explained, but when you show wisdom, people grant you power, and that power can be taken away at any moment if you act irresponsibly.

John’s big power play was to take control of the Safety Committee with the help of Alex and others. “The Safety Committee was a complete joke at first,” he recalls. “If you wanted to join, all you had to be was an alcoholic with an authoritarian complex.” His team helped set up a “Good Neighbor Policy,” which required campers to keep their sites clean and comply with community rules against drug use and fighting. They have torn down dozens of abandoned and neglected tents, many of which were covered in mold and excrement, and fill garbage bags daily with detritus that includes discarded needles. “Most people ignored the druggies and were placated by false notions of security, but things got bad,” he says. “Vagrants were taking over abandoned tents and even cracking into occupied ones; meanwhile we were turning away activists who wanted to sleep here because there was no space.”

Occupiers are deeply aware of the fact that their critics seize on every report of violence and drug abuse, acting as though the movement has created a criminal culture that didn’t previously exist. The reality is that drugs and violence are mainstays of American cities, especially in tough economic times, and it would be shocking if these problems didn’t bleed into the encampments. But the unforgiving scrutiny of the right-wing press has accelerated the pace of crackdowns across America, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, and Boston’s Safety team is doing everything it can to preserve one of the largest remaining encampments in the country.

… Allison Nevitt is a 48-year-old small-business owner and Daily Kos diarist who had been very active in Occupy Boston’s Facilitation Working Group. But after Phil threatened her while she was leading the GA, she fled the camp and says she won’t go back. She fears for her personal safety in an environment that she says has become increasingly hostile to women. She also feels like the process is failing Phil. “It’s not compassionate to continue like this,” she says. “It’s cruel to let Phil go up there in front of the GA, and I don’t think the people who voted to let Phil stay really care about him either. He needs help outside of Dewey Square.”

The problem, Allison believes, stems from the fact that “somewhere along the way, people started to view encampments not as a space for unfiltered political conversation but as models of exemplary society. You can’t create an alternative society—and that’s what Occupy Boston tried to do—without a lot of planning and preparation. Our intention was to address the system, not the individuals who got caught in the system.”

To Allison, the only solution is exclusivity. “I closely followed Tahrir,” she says, “and one of the ways they were successful is because activists used barricades to prevent people displaying weapons or violent behavior from coming into the square.”

Allison isn’t the only one who is advocating for a dramatic shift in strategy. Many others I spoke to, including John, are intrigued by the idea of creating a separate camp with selective standards for serious activists.
(2 December 2011)