Why Occupy?

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Now that two of biggest remaining occupations -- Los Angeles and Philadelphia -- have been evicted, the #occupy movement (or platform) finds itself at the end of the beginning. Individuals may try to reestablish themselves in public spaces, or as has happened in New York and Oakland, they won't. As occupiers debate this among themselves, it's worth considering what the logic of engagement of an occupation actually is.

After all, it's an odd strategy. Fifty years ago, Rosa Parks occupied the front of a bus, but that space was the disputed territory. Now, the protesters expend a lot of time and energy holding areas that don't have any real value. Any particular patch of city that their tents cover isn't strategic. They're not taking over the radio towers or something.

But then there is the fact that the occupations worked better than any civil disobedience movement in a very long time. If this is an "attention economy," the occupiers hit on a very profitable business model. Something about the occupations worked. Perhaps their fundamental inscrutability was actually the magic that kept people paying attention. It was difficult to get a read on what the occupations were, so it was difficult to write them off.

But another explanation popped into my mind, too. It derived from an explication of Julian Assange's political philosophy by Berkeley graduate student and blogger, Aaron Bady. Remember that Assange saw the state as essentially a conspiracy. Bady explained that it wasn't the nature of the leaks that mattered. The point was that any kind of leak could get the state to clamp down on its own network, impeding its own functioning.

"Increasing the porousness of the conspiracy's information system will impede its functioning... the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function," Bady wrote. "You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire."

I don't think Assange is a particularly great political philosopher, nor do I think the Occupy protesters are trying to emulate him. But I think this insight has occurred to the protesters: governments are now so powerful that direct resistance is pointless. No one thinks you could fight a real battle against the US military -- or Michael Bloomberg's own army, the NYPD. Instead, the power of the government has to be used against itself. Nothing else can touch it.

Let me float that the encampments are fundamentally about using government power against itself. By staking out a little ground and saying, "No, the government does not rule this space," it gets the mayors and police chiefs worked up. They deploy their increasingly militarized police officers to say, "Yes, the government does rule that space." Then, the protesters link arms and chant, and the riot cops come in with pepper spray and batons.

During the height of clashes between Occupy Oakland and police, I watched a livestream of protesters chanting, "Who are you protecting? Who are you protecting?" And kept watching as police launched tear gas into that crowd. The show of force was shocking. Now, that situation will pose a major political problem for Oakland's mayor going forward. 

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa handled the eviction of Occupy LA with one thousand police officers. One thousand! There might have been less violence Tuesday night, but Occupy's message (which was also Villaraigosa's) still got sent: overwhelming force will be brought against political dissent.

So, why occupy? The point is not to hold a city park. The point is to dramatize the struggle of weak against strong, which is also the struggle of poor against rich. If the dominant theme of the occupations is, as Jay Rosen succinctly put it, "public policy favors the rich," then having the public police arrest the weak becomes a powerful metaphor for the message of the movement.


Image: Reuters/David McNew.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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