November 21, 2011

The Kids Are Awake

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My brother Chris lifted his head from his hands. He had been grieving. For a moment he just sat there on the bare wooden bench, listening to the words fly around the jail cell like imperfect fledgling paint strokes.

“I just don’t think free market capitalism is inherently unsustainable.”

“But in a world of finite resources, how could it not be? Market forces, by themselves, have no way of restricting consumption based on the limitations of the natural world.”

“See, what you’re suggesting is a resource based economy, and the problem with that is …”

And so it went, a bunch of young men hashing out the problems of the world in the back of a jail cell. Every once in a while the police would bring in a new protester and we would let out raucous cheers of solidarity. After the new guy divulged any news about the protests going on outside, the conversations would return, some quiet and idle, some loud and tense enough to draw the full attention of every man in the cell. Some of the people in there really knew what they were talking about, and others, not so much. They had real conversations, though. Every voice was heard.

Chris smiled, and looked me in the eyes.

“The kids are awake,” he said.

Last Thursday, Chris and I, along with our friends Hope and Royce, were arrested while peacefully protesting on a sidewalk in New York City. We were among the more than 240 arrested during Occupy Wall Street’s day of non-violent action, staged in protest of socioeconomic inequality and corporate influence in government. The NYPD estimated the crowd at the Foley Square rally, the climax of the day-long protests, at 32,500 strong. As I write, home safely in Ithaca, I keep bringing my mind back to what Chris said in that cell. The kids are awake.

I have to keep reminding myself of this, because if I don’t, my mind will wander to everything else I saw, and I will do nothing but grieve. For legal reasons, I’ve been advised not to discuss the details of my own arrest, but I feel compelled to report at least this: I saw the police deliberately and strategically escalate peaceful protests into violent confrontations. Standing in line outside Police H.Q. on Friday morning, waiting with the others to reclaim our confiscated possessions, I met a young Hispanic man with missing teeth, bloody eyes, and bruises all over his face. Inside Police H.Q., I watched a young woman finally retrieve her handbag from the police storeroom, only to find all the money missing from inside. This is the price Americans pay for engaging in acts of civil disobedience.

At the outset of the march, I gave the police the benefit of the doubt. While other protesters chanted, “This is what a police state looks like,” I preferred the cheer of solidarity, “Police are the 99 percent.” I was operating under the assumption that the police are fundamentally keepers of the peace; that if I did everything the police told me to do, I was in no danger of being arrested; that as long as I remained non-violent, the police would protect my rights as an American citizen to protest peacefully in a public space. It turns out that America is not that kind of country. I grieve now for the America I thought I lived in.

Of course, your treatment in jail depends to some extent on the character of the individual police officer. Some are undoubtedly sadists, using any excuse available to inflict pain and humiliation, while others, including my own arresting officer, are really nice guys, stuck in an ugly job but committed to treating prisoners with as much respect and dignity as possible. This variability is to be expected.

What I did not expect is that, on an institutional level, the way in which our police force operates is fundamentally opposed to the thriving of a democratic state. On Thursday, just like during the eviction of Zuccotti Park on Tuesday, the media were not allowed anywhere near the heart of the action. I met one young man in jail who had been arrested while standing on a sidewalk and writing down badge numbers. I repeat what I said before, only because I’ve had such a hard time coming to terms with it: the police deliberately and strategically escalated peaceful protests into violent confrontations. This isn’t just a few bad eggs in uniform — this is how the NYPD routinely operates, and it brings to mind what one U.C. Davis student shouted on Friday as police officers pepper-sprayed seated protesters in the face: Who do you serve? Who do you protect?

And yet, I left jail on Thursday night with new hope. A group of twenty or so young Occupiers were waiting across the street, cheering for my safe release. When I crossed the street to join them, they offered hugs, food, warm clothing, medical attention, legal advice and a safe place to sleep for the night, most likely in one of the local churches or synagogues that had opened their doors to protesters. As I sat there with our jail support team, waiting for Chris and Hope to be released, I heard the conversation starting up again around me. Was the day a success? Where is the movement going? What does a just, sustainable economy look like?

I’m not pretending that the Occupy movement has all the answers to these questions. Admittedly, its message and demands can sometimes get swallowed up by the tension surrounding the protests themselves, and of course there have been a few isolated outbreaks of violence from the protesters.

What inspires me is not some delusion that Occupy Wall Street will solve all of our society’s problems. What inspires me is what I heard in the back of that jail cell: young voices passionately and thoughtfully engaging with the colossal problems now facing humanity. I had just about given up hope on my generation exhibiting either genuine passion for constructing a more just world or a spirit of love and cooperation. In the Occupy movement, I’ve found that my pessimism was premature on both counts.

The kids are awake. They are gathering in public spaces, deliberating democratically on how to fix the world, and taking direct, non-violent action to try to effect positive change. The cards are stacked against us, living as we do in a country where peaceful protest is often met with violent oppression. We are awake, though, and as long as we have tongues for speaking, ears for listening and feet for marching, we have the tools we need to start making sense of this clusterfuck of a world we’ve inherited. If you want to be a part of the conversation, Occupy Cornell would love to hear your voice at our next General Assembly.

Tom Moore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at tmoore@cornellsun.com. What Even Is All This? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Tom Moore