(Part III — There’ll Be No Pelters Here)
Here’s the thing that no one wants to say out loud about Occupiers taking to the streets: it is the unspoken threat that they will turn violent that makes people take careful note of them. That hint of danger from groups loose in our cities — it’s ominous; it’s disturbing; it invites resolution. The innate urge to protect oneself and one’s own immediately reacts to crowds of the vocal and disaffected on the prowl. You prepare for danger and move to eliminate any hint of a threat. Hence, you cannot ignore the protesters in the streets.
This sense is significantly amplified in a society built around the sanctity of property. In a place where it is considered completely legitimate to take a life to protect your flat screen TV or expensive jewelry, any disorder is immediately perceived as a threat to (sacred) stuff. Oh, my God! They broke a window. Can it get worse? They spray painted graffiti on a statue of Robert E. Lee. The indignities! You know, the world will end if anything with a value greater than $500.00 is destroyed. That’s felony protesting there. In the greatest turn of irony ever, conservative pundits online are in a tizzy because some protesters set fire to their own stuff. Where will it end if they don’t even have regard for their personal property?!
(As an aside, this is part of the reason that the government cracked down on Native American practices — the potlatch and fire ceremony — in the 19th century. As rejections of wealth and materialism, these acts conflicted with capitalism, and they, therefore, had to be stopped.)
Do you know who can least afford to have their property damaged? Psst, it’s not the one percenters. Burning your own shit is a powerful statement when you’re unemployed or living paycheck to paycheck. It’s economic immolation. Like the hunger strike, it’s an act of sacrifice that pricks the conscience. Of course, it’s actually more alarming to many that it’s a rejection of commercialism and materialism, otherwise known as the American way. There is perhaps no greater sin against consumerism.
So, these hooligans are on the loose, lacking any regard for the value of things — theirs or others’ — or the propriety of compliant behavior. They say they renounce violence, and some of them have even tried to prevent it. That threat, though, it haunts conservatives (even if they see that the system does unfairly favor the rich) — because they think the bell tolls for them. Really, it serves the movement best that this unspoken fear does linger. Truthfully, the monumental changes wrought by the Progressives in the early 20th century were driven by their fear of growing masses of disaffected poor people, who fought back and caused substantial unrest standing up for themselves. The law didn’t help them. They couldn’t turn to the government. So, they filled the streets, sometimes exercising their 2nd amendment right to bear arms. There was violence, and though we are removed in time from this now, the past lingers. We could return there again. Great recessions and depressions have driven Americans to violent acts many times before. It is possible — even with the domesticated citizenry of today — that this spirit reawaken and we experience a return to the way it was. The regulatory state and welfare society diffused unrest in the past, but it fails us today.
It could be that the peace of the post-World War II age was an anomaly and we have passed that historical moment. Perhaps we are now at a turning point, transitioning to a new paradigm. At this juncture, we do not know. There lies the incentive for the establishment to do as it did in the 20th century: institute reforms that ameliorate the worst of the effects of systemic inequities on the middle and working classes. The people were not in the street when the disparities were not so great. The wealthy elite has forgotten past lessons and gotten too greedy. It needs to return (at least some) power to the people to preserve the system. Otherwise, it may be that restraint gives way as the squeeze continues. Desperation fuels violence – and revolution. Perhaps, it will come to that.