The violence of the State & the crime of peaceful protest

We’ve been looking at neoliberalism, Rule by the American Rich, and the American State in general, as a theoretical system.

The .01% (the very very rich) keep their place and assert their will through capture of the political process — payments to their retainers in the three branches of government via money and other goods (judges are bribed by “other goods,” as you’ll read below). The NSA and other agencies of the Deep State (FBI, CIA, Homeland Security) spy on your every move in order to “keep order,” a nicely theoretical phrase.

The European “troika” — the IMF, the European Union (EU), and the European Central Bank (ECB) — enforce “austerity” on deeply indebted nations and demand that public assets — like water systems, public roads, art museums, whatever the rich want to acquire — be sold to the highest bidders, i.e., whoever has money anymore. (Ukraine is about to join Greece in the “in dept to the IMF” club, by the way; welcome to the warm arms of the West.)

We watch the “flow of funds” and the flow of power like lights in a futuristic situation room. We watch the bribery and outright purchases (show me those Library funds, Mr. Obama) like pings on a radar screen. Analyzing all this as a system, it makes perfect sense, and it makes perfect sense to say so.

What’s missing is recognition of the violence.

The violence of the very rich

Every national instance of “rule by the rich” is accompanied by a great deal of violence, inflicted on a great many, so that the “order” mentioned above can be “kept” to the benefit of the very few. This almost makes the phrase “keeping order” an Orwellian description, like “servicing the target” (which is milspeak for “bombing them back to the Stone Age”.)

The violence takes many forms, but we tend to see only the surface activity, the pouring of poison into the well. We don’t stay to watch the deaths. For example, this about our friends across the water (my emphasis):

Entire industries, from rail to water, ports and airports, roads and healthcare – industries that are meant to serve a vital public purpose and have received decades and decades worth of public investment – are now being sold off at car boot-sale prices to private international corporations and investment funds.

And it’s not just happening in Greece. Even in countries yet to have received a bailout, pressure is building to privatise state assets. In Italy, a referendum on water privatisation was held in June 2011. Fifty-seven percent of the population turned out, with 97 percent of voters rejecting the proposal outright. It was as decisive a statement of the popular will you’re likely to find; yet it was also, as is so often the case with national referendums in Europe these days, the wrong answer.

Undeterred by the strength of popular opposition, the Troika continued applying pressure on the Italian government to privatise state water companies, but Italy’s geriatric playboy-premier Silvio Berlusconi refused to buckle. Not that it mattered: A year later, after becoming too much of a liability to the European project, Berlusconi was toppled in a lightning-fast Brussels-orchestrated coup d’état. His replacement, Mario Monti, a life-long banker with close ties to the European Commission, Goldman Sachs and the elitist think tank the Trilateral Commission, was, as you’d imagine, somewhat more amenable to the Troika’s desires.

… In short order Monti received a letter from former and current ECB chairmen Jean Claude Trichet and Mario Draghi insisting on the privatisation of Italy’s water distribution rights. The fact that such a proposal had already been point-blank rejected by the Italian people and was effectively illegal under the Italian constitution mattered not a jot. Since then, attempts have been made – some successful – to privatise water districts in Italy, including in the country’s capital, Rome.

In Spain, meanwhile, the Rajoy government has been more than happy to meet the Troika’s demands to privatise social housing (selling off huge batches to international investment funds and Wall Street banks) and public hospitals (albeit with somewhat less success, thanks in large part to the strength of public opposition). The government has also removed public subsidies of basic utilities, including gas and electricity, resulting in sharp increases in the basic cost of living.

The same story is playing out across Europe’s bailed-out nations. The losers are by and large the poor and middle classes, while the beneficiaries are the same as always: the world’s largest multinational corporations and (yeah, you guessed it) banks.

And when we say the “beneficiaries” are the corps and the banks, we mean, of course, that the beneficiaries are the CEO class that controls and loots the corps and the banks. Corps don’t spend their booty by golfing at St. Andrews, David Koch at their side. Banks don’t flaunt their assets and their actress-model-mistresses aboard the latest megayacht. It takes a brutal human to do that. Corps and banks are just the tools of conquest, like an invading army.

Note that the violence inherent in the policies above is implicit for the writer, not explicit, and the actions are actions of “entities,” not human actors.

Yet this is a human world. Humans reap the rewards, and humans pay the price. Consider that privatized water system above, for example. What happens when water, sold to citizens by the state at cost, becomes a profit center for some corporation, run by some brutal human who surfs at the top of the financial scale? Humans who scrape by at the bottom of the financial scale, fall to the next level down, then die.

When the rich loot the world, people die.


It’s not inappropriate to talk of murder, except for the Stalin Rule, which negates such talk.

Violence comes in many forms; most don’t lead to death

While its possible to count the deaths, even in this country, from forced austerity like cuts to Medicare, there’s other violence as well. To keep people in their place, it doesn’t just demand constant propaganda (we call it “television” in the Land of the Free), it also demands, as noted above, “keeping order.” Here’s one example of “keeping order”:

Cops sending a message into the eyes of the unruly

Cops sending a message to the eyes of the unruly
so they learn what not to look at

Here’s another:

Welcome to the airport in the Land of the Free (source)

Welcome to the airport
in the Land of the Free (source)

How can we learn our place if they don’t teach us? It’s only fair of them, right?

We could talk about the violence of poverty (see below), of prison (did you know that the guards commit most of the rape?), the violence of homelessness, of hopelessness, of depression and nihilism. All of this violence, though, has a single goal— to prop up the predator owners of the State. Michael Parenti (my emphasis):

The Gangster State


Rick Perlstein’s new book. Click for more information.

The state is the instrument used in all these societies by the wealthy few to impoverish and maintain control over the many. Aside from performing collective functions necessary for all societies, the state has the particular task of protecting the process of accumulating wealth for the few. Throughout our country’s history, people have fought back and sometimes gained a limited degree of self-protective rights: universal suffrage, civil liberties, the right to collective bargaining, the eight-hour day, public education, social security, and some human services. …

Today in the much vaunted western democracies there exists a great deal of unaccountable state power whose primary function is to maintain the existing politico-economic structure, using surveillance, infiltration, sabotage, judicial harassment, disinformation, trumped-up charges and false arrests, tax harassment, blackmail, and even violence and assassination to make the world safe for those who own it.

The Sixties (and its early-to-mid-Seventies extension) was a time of temporary fighting back and winning. Nixon fell, and the wind seemed at our backs. Then came the counter-revolution. Reagan rose and the wind blew in our faces the stench of the rich riding high again.

Time to saddle up and ride against them? If so, there’s a price.

Occupy, violence and Christopher Hedges

Which brings me to the latest incident of violence by the State. If you didn’t know already that peaceful protest makes you an Enemy of the People, the State wants to make sure you learn (it’s only fair of them). The Occupy movement was a huge example of “disorder” — i.e., challenge to the Rule of the Rich. And the State, guardians of the predator rich, exacted a predator’s revenge.

Here’s the latest example, via the inestimable Chris Hedges (again, my emphasis):

The Crime of Peaceful Protest

NEW YORK—Cecily McMillan, wearing a red dress and high heels, her dark, shoulder-length hair stylishly curled, sat behind a table with her two lawyers Friday morning facing Judge Ronald A. Zweibel in Room 1116 at the Manhattan Criminal Court. The judge seems to have alternated between boredom and rage throughout the trial, now three weeks old. He has repeatedly thrown caustic barbs at her lawyers and arbitrarily shut down many of the avenues of defense. Friday was no exception.

The silver-haired Zweibel curtly dismissed a request by defense lawyers Martin Stolar and Rebecca Heinegg for a motion to dismiss the case. The lawyers had attempted to argue that testimony from the officer who arrested McMillan violated Fifth Amendment restrictions against the use of comments made by a defendant at the time of arrest. But the judge, who has issued an unusual gag order that bars McMillan’s lawyers from speaking to the press, was visibly impatient, snapping, “This debate is going to end.” He then went on to uphold his earlier decision to heavily censor videos taken during the arrest, a decision Stolar said “is cutting the heart out of my ability to refute” the prosecution’s charge that McMillan faked a medical seizure in an attempt to avoid being arrested. “I’m totally handicapped,” Stolar lamented to Zweibel.

The trial of McMillan, 25, is one of the last criminal cases originating from the Occupy protest movement. It is also one of the most emblematic.

The state, after the coordinated nationwide eradication of Occupy encampments, has relentlessly used the courts to harass and neutralize Occupy activists, often handing out long probation terms that come with activists’ forced acceptance of felony charges. A felony charge makes it harder to find employment and bars those with such convictions from serving on juries or working for law enforcement. Most important, the long probation terms effectively prohibit further activism.

The piece is rich and extraordinarily well considered. But let’s stop here for just a second. This is another form of violence:

A felony charge makes it harder to find employment…. Most important, the long probation terms effectively prohibit further activism.

Consider a felony charge for peaceful protest as an excessively oppressive student loan … on steroids. But I digress. Hedges goes on to detail the real physical violence visited on the Occupy protesters by the police (my paragraphing):

The Occupy Wall Street movement was not only about battling back against the rise of a corporate oligarchy that has sabotaged our democracy and made war on the poor and the working class. It was also about our right to peaceful protest. The police in cities across the country have been used to short-circuit this right.

Imperial Storm Troopers guarding a bank in Portland.

Imperial Storm Troopers guarding a bank in Portland

I watched New York City police during the Occupy protests yank people from sidewalks into the street, where they would be arrested. I saw police routinely shove protesters and beat them with batons. I saw activists slammed against police cars. I saw groups of protesters suddenly herded like sheep to be confined within police barricades. I saw, and was caught up in, mass arrests in which those around me were handcuffed and then thrown violently onto the sidewalk. The police often blasted pepper spray into faces from inches away, temporarily blinding the victims.

This violence, carried out against nonviolent protesters, came amid draconian city ordinances that effectively outlawed protest and banned demonstrators from public spaces. It was buttressed by heavy police infiltration and surveillance of the movement. When the press or activists attempted to document the abuse by police they often were assaulted or otherwise blocked from taking photographs or videos. The message the state delivered is clear: Do not dissent. And the McMillan trial is part of the process.

And this, which I’ll bet you didn’t know:

McMillan … was manhandled by a police officer later identified as Grantley Bovell. … Bovell, who was in plainclothes and who, according to McMillan, did not identify himself as a policeman, allegedly came up from behind and grabbed McMillan’s breast—a perverse form of assault by New York City police that other female activists, too, suffered during Occupy protests. …

By the end of the confrontation she was lying on the ground bruised, beaten and convulsing. She was taken to a hospital emergency room, where police handcuffed her to a bed.

Here’s a picture of this “tactic” taken from another protest in another place.

I didn't write that caption. Feel free to draw your own conclusion. (source)

Is this violence? Sexual assault? Note the cops’ hands (yep, they’re both doing it). I didn’t write that caption, by the way. (source)

Hedges ends this part of the story here:

Had McMillan not been an Occupy activist, the trial that came out of this beating would have been about her receiving restitution from New York City for police abuse. Instead, she is charged with felony assault in the second degree and facing up to seven years in prison. She is expected to take the witness stand this week.

As I said, the piece is rich. This too, from McMillan’s back-story, is violence (again, my paragraphing):

McMillan’s journey from a rural Texas backwater to a courtroom in New York is a journey of political awakening. Her parents, divorced when she was small, had little money. At times she lived with her mother, who had jobs at a Dillard’s department store, as an accountant for a pool hall and later, after earning a degree, as a registered nurse doing shifts of 60 to 70 hours in hospitals and nursing homes.

There were also painful stretches of unemployment. Her mother, from Mexico, was circumspect about revealing her ethnicity in the deeply white conservative community, one in which blacks and other minorities were not welcome. She never taught her son and daughter Spanish. As a girl McMillan saw her mother struggle with severe depression and, in one terrifying instance, taken to a hospital after she passed out from an overdose of prescription pills. For periods, McMillan, her brother and her mother survived on welfare, and they moved often; she attended 13 schools, including five high schools. Her father worked at a Domino’s Pizza shop, striving in vain to become a manager. …

“I grew up around the violence of poverty,” she told me as she lit another cigarette while I interviewed her Thursday night in an apartment in Harlem. She smoked nearly nonstop during our conversation. “It was normative.”

Though I won’t quote more on this (you can read it all here), McMillan’s whole life itself is a study in the violence of the State against its underclass. Her journey is a great read.

About cops and that judge

I want to be fair. McMillan was involved in the Wisconsin protest in 2011 and has nothing but good to say about the police there:

She had participated in the political protests in Madison, Wis., in early 2011, and the solidarity of government workers, including police, that she saw there deeply influenced her feelings about activism. She came away strongly committed to nonviolence.

“Police officers sat down to occupy with us,” she said of the protests in Madison. “It was unprecedented. We were with teachers, the fire department, police and students. You walked around saying thank you to the police. You embraced police.

Everyone’s a human, gets to make choices, and gets be recognized for those choices. I want to be fair and recognize good choices, by police as well as others. I also want to be fair and fairly name the bad ones, by police as well as others.

Speaking of others, here’s more about that judge:

McMillan knows that the judge in her trial—who in one comment on the lawyers’ judge-rating website The Robing Room is called “a prosecutor with a robe”—has stacked the deck against her.

Judges can be bribed with money. But often they’re bribed with a lifetime job and the opportunity to be relentlessly cruel, in the name of Jesus perhaps, or “justice” (the kind that shows no mercy), or simply the cause of “keeping order.”

However justified, judges who are “prosecutors with robes” are most likely just following the First Rule of Torture. Can you be bribed by your eagerness to do harm? Of course.

What the super-rich get for your pains

I want to end where we began, with the very very rich, and I want to end on a high note. This story is not all torture, pain and death, you know. There’s pleasure here too. Just not your pleasure. For a look at the rewards your efforts are providing those who hold your lives and conditions in their hands, watch the following (h/t the writer Masaccio, from this excellent piece):

Don’t think of the pain you suffer — think of the pleasure you give. It’s the least they could let you do. (For easy hopping around, the Personal Jets segment starts at 12:30, and at 20:45 there’s an interesting segment about dueling with megayachts. Part three talks about the problem of spending it all, which leads to sports teams.)

Hedges is afraid we’re headed for a crackup, a time when the dam will break. I think that’s premature. It concerns me that the American people have an even great capacity to endure this abuse. It concerns me more that we won’t recapture the government before the climate captures us.


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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