The nobility of confusion: occupying the imagination

The Oakland Police Officers Association in California said something clever recently: ‘As your police officers, we are confused.’ It feels like a long time since any political group or institution confessed to such a common human condition. But far from being a mission statement, this was an honest and heartfelt plea from an organisation of working men and women with families to support for an intelligent debate surrounding the Occupy protests that have spread like a viral video of police ‘overreaction’ across the globe.


That might be the first point of confusion to clear up. They weren’t overreacting. Heavy-handed, authoritarian, ‘tough-on-crime’ policing is how these servicemen were taught to act, and they have been ‘reacting’ just fine on the streets of Oakland and US cities like it ever since. Until recently they probably thought they knew why.

Oakland has long had an unemployment rate well above the national average, endemic multi-generational poverty, and an illustrious history of black labour organisation. Like many poor places in the US it also has a wealthy neighbour, San Francisco — which like most affluent areas prefers that struggling populations remain out of sight, and out of mind. There are many ways to achieve these political erasures, but an effective method has always been aggressive policing, increasingly privatised warehouse prisons, and a ‘tough on crime’ culture. And as long as you’re on the right side of all this, and the ever-tightening ‘legal’ definitions this degree of control requires, it really works.

Over time US police departments have developed the skills, toys and temperament their political paymasters required of them. In a nation state, which comprises just five per cent of the world’s population yet a fearsome 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated, these are valuable skills. The highly politicised nature of American incarceration, spurred on by the morally bankrupt ‘legal’ machinations of the domestic war-on-some-drugs, means the US now has a large portion of its potential workforce locked up inside. Those allowed out are branded ‘felons’ and denied employment opportunities and voting rights. A disproportionate number of which are black or brown skinned — caught in the revolving door of a system not designed to their advantage. The prison population has quadrupled since the 1980s while the rest of us looked on, dreaming our American dreams.

You don’t have to be quick with numbers to work out what would happen to the already high unemployment numbers if a prison population of 2.4m were downsized. After more than a month of befuddlement on the part of corporate media draws to a close, with Occupy Wall Street forcibly removed by police in questionable circumstances, it was refreshing, at last, to hear the Oakland Police at least admit to some confusion over what the Occupy movement represents. And as a New York judge issues a temporary restraining order against the city and the NYPD, letting the protesters back into their ‘public’ park, they are unlikely to be the only confused uniforms in America.

Confusion is warranted. If you want to see what it looks like, watch the YouTube video of United States Marine Corps. Sgt. Shamar Thomas in New York this October.  A towering veteran clad in battle fatigues and from a military family, Thomas berates the NYPD for brutalising citizens they are employed to protect: ‘This is NOT A WARZONE!’ he screams into the faces of painfully embarrassed rank-and-file. ‘It does NOT make you tough to hurt these people!’ Similar sentiments were expressed last week by a five-foot-nothing female undergraduate on the University of Berkeley’s campus as she pleaded with heavyset police in full riot gear that they ‘don’t want to do this’… before being speared in the abdomen by a baton attack.

Back across the country in Oakland we watched the miserable spectacle of former US Marine Scott Olsen, survivor of Haditha, bleeding from a badly fractured skull in the street as police continued to pump projectile tear-gas canisters at those who rushed to his aid. At the time of writing he is still unable to talk. The sight of war veterans who fought in the name of ‘protecting freedoms’ being attacked by a police force ‘protecting freedoms’ sparks a scary cognitive-dissonance in societies where the erosion of freedoms has continued almost unquestioned for 30 years.

Through the occupations, the margins are slowly being exposed, engulfed and thrown under the intensity of a collective spotlight. Local ordinances which have long affected the lives of homeless people and the disenfranchised are now being challenged by those middle class citizens voluntarily inhabiting public-private parks. Police brutality, which has long afflicted the lives of the poor and people of colour, is now being directed at the middle classes too. Whilst the YouTube videos bounce around in social media, the corporate-owned media outlets are having a hard time deciding how and if to represent this fact. We have essentially lost our public space, space that is now bought and paid for by public-private companies who enforce their will through permit-culture and, if needs be, state violence. In any country claiming a democracy, this is not viable.

In January 39,000 remaining US troops will return to entrenched unemployment and a trashed social contract. Soldiers are often the quickest to separate their sense of national pride from their governments’ cynical investment in spinning such emotions into nationalism and political gain. As Mark Twain said: ‘Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.’ Many in the Occupy movements on either side of the Atlantic are coming to the same conclusion.

US veterans have comprised a sizeable chunk of the homeless population ever since Vietnam. The nationalistic mantra ‘support our troops’ sadly does not always seem to ring true once they are no longer troops. Acutely aware of this fact, the group Veterans Against the War has positioned itself squarely in support of the Occupy movement. By placing itself in opposition to the government, the organisation has prompted more difficult conversations that seem to undermine the way we have come to understand the roles of certain groups in society. Like the Oakland Police force, to admit confusion might be a noble and brave place to start, it might encourage us to address and reconfigure our preconceptions about the society we live in: it might be the one thing that saves our younger generations.


Drew Lyness is a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in the interdisciplinary department of Comparative Ethnic American Studies at The Ohio State University. Originally from Shropshire, he has lived in Montana, New Mexico, Wyoming and Columbus, Ohio.