On the afternoon of Thursday, November 17, 2011, tents went up on the central quad at the University of California, Davis, to support the Occupy movement. Many of the UC Davis students who encamped did so to express solidarity with UC Berkeley students and professors, notably the poet Robert Hass, whom campus and county police had beaten with batons just days earlier.
The next afternoon, a confrontation between UC Davis campus police and Occupy UC Davis protestors also ended violently.
A UC Davis campus police officer, Lt. John Pike, fired a canister of pepper spray at seated, nonviolent students. The captured image went viral, and his became the face of cruelty. This was only the most recent incident in which police used excessive force against Occupy protestors who, in turn, captured the force on film, pixel, and byte.
While it may be tempting to cast Pike as the enemy, it does nothing to alter the conditions that put a pepper spray can in his hand. Drawing from the great work of James Baldwin, Alexis Madrigal argues in The Atlantic that there is reason to show some sympathy, even empathy, for John Pike, who is a product of the very industries of cruelty that we have come to accept as necessary to every day life.
The potential trouble with the 99% rhetoric is that, while it usefully brings to light the disproportionate influence over government and policy enjoyed by a wealthy 1% of the population, it also hinges on the polarity of “us vs. them.” Unless attended by a clear commitment to transform existing ways of thinking, to move in the direction of compassion and justice, this language can reinforce systems of oppression and antagonism. To recognize this danger is not to dilute Occupy’s basic structural analysis: a few are monopolizing the resources of the many.
Our ability to create social and political change is limited in many ways, not the least of which is our ability to imagine alternatives to the status quo. The art that arises from the Occupy movement offers needed vision, drive, and possibility; it documents and inspires action. It results from and contributes to imagining a less violent, more just world.
In its second issue, OccuPoetry features poetry and art that emerged from an orange cloud of pepper spray. Poetry collected in this issue comes from UC Davis students and faculty as well as poets from afar. In addition to verse, this issue contains a special section titled FORCE: The UC Policy (pages 19 – 29). FORCE was an artistic installation on campus at UC Davis, curated by undergraduates, examining the recent history of violent confrontations between University of California campus police and students. This issue recalls to us what collective struggle can envision and achieve, what James Baldwin called the “perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
Phillip Barron and Katy Ryan
The editors of OccuPoetry
Download your copy of OccuPoetry, the Pepper Spray Edition