Tuesday, March 27, 2012

the myth of freedom in the land of the free

aljazeera | In 1893, a massive financial panic sent demand for the Pullman Palace Car Company into a downward spiral. The luxury rail car company reacted by slashing workers' wages and increasing their work load. After negotiations with ownership broke down the following year, the American Railway Union, in solidarity with Pullman factory workers, launched a boycott that eventually shut down railroads across the US. It was a full-scale insurrection, as the late historian Howard Zinn put it, that soon "met with the full force of the capitalist state".

The US Attorney General won a court order to stop the strike, but the union and its leader, Eugene V Debs, refused to quit. President Grover Cleveland, over the objections of Illinois' governor, ordered federal troops to Chicago under the pretense of maintaining public safety. Soldiers fired their bayoneted rifles into the crowd of 5,000, killing 13 strike sympathisers. Seven hundred, including Debs, were arrested. Debs wasn't a socialist before the strike, but he was after. The event radicalised him. "In the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle," Debs said later on, "the class struggle was revealed".

I imagine a similar revelation for the tens of thousands of Americans who participated in last fall's Occupy Wall Street protests. As you know, the movement began in New York City and spread quickly, inspiring activists in the biggest cities and the smallest hamlets. Outraged by the broken promise of the US and inspired by democratic revolts of Egypt and Tunisia, they assembled to protest economic injustice and corrupt corporate power in Washington.

Yet the harder they pushed, the harder they were pushed back - with violence. Protesters met with police wearing body armour, face shields, helmets and batons; police legally undermined Americans' right to assemble freely with "non-lethal" weaponry like tear gas, rubber bullets and sonic grenades. There was no need for the president to call in the army. An army, as Mayor Bloomberg quipped, was already there.

Before Occupy Wall Street, many protesters were middle- and upper-middle class college graduates who could safely assume the constitutional guarantee of their civil liberties. But afterward, not so much. Something like scales fell from their eyes, and when they arose anew, they had been baptised by the fire of political violence. Fist tap Arnach.