While the rainbows have been gathering at Occupy Portland, David Burgess has been sitting in jail. His arrest was an act of racist violence on the part of the Portland police and if that doesn’t bother Occupy Portland, then the movement is already dead.
The only statement to come out of Occupy Portland (OP) concerning the arrest of David Burgess has been one of harsh condemnation, distancing, and personal defamation of this person who was a target of police brutality. The arrest occurred directly following a march to confront police violence and lend support to its most recent victims. Set to this background, the lack of solidarity with David Burgess illuminates a number of the ills of Occupy Portland.
To start with, the author of the condemnation that was posted to the OP website, as well as at least one of the facilitators of the G.A. that was going on while David was arrested, both immediately accepted a story of the events leading up to the arrest as told by the police. In this way, the support structures for Portland Occupy movement (ie. the G.A. and website) unquestioningly handed the police a platform to further disempower David Burgess. For a movement that aims to be a collective challenge to the power of oppressive institutional forces, these actions are a demonstrative failure.
Secondly, in contrasting Occupy Portland’s reaction to the police assault on Scott Olsen with that of David Burgess, a sense of the ideological shortcomings and
latent oppressive tendencies of OP begin to emerge. It is worth considering what is wrapped up in the identity of Scott Olsen and the context surrounding his experience of police violence that seems deserving of such an outpour of support. Why does David Burgess deserve not only a lack of support, but active condemnation? Both people were assaulted during Occupy marches. Both are members of the supposed 99%, those whom the state has disenfranchised. Both have demonstrated that they are willing to stand up for their beliefs in the face of police repression. So what has distinguished one case from the other to create such a disparity of reaction? For one thing, the media has reduced Scott Olsen’s identity to his history of employment in the U.S. military and has displayed it as a badge of honor. David Burgess, on the other hand has been vilified by many as a violent person with a criminal history. Is the occupy movement so easily convinced to categorically shun a person simply for the fact that they have suffered through a prison sentence and herald another who has fought a war of U.S. imperialism? In both cases it makes more sense to see these people, at least in part, as having been oppressed by the mechanisms of capitalism. We live and participate within the context of a white supremacist state which systematically works to remove the agency from poor people’s lives. If we can’t see past the states own rhetoric of who is and is not a worthwhile human being, then we can have no hope for changing the frameworks of our society.
Thirdly, the clamour for adherence to non-violent principles underpinning a lot of
Occupy Portland’s decisions, paired with a vocal minority’s uncritical celebration of the Portland police seem to indicate a strong lack of understanding as to who creates and maintains most of the violence in society. A strict view of non-violence denies the importance of self-defense and the reality of the tangible obstacles to overcoming institutions of power. Pacifism that makes allowances for police violence is illogical as well as dangerous. The violent oppression of people of color and poor people is what the cops are paid to do everyday. To claim the role of police for the 99%, and then to go a step further and take their side against someone whom they have brutalized and arrested is really quite incredibly wrong. Defending the police makes you an enemy of the poor.
Lastly, it is apparent that individuals and small groups are taking it upon themselves to speak for Occupy Portland, to represent those whom they do not have consent to speak for. What is not clear is whether these few are being openly challenged. If a sole person wrote the letter condemning David Burgess and others have found it appalling, why is it still on the website? Why is there no reply, save a few comments to the article itself? And why isn’t Occupy Portland showing solidarity to David Burgess right now? The apathy and inaction being displayed speaks to the privilege and/or lack of integrity present at Occupy Portland. Once you’ve shown that you will turn your back on a comrade, who will take a stand with you in the future? If you don’t have solidarity you don’t have anything.