Occupy Protests, Imperialism, and Silence: Haven’t We Seen this Before?

Sunday in Oakland and yesterday in DC, protesters clashed with the police. In DC, they stood their ground and refused to move even though they were ordered to vacate the park. In Oakland, protestors moved to occupy a community center.  Even as they were being accused of breaking in, Oakland protesters challenged that assumption, insisting that the door was open. Whatever the details of the case, what an amazing tale this is, when the “people” are accused of trespassing by sitting in a public building. After all, it’s not called the “Mayor’s private palace”; it is called a “community center”—which means that it belongs to those that CH claims to represent: the people.  And yet, the police and the mayor Jean Quan, one of the founders of Asian American studies at UC Berkeley and who used to talk the good talk until her viability was threatened– believe that it is their just work to defend the 5% rather than the 95%, to arrest those who are less than “respectable,” namely because they did not take advantage of their positions in large financial institutions to bilk billions of dollars from pension funds and union savings plans. In fact, Mayor Quan now wants Occupy to disown the Oakland movement, while Oakland City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente accuses the Oakland protestors of domestic terrorism. What does it say about the moment in which we live that “respectable” citizens are those who steal regularly and legally by making the laws conform to their greed, while those who attempt to live by the rule of law that is laid down upon them by the–1%, the 2%, the 5%–are viewed as “domestic terrorists,”–as if they have violated the sanctity of private individuals rather than challenged the offices and institutions of the status quo?

Authoritarianism is hardly spontaneous. It’s set in motion by a series of events that have been in place way before the vivid moment when one realizes that one is living in the midst of complete surveillance, autocratic power, and the arbitrariness that enables one to be labeled a “terrorist.” The series of laws that I’ve discussed repeatedly–The USA Patriot Act, the 2006 Expansion of FISA which gives immunity to the telecomm industry for turning over private customer phone records, the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the 1996 Immigration Reform Act, the 2006 Military Commissions Act which clarified lawful from unlawful enemy combatants (!), and the latest, but certainly not the last, the NDAA which codifies the 2005 AUMF’s expansion of Presidential powers, giving the President to search for, detain, and yes–kill anyone, including US citizens–on suspicion of terrorism without ever having to show evidence–these have landed us in this surreal, but not unprecedented, moment: One can be named a terrorist for expressing—not a physical violence to one’s neighbors, friends, and countrymen—but a verbal violence—a dissent in the face of a state that demands immediate compliance.  In fact, the White House has said just this to OWS protestors: Anger is an indication of terrorist impulses. And Oakland Council Member Ignacio De La Fuente agreed.

Dissent is the worst form of threat that a disintegrating democracy must face: it must deal not only with the absence of obedience, but the vivid presence of contempt shown to it by person after person after person. None of these persons individually has the power to face down the state by herself; but when she in concert with her classmates, colleagues, friends, and neighbors realizes that the state has demanded all of a person—not only their physical obedience but their psychic commitment as well—then we know two things: 1. We are in the midst of a political vacuum in which the only power that will survive is one that will brook no bars to its existence. And the converse: 2. We will not be allowed to protest without severe damage to our physical and psychic presence.

In the midst of the struggle over power, as we’ve seen over centuries, one thing appears to be constant: Authoritarianism demands a long period of imperialism. And imperialism requires the consolidation of the political interests of the ruling class at home in order to buttress the force of invasions and imperialism abroad.  I am left wondering why the “Left” is as uninterested as it is in our overseas military pursuits during this, an election, year. Why the silence over the raw claim to aggression as evidenced in President Obama’s SOTU speech? A friend suggested that it was because “the Left is confused or uninterested in matters of national security.” I’m unwilling to believe that the Left is confused, but I’m also having trouble believing that the left is uninterested.

But then I read this:  In 1902, J.A. Hobson, an English liberal historian and economist, ruminated on the silence over the imperial battles that the English government was advancing, in India, all over the African continent, and elsewhere.

Although the new Imperialism had been bad business for the nation, it has been good business for certain classes and certain trades within the nation. The vast expenditure on armaments, the costly wars, the grave risks and embarrassments of foreign policy, the checks upon political and social reforms within Great Britain, though fraught with great injury to the nation, have served well the present business interests of certain industries and professions.
It is idle to meddle with politics unless we clearly recognize this central fact and understand what these sectional interests are which are the enemies of national safety and the commonwealth. We must put aside the merely sentimental diagnosis which explains wars or other national blunders by outbursts of patriotic animosity or errors of statecrafts.  (Hobson, Imperialism: A Study, 1902, 46-7)

Yesterday’s column by Glenn Greenwald, on the lies told by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about the power to assassinate US citizens, was nothing short of miraculous in its expression. It comes at a moment when the “Left” is high about the leaps it is making in combatting class warfare and authoritarianism through Occupy Movements, but remains silent on the one of the most terrifying threats to the liberties of dissenters, and even more terrifying to dissenters who are poor, dark, and unruly in their appearance, sexuality, gender and race.  This is not specifically a moment in which the lives of Muslim men is threatened: that threat has been vividly with us for at least a decade.  This is a moment when the lives of other dissenters will no longer be accommodated: Manning, Assange, Aafia Siddiqui, and yes–Dorli Rainey, veterans like Scott Olsen, and your college-going children and outraged next-door neighbors.

Unfortunately, Greenwald is as effective as if he were shouting at the ocean to turn back the tide, it seems, when he points to the repeated lies enunciated by the Administration in defense of its increasing grabs to central authority: to stalk, to frame, engage in surveillance, to declare who is a terrorist sans evidence, and ultimately, to kill in the name of national security:

But this is one of the towering, unanswerable hypocrisies of Democratic Party politics (Greenwald’s link). The very same faction that pretended for years to be so distraught by Bush’s mere eavesdropping on and detention of accused Terrorists without due process is now perfectly content to have their own President kill accused Terrorists without due process, even when those targeted are their fellow citizens: obviously a far more Draconian and permanent abuse than eavesdropping or detention (identically, the very same faction that objected to Bush’s radical whole-world-is-a-Battlefield theory now must embrace exactly that theory to justify how someone riding in a car, or sitting at home, or sleeping in his bed, in a country where no war is declared, is “on a battlefield” at the time the CIA ends his life).

Here is one of the most remarkable segments of CBS’ Scott Pelley’s interview with the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (I can’t get it to embed but you can click on the link).


Check out this statement by Panetta (even non-analytic philosophers like me get the tautologies):

…[i]f someone is a citizen of the United States and is a terrorist who wants to attack our people, and kill Americans, in my book that person is a terrorist. And the reality is that under our laws that person is a terrorist. And we’re required under a process of law to be able to justify that despite the fact that this person may be a citizen, he is first and foremost a terrorist who threatens our people. And for that reason, we can establish a legal basis by which we can go after that person…Why? Because their goal is to kill our people…

As puzzling to me has been the simultaneous consolidation of progressives in outrage at the true parasites of capitalism and the silence of protest, indignance, or similar outrage at the blatant falsehoods articulated by the members of a Democratic administration such as Panetta, who insists that the assassination of Muslim men who are deemed “terrorists” is a cogent example of due process. As Panetta responded to journalist Scott Pelley’s repeated questioning about the lack of due process, about the absence of evidence for the charges of terrorism that were leveled against US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki and several others: Due process is seen in the execution of the “legal” power that the President has in assassinating those who are terrorists.


Compare this moment today to the one Hobson describes in 1902:

Indeed, it has become a commonplace of history how Governments use national animosities, foreign wars and the glamour of empire-making, in order to bemuse the popular mind and divert rising sentiment against domestic abuses. The vested interests, which, on our analysis, are shown to be chief prompters of an imperialist policy, play for a double stake, seeking their private commercial and financial gains at the expense the peril of the commonwealth.  They at the same time protect their economic and political supremacy at home against movements of popular reform. (Hobson, 1902, 142)

The threat of the Occupy movements dovetail with the threat of the dissenters against Imperialism, assassinations, indefinite detention, and brute aggression in the face of disobedience to authoritarianism. It may be coincidental that NDAA was passed in the fall, in the wake of a very energetic and visible presence of a cross-section of protestors. NDAA may not in fact expand much in the way of powers that the AUMF didn’t already do. But it is interesting that the need for a renewed military budget (ostensibly what some analysts of NDAA tell us the bill is really about) can be justified in the face of explicit clauses that enable the possibility of holding citizens who “support” enemy groups and opens up the possibility of detaining US Citizens indefinitely as potential terrorists. As usual, the question about how to challenge this arises– when the right to a lawyer and habeas have been eliminated–through the USA PATRIOT Act and by practice and Court opinions for the last decade.


And so, as Occupy activist Maria Lewis points out,

…[T]he idea that reclaiming vacant abandoned buildings is terrorism is very retelling of the city’s priorities and of what the city—what the Oakland Police Department serves and protects. They are more interested in protecting abandoned private property than they are the people. And the idea that opening up a social center is terrorism is very telling of the narrative of the police state.

Very telling, indeed.


Author: Falguni A. Sheth

I'm a philosopher and political analyst who writes about all kinds of things, from national security, US politics, race, terrorism, miscegenation, feminism, philosophy, and whatever else captivates my attention. My views are idiosyncratic. I'd like to believe they're carefully considered, and I'm not particularly interested in following crowds.

3 thoughts on “Occupy Protests, Imperialism, and Silence: Haven’t We Seen this Before?”

      1. Please write a few words of your thoughts on the article when you get the time. I have been reading a number of books about that wars of the 20th century and find myself being hit on the head repeatedly; struck by our leaders’ incapacity to modify their strategies based upon failed strategies that either JUST HAPPENED or happened not a very long time ago! My latest deja vu relates to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s trip to New York for medical treatment. The last time this country did that was for the Shah of Iran, and we should all know how well that went! (although it helps to actually remember it!)

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