The Importance of Pissing Off the State

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 5 2011 10:59 AM

The Importance of Pissing Off the State

My friend Matt Welch, who had quite enough of liberals attacking the Tea Party as some beachhead of violent extremism thank-you-very-much, says Occupy Wall Streeters and their defenders are guilty of hypocrisy. The evidence: A Jonathan Chait column about how "the threat of violence" brings change, and some reported hoo-rahs for a viral video of Roseanne Barr wishing death upon bankers. "I guess opposition to the death penalty," writes Welch, "like anxiety over political rhetoric inciting violence, is last week's news."

Chait's idea probably could have used a shave and a haircut, but let's talk about the "violence." So far, there isn't any. (I'm only knowledgeable about Occupy Wall Street, which I've spent some time with.) There have been actions that led to arrests and pepper-spraying. Some of the people who got arrested were happy to bring it on. On Saturday, as Occupiers headed to the Brooklyn Bridge, I observed one Occupier telling another to take off his masked hoodie, because he would find himself in violation of New York's anti-mask law,* a holdover from the days when the KKK was a public menace. The hoodied Occupier brushed it off. I'm sure he got arrested. But every protest has come under the rubric of civil disobedience. Here's a video I took of the most heated confrontation between protesters and cops after cops started arresting people on the Brooklyn Bridge.

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Are the Occupiers stumbling by opening themselves up to arrest? After all, the Tea Party never did. It's a good question, because despite being peaceful, the Tea Party was galvanized by the idea that the state was trying to crush it. By pure coincidence, the second (and biggest) public Tea Party rallies, on April 15, 2009, came two days after Eli Lake broke the news of a DHS memo warning of rising right-wing extremism. At the Tea Party I attended in D.C., right in front of the White House, dozens of protesters held signs mocking the DHS -- "This is what a right-wing extremist looks like," etc. -- while saying they were concerned that the government would punish them for their activism. (The rumor of FEMA camps for right-wingers arose in this period.)

Mass arrests have been a feature of every left-wing rally that's petered out -- Seattle 1999, RNC 2004, etc. But for Occupy Wall Street, they're fulfilling the function that the old DHS panic fulfilled for the Tea Party. The idea that joining a movement will be dangerous is really not so bad for the movement.

*Watchmen fans can applaud right now.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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