What Lies Beneath the “Violence” Discourse

Posted on February 4, 2012


I had a frustrating interview on Voice of Russia radio earlier this week. I’ve been on the show a couple of times before, and I’ve found the hosts to be level-headed and fair. So I was deeply shocked and surprised, when, after this last weekend’s events, they kept coming back, again and again, to the “flag-burning” incident in front of city hall on Saturday night. No matter how many times I refocused their attention on the many violent acts which violate the law, civil rights, and the Oakland Police Department’s own policies—things like firing less than lethal ammunition at head-level, beating people with batons, and using tear gas indiscriminately against crowds and bystanders—they came back to the burning of the flag. Inexplicably, they termed flag-burning “violence”.

There’s not a lot of real estate to this flag-burning story. In the midst of some vandalism of city hall, a small group of people took a flag from the building and lit it on fire. Its a meaningless detail that would have evaporated immediately, given the magnitude of other events, had it not been captured by a photographer, and the image broadcast to every major media outlet on earth. Its true that traditionally mainstream media have an almost child-like fascination with fire; in any context, if there is a group, preferably dark-skinned men, standing around an object engulfed in flames, media producers will dump interviews, context, and reporting to rush over and lovingly document it. But the discourse around the flag-burning as violence and the real violence such a label obscures can’t just be blamed on the media.

Public and social media conversations have also categorized this act, and others such as carrying shields and breaking windows, as violence. Thus, what would otherwise be a straight forward story of institutional violence by police, becomes a one for one story of violent actors. In the subsequent drama of city violence against protester violence—the obviously real, most costly and dangerous violence is obscured.

This Violence vs “violence” debate highlights what I think has become the central struggle of the Occupy movement, though some people have called it a distraction. It goes beyond targeting banks and financial institutions for crimes of the last decades. Its not an issue of wealth disparity, nor recapturing the attention of the Democratic party—though many of those, barring the last, are important. This issue is about bringing institutional violence into the open, and revealing the managerial incompetence and corruption that feeds it, and that it in turn protects. Because at its heart, all of the police responses to Occupy throughout the country have hinged on this dynamic and none other.

OPD has an unlimited credit card and a carte-blanche to use it to perform atrocities of varying degree—as we’ve seen, the toll can top millions in a week. Those who’ve sat in on city council meetings over the past months, can see for themselves the privileged position police funding holds; the council debates which service agencies to close and congratulates themselves for laying off enough city workers to save city services from the ax, all to save a few hundred thousand dollars. Meanwhile, millions of dollars continue to evaporate in all-night orgies of nihilistic police violence and unmonitored overtime just outside city hall’s steps. It would be comical if it wasn’t so offensive.

That, of course, is only the tip of the funding iceberg; each year, the city spends several million dollars to settle up with people whose lives have been destroyed by trauma and violence in OPD horror-shows. The price tag for these lawsuits approaches sixty million over the past decade. This will surely be a record year of payouts, given the near-deaths caused by OPD brutality, the false arrests facilitated by the Alameda County Sheriff and District Attorney and the killing of Derrick Jones by OPD officers in 2010.

Add to this, overtime—which even in lull years, reaches ten to twenty million dollars yearly. The city relies on overtime to pay for this luxury-level violence, rather than staff the police department to the levels that its own data suggest are optimal for a city this size. This unregulated over-time infusion of tens of millions annually, obviously costs the city more than it would if it simply hired more officers. But the sleight of hand allows city council people to pretend that they’re being sober and frugal. The over-time enhanced base salaries double, increasing from relatively high working class levels of 69,000, into the hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile, the judgment and mental health of officers deteriorates from over-work.

Despite this ruinous outlay, the city doesn’t lack wealth. In addition to a gigantic port operation which exists only to consume the money it generates, the city owns well over a thousand buildings and lots that are sitting unused. There is no hurry to make use of them, either to shore up services or to sell for cash to make up shortfalls. Just three days after blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars in violent police repression to prevent a large group of activists from turning unused space into a community center, the city council voted to decimate its City Economic Development Agency’s real estate department. This city agency, charged with unloading surplus property, is now left with one agent to deal with the glut of its holdings. The department’s head, Ava Jourdain, appeared at a city council meeting on January 31 [here testimony begins at 01:13:57] to criticize the unfathomable decision by the council to lay off the very revenue-generating staff that it would count on to balance the budget after the dissolution of state development funds.

The lay-offs will hinder creating construction jobs, managing properties and issuing determinations for unused city buildings as surplus so they can be prepared for sale—all this according to Jourdain and other department employees who spoke the night of the budge vote. While the city’s empty buildings and lots would never have benefited Oakland’s 99%, the city’s incompetence will also prevent it from selling them for the benefit of the 1% or to fill its own coffers. Despite the fact that the real estate agency manages over 250 million dollars in assets that it could sell if fully funded, the city instead laid off the workers that could have solved the budget deficit several times over. Indeed, the sale by the department of the Champion Street Fire House is the main reason that Children’s Fairy Land, which had been slated for a 40% cut, will continue to operate. Motivated by the threat of public embarrassment, council people avoided this Dickensian act at the last minute by liquidating the unused firehouse in an ad-hoc budget amendment.

The balance between extreme violence in the task of security, and extreme incompetence in the task of management is not coincidental—it exists at every level of government in this country. It is the feature, not the bug. The violence exists to prevent the people of a city or nation from reclaiming the assets that the institution holds in their name, but squanders over and over again through indifference, greed and corruption. The specter of that violence must be real and threatening; otherwise such incompetence experienced year after year in a lifetime, would be too much for people to accept without action.

Given all of these horrifying facts, it becomes easier to understand why the siren call of fretting over symbolic violence continues to siphon the concern of liberals and centrists. Without this fig leaf, these people would be forced to admit that the brutal police department is not only the cause of violence, but of bankrupting the city; and that while brutalizing the people of the city, the government squanders its resources through ineptitude. This is too much for people invested in the status quo to accept. Its easier to believe that there’s a good reason for that very expensive institutional violence, rather than explore the reality that it protects a supreme level of wasteful apathy and incompetence at city hall.