Brutal responses to Occupy protesters signify deep disconnect

Last weekend, while listening to an NPR story about police using tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a demonstration, I was actually surprised when it turned out the newscaster was talking about Tahrir Square -- I had assumed it was about another brutal response to a peaceful protest here at home.

All across the country, a war is being waged. This isn't a battle over parks and tents and sleeping bags. Though many of our leaders don't seem to realize it, this is a battle about their credibility, about how they represent us, about whom their real allegiance is to. Their misguided response to the Occupy protests has actually proved the point of the protesters more than any sign or chant could.

The Occupy movement has been a test -- a national MRI -- that has allowed us to check in on the health of our democracy by allowing us to see what's going on underneath the surface of America's power structures. And the results are dire. What the movement, and the response to it, has shown is a government almost completely disconnected from those it purports to represent.

And then there is UC Davis, where police calmly and at close range pepper-sprayed students who were sitting down, arms locked and huddled. As the New York Times notes, one voice on the video of the assault is heard screaming, "These are children. These are children."

If this video were from China or Syria, James Fallows writes at The Atlantic, "we'd think: this is what happens when authority is unaccountable and has lost any sense of human connection to a subject population."

The response by UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi illustrates that lack of connection. In her first statement last Friday, she passive-aggressively said, "We deeply regret that many of the protestors today chose not to work with our campus staff and police to remove the encampment as requested." Hard to look at the way those campus police were outfitted and think they're people who really came ready to "work with" others. No, they weren't there to work with -- they were there to inflict upon.

By last Saturday, in a statement that used "safe" or "safety" four times, Chancellor Katehi said that the officers' actions were "chilling" and that the video "raises many questions." That's certainly true. It also raises one answer: governments that purport to be democratic shouldn't assault their own citizens in the name of keeping them safe.

Another example of just how powerful images can be came the next day. As Chancellor Katehi left a meeting and walked to her car, student protesters parted and watched her in stony silence. "The disciplined, contemptuous dead silence of the protesters through whom UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi walks en route to her car is another astonishingly powerful demonstration of moral imagery," writes Fallows. "Again, as a moral confrontation, this is a rout."

That the Occupy movement has pushed this battle into the national consciousness -- no small feat in a country that loves to be distracted -- is undeniable. "This peaceful grassroots movement has succeeded in raising awareness about growing income and wealth inequality and, more generally, a system that seems better at serving the privileged few than enabling jobs and income growth for the many," writes PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian. And Politico points out that the term "income inequality" went from being used in the media 91 times the week before the protests started to nearly 500 hundred last week.

The challenge now, writes El-Erian, is to pivot from offering a critique of the current system to building a system to replace it. True, but we should remember that by the time Dr. King made his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the civil rights movement was almost 10 years old. Change is not going to happen in an instant. But the more government officials continue to respond in a way that only serves to illustrate the critique the movement is making, the faster change will come.

Shepard Fairey, in explaining why he morphed his famous "Hope" poster into one championing the Occupy movement, wrote:

"Obviously, just voting is not enough. We need to use all of our tools to help us achieve our goals and ideals. However, I think idealism and realism need to exist hand in hand. Change is not about one election, one rally, one leader, it is about a constant dedication to progress and a constant push in the right direction. Let's be the people doing the right thing as outsiders and simultaneously push the insiders to do the right thing for the people."

Having those insiders recognize that what they're doing is supposed to be for the people and not against the people would be a good start.

(Arianna Huffington's e-mail address is

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