Are you confident enough to speak truth to power? [Note: I blogged the process of developing this story idea.]
“Crossing the Line”
(Part 1 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
Central District City Councilwoman Sue Winston dropped her ever-present smile and nervously glanced around the shared office before answering. When she did, it was in little more than a whisper, and she’d cupped her free hand over the cell phone.
“You’re sure about this, Peter?” she said. “Mayor Svanstrom’s threatened to cut us out of the loop before, but this would be the first time he’d ever carried it out.”
“Absolutely, sis. My squad’s been issued blanket overtime approval for civilian management duty.”
She closed her eyes and fought the sudden chill in the room. So now they’re calling it ‘civilian management’, are they? Ever since Homeland Security began luring Svanstrom’s predecessors into militarizing the city’s police force, more and more managerial doublespeak had been drafted into a growing army of euphemisms. If they’d been on Skype, the dread she harbored would have been obvious. As it was, she was certain that her brother could read it just from the sound of her breathing. But because Peter chose to wait through the uncomfortable silence, rather than prompting her, a ragged semblance of sibling courtesy survived.
“Do you think it might get…” she said weakly, “…that you could get hurt?”
She regretted the remark even before it left her lips. Of course he could get hurt. That risk had always been part of his job. But this was intentional. Sending a line of police in full riot gear to confront peaceful demonstrators on the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street was a calculated act of psychological warfare. Who knows what might happen. One thing was certain, though: the mayor wanted his city’s Occupy to snap, to give him an excuse to make his backers happy by taking action against them. She wouldn’t even put it past the man to have stocked the scene with agents provocateurs. He so despised losing.
Peter forced a laugh. “Seriously, Suki, I could get hurt writing a traffic ticket.”
She knew that he’d used his pet name for her to put her at ease, but the Anime reference only gave her a kit-bashed image of the wide-eyed youngster she’d favored in grade school beset by a line of cartoon monsters wearing Kevlar armor and face shields. “I know,” she said weakly. “Look, I have to go. Thanks for the heads-up.”
“Any time, sis.”
Sue stared at the phone for a few seconds before putting it away. Tomorrow morning, she mused darkly. In less than a day, her peaceful town would join the militaristic cancer sweeping the country. She tried to imagine herself as one of the people still valiantly holding onto the slim hope that ‘the 99%’ could have any effect on the oligarchy’s power brokers, and failed miserably. Here she was on the City Council, albeit on the fluke of an unexpectedly vacated seat and no serious opposition in the special election, and she felt as powerless as she imagined the Occupy would be against what was about to go down.
She was startled out of her reverie by the intercom. Gail at reception said that a very determined visitor was heading her way, so she tidied her desk and tried to put the image of Peter in riot gear out of her mind for the moment.
“Thanks for seeing me, Ms. Winston,” the man said as he approached. “I was afraid that your gatekeeper back there would shunt me off to my home district’s councilmember. You see, this issue has to do with the district where I work, not where I live.”
“Actually,” she said, rising to shake his outstretched hand, “I’m glad you did. Most people don’t realize that they can do that. So what can I do for you?”
“Every day, I have to drive past that damned Hooverville on my commute.”
“Hooverville?” she echoed weakly. “Oh, you mean the city’s Occupy camp.”
He nodded. “I’m sorry. Where are my manners? I’m Wendell Jones.”
“It’s hard not to know your face, Mr. Jones, what with all the time you’ve been spending on the local news lately.”
“Yes, well. In that case, you probably know that I’ve been negotiating to purchase the land those cretins have usurped. After all this time, it’s pretty clear the do-gooders who own it can’t afford to put up the community center they’re always whining about.”
The building proposal he mentioned had first been flown long before Sue took office the previous spring, and she remembered seeing the developer’s sketches in the paper at the time. “It’s true, they can’t. That’s why they let the Occupy camp on it. So you’ve made an offer?”
“It’s a done deal. Except they refuse to sign until that rabble leaves.”
She leaned back in her chair. “I see your problem, Mr. Jones. And what would you like me to do about it?”
“Well, it is your district we’re talking about. Can’t you pressure those vagrants to leave?”
“Pressure them?” she said, leaning forward again. “Not really. That’s the landowner’s choice, and until they’ve signed your deal, they call the shots. Have you spoken to anyone else about this?”
“You mean besides the print and broadcast news? Sure. Mayor Svanstrom. He said he’d do what he could, but I’ve never found him to be very compliant. I guess I’ll just have to find some other way to apply some pressure, then.”
He blathered on for a while longer, but from the moment Jones mentioned the mayor, all Sue could think about was Peter’s call. By the time he left, she’d decided to go down to the encampment and warn them about the mayor’s staged confrontation.
On her way out, she stopped to tell Gail where she was going, in case anyone needed to find her. But instead of leaving, she just stood there for a moment, staring at the wall.
“You okay, Sue?”
“Yeah, but I just realized something. I’ve never been down to the encampment, even though it’s in my district.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it. After all, you haven’t been at the job very long, and I can attest to the fact that you’ve had a pretty full schedule.”
“Thanks, but I still feel guilty about it.”
Sue spent most of the ten-block walk to the building-site encampment two-thumbing through the Internet on her smartphone looking for reports on what happened yesterday, when a rule like the mayor’s had been levied on the Occupy up in the state capitol. But the more she read, the more determined she became, and the faster she walked.
The massed voices of the ‘People’s Mike’ rose above the noise of traffic passing by as she approached the one unfenced side of the building site.
“—peaceful protesters, just like us…“
“—are being used as cover…“
“—by a violent faction…”
Phrase by phrase, members of the encampment were amplifying the speaker’s comments about the wave of attacks against US embassies across Africa and elsewhere which were conflated with non-violent reaction to an amateurish anti-Muslim video produced in the US.
As Sue approached the encampment’s street-corner lending library, she couldn’t help but wonder how the mayor might use the violence he seemed intent on provoking with his new rule for political purposes. To her, it started to feel all of a kind.
The fiftyish woman minding the stacks recognized her immediately, but when she attempted to strike up a conversation, Sue did little more than nod politely, and swept past on her way to the GA. She had just reached the outskirts of the crowd when the speaker finished talking and there was a lull in the proceedings.
“May I have the floor please?” she shouted.
An unshaven young man in an orange public-works vest appeared out of the crowd. “You must be new here,” he said, and briefed her about procedures while guiding her to the speakers’ area. He explained that he was a stackperson, which meant he helped manage the speakers’ list, and then told her that she’d get her chance to speak after those who were already queued up had their turn.
While orange-vest worked through the announcements roster, Sue paid special attention to the procedures, which were very different from what she was used to at City Council meetings. This was far less formal, for one thing, and people used hand signs for various purposes instead of just shouting at one another, which made her painfully aware of her earlier breach of protocol. On balance, she found herself preferring the more egalitarian feel of the GA. It was a very leveling experience, and therefore anathema to the political predators she sparred with at council meetings.
When it was Sue’s turn, another volunteer – a matronly type who introduced herself as Rose — reminded her to say one phrase, or a short sentence, at a time, so the others could echo it without losing track of what she said.
“I’m Councilwoman Susan Winston,” she said. “Mayor Svanstrom will be imposing a new rule tomorrow.”
Before the People’s Mike had finished echoing her words, someone yelled, “Are you his mouthpiece, then?”
She held up her hands for quiet, and made eye contact with the questioner. “He doesn’t know I’m here.” Only about a dozen voices repeated her response this time, but Rose told her to go ahead anyway.
“This… new rule,” she said unsteadily, “was imposed yesterday at the state capital.” She looked around the GA while her words were being echoed, estimating how many people were present, and how many were now participating in the Peoples’ Mike. “It limits the number of people who can legally say or do something in unison.”
Midway through repeating that last sentence, the coherence of the Peoples’ Mike fragmented into a self-conscious hubbub. Rose motioned her to wait for the crowd to settle down before continuing. “You would all be in violation.”
Several people thrust gun-fingers aloft: there were questions. The stackperson quickly ordered them and told the first to begin.
“How many people would that be exactly?”
“Ten. Way fewer than we have here right now.”
The next person in the queue cleared his throat. “Um… how do they intend to enforce this?”
“Police, in riot gear.” Her words echoed raggedly across the crowd. “And my own brother will be among them.” This time, even the fear in her voice was amplified.
The moderator jumped into the discussion. “What do you propose we do about it, Councilwoman Winston?”
“Propose?” she said, feeling completely out of her depth.
“Yes. Are you recommending that we comply with this rule?”
“I don’t really see how you can.”
Hands with a dozen questions rose simultaneously. The first posited breaking the People’s Mike into banks of ten people, an idea that the stackperson explained was thoroughly unworkable. The next suggested simply standing in clumps of ten in an attempt to evade the rule, a strategy applicable to actions as well as speaking. But when an example was offered, it became clear that doing so would defeat the whole point of concerted action.
It went on like this for a while, and then the discussion took an unexpected turn. The moderator had just suggested that an affinity group be formed to take the issue off-line until later in the GA, when Sue unsteadily raised her arms and made a triangle with her hands. “You have a point of process, Councilwoman Winston?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Why are we even discussing how to obey this absurd new rule?”
“Wasn’t that why you brought it up”?
Sue paled. Why indeed? Whose interests was she really representing here? She felt suddenly naked, bereft of any narrative to clothe her presence here. “Well,” she said, stretching the word for time, “shouldn’t you first decide whether to obey it?”
“Before we even determine if that’s possible?”
Risking even further embarrassment, she scanned the crowd, and then replied, “I think so, yes. There are things that I won’t do, simply as a matter of principle. Taking bribes, for example. Where is that line for you? Is the People’s Mike, for example, an essential part of the Occupy?”
The moderator took the sense of the crowd. It was widely agreed that the People’s Mike was simply a countermove to the initial prohibition of bullhorns at Zucotti Park in New York City. It wasn’t essential here, but adopting its use was an act of solidarity with other Occupies. Using it made the GA into a kind of sacred experience. Even so, having it prohibited would only be an issue if the city were to also prohibit bullhorns.
But that sentiment was quickly de-twinkled. “I strongly disagree,” said a voice from the edge of the crowd. The speaker was quickly given some room, and Sue recognized her as the woman who had been minding the bookstand. “That’s a slippery slope,” she continued. “What restriction would you bow to next? That you couldn’t conduct an action either?”
Sue self-consciously raised gun fingers. “Under this rule,” she said when recognized by orange-vest, “you might not be able to anyway, if it involved concerted action by more than ten people.”
The moderator gestured at the woman. “Would you like to respond, Natalie?”
Occupy’s librarian nodded, and took a few steps towards the center. “There’s something else here, too: a pattern of capitulation. Every time we accede to some new indignity, those in power are emboldened to go further, and we become more used to yielding power. It’s like a Maxwell’s Demon for confidence, stealing it from us and feeding it to them.”
“Then you’d want to oppose this rule on principle?”
“Would you like to help coordinate the response?”
Natalie frowned for a moment in indecision, but then brightened. “Of course.”
“Good.” Then he turned towards Sue. “And what about you, Ms. Winston? Will you be putting some skin into this game, or do you intend to watch from a safe distance?”
For Sue, it was as if the whole complicated mess was suddenly distilled down to its essence. She’d stepped into government service almost on a whim, and until now it had mostly consisted of mundane tasks such as meetings, reports and speaking with her constituents. This was different, and it was exhilarating. “It’s funny,” she said, “when I came down here, all I was really thinking about was my brother. If there was going to be trouble, I didn’t want him to get hurt. But now, I see there’s a whole lot more to this. And yes, I intend to be here with you tomorrow.”
Natalie had moved through the crowd, and was now standing in front of her. “Tell me something,” she said earnestly, “how did you think a bunch of non-violent people could endanger a cop in riot gear?”
“To be honest, thinking didn’t really enter into it. I was just worried about my brother. Yeah, I know. It was irrational. But what can I do? He’s family.”
“So is everyone here, in a manner of speaking.”
A handful of people followed the two women back to the library. And although they were supposed to be developing a formal response to the new rule, they ended up talking more about the unintended effects that it could have beyond the Occupy. The problems were legion, and they were ludicrous: cheerleaders at football games, call-and-response sessions at churches and political rallies, and on and on. Clearly, the mayor hadn’t thought this through, but there seemed every possibility that he would have his police force use it to thwart the Occupy anyway. Eventually, the rest of them wandered off, leaving only Sue and her new friend.
When Natalie was asked to relate the proposal, she studied the gathering for a long moment before speaking. “What we are doing right now,” she said, “will be a violation of the city’s new rule tomorrow. It will be illegal. But so is any act of civil disobedience. The difference is that for them to arrest us for speaking as we are right now, they will have to violate our space. We will not be blocking a street, or preventing anyone from conducting their business. What we will be doing is exercising out constitutional right to speak and to assemble. There is nothing more central to what this movement is about.”
She didn’t continue right away, so the moderator asked if she had a proposal to place before the GA.
“We propose,” she said, pausing to glance at Sue, “that starting tomorrow, in the interest of solidarity, everyone participates in the People’s Mike. Everyone.” She paused again, but this time it was for effect. “If the mayor wants to stage a mass arrest, we’ll force him to take as large a group as possible. Spread the word any way you can. Get people down here in the morning. One more thing: when the arrests start, we’ll want to be streaming it live, with backup. If they take one speaker, someone else takes over. If they cuff someone who was streaming, someone else picks up the slack. The I.W.W. pioneered this strategy. If you’re not familiar with the Wobblies, visit the Occupy Library. I’ve got several books about them.”
Sue had something to say as well. “Remember: Mayor Svanstrom is imposing this unilaterally. He did not consult city council. He’s pressing the police into this without oversight, as if they were his private army. We want to keep him in the spotlight on this. The police are not our enemy.”
Once the GA had concluded, much of the encampment buzzed with activity. A discussion of Wobbly history and tactics broke out near the library. Others called friends and relatives, sent out emails, and arranged for more people to join the tech team. When three uniformed officers walked into the site shortly after midnight to distribute announcements about the rule, those who were still awake fell silent and just watched. Sue walked directly to the first of them.
“What’s this about, officer?” she said innocently, taking one of the fliers while the other two officers continued past.
“It’s an announcement, Councilwoman Winston. We’ll be enforcing a new rule down here in the morning.”
“This is pretty harsh,” she said after reading the notice. “Mayor Svanstrom must be pretty confident that this rule of his would stand up in court.”
“I wouldn’t know about that, ma’am. We just enforce the law. Just ask your—” The officer straightened at a sudden sound from further in the encampment, his hand instinctively by his hip.
Sue spun around just in time to see a shredded flier settle to the ground. A young man was belligerently facing down a uniformed policewoman, who calmly held out another. This time, he crumbled it in his raised fist. Natalie, book in hand, raced to intervene. After stepping between them, she apologized to the policewoman, and then led him away while talking about the importance of remaining non-violent in the face of challenges.
“I think they’ve got the idea,” the first officer called out. “Let’s go.”
Once the scene had calmed, Sue rejoined Natalie and got a few hours’ fitful sleep on a borrowed bedroll. The encampment was already swarming when she woke up. People had begun arriving at four-thirty, but the pace really picked up just before seven. While breakfasting on bagels and orange juice that someone had brought in, the two women wandered the grounds, listening in on numerous discussions about how to handle the inevitable hand-offs when the police pull someone out. The newly enlarged tech team was wrestling with visibility issues when they approached.
“If this goes down anything like it did at the capital yesterday,” one person said, “the cops will go after the live-streamers first. For them, it’s a matter of containment. So we’ll have to stay out of sight until we’re needed.”
“Fine,” said another, but how do the rest of us know who goes next? If a bunch of us de-cloak at once, they’ll grab us all.”
“Well,” a third piped up, “we could set the order now.”
Natalie stepped in. “If this was a more structured situation, that might work. But the police are going to want to keep us off-balance. If they see that we’ve got some set plan, they’ll do their best to short-circuit it.”
As Sue listened, memories of council meetings overlaid the proceedings, and she began to wonder whether the very orderliness of those meetings was instrumental in why the power brokers could control them so easily. She resolved to be more disruptive the next time a session was hijacked.
“—but then, who’s in charge? Who’s the leader?” someone pleaded in frustration.
“Nobody,” Natalie said, stepping closer. “And that may be part of the problem. We keep telling ourselves that this is a leaderless movement, but what we really need to see it as is a leaderful one. What if we had one signal for—” She broke off at the sound of someone calling out ‘Code Blue’. Police had been spotted.
Sue turned around, and saw several uniformed officers arrayed along the opposite side of the street. A moment later, a young male voice called for a Mike Check, and the closest officer spoke into the mike clipped to his collar. “This is it,” she muttered.
Simultaneously, a scattering of voices in the encampment echoed the request, and a double-line of armored police strode down the center of the street, towards the encampment. When they reached the curb, they spread out, stopping a double arms length apart across the open side of the vacant building lot. By this time, the Peoples’ Mike had assembled opposite the police, and stood nervously waiting for someone to speak. Dozens of cell phones were held aloft to record whatever might happen next.
Sue knew instantly which of the identically outfitted officers was her brother, and strode purposefully towards him. While the murmuring behind her spoke of indecision on the part of the person who had launched the mike check, she spoke to Peter. “You’re going to be ordered to arrest me, you know.”
“I’d rather not, sis.”
“You’re not going to be given that choice. As long as you’re wearing that badge, you’re obligated to obey your superior officers, and that includes Mayor Svanstrom.”
There was another call for a Mike Check, but this time it was Natalie. Sue glanced over her shoulder, and then spoke quickly. “Have you looked at your fellow officers, Peter? You’re all dressed alike. And in a few seconds, you’re all going to be doing the exact same thing: arresting us. Why is that okay, and us saying ‘mike check’ is not?”
“Good morning, officers,” the librarian said, and the crowd echoed.
“Do you feel threatened by me?” Sue asked, poking herself with a finger. “By her?”
“We are non-violent,” Natalie said in a loud, clear voice. This time, Sue joined the echo.
“It doesn’t matter,” Peter stage whispered. “This is my job.”
The police commander blew his whistle, and his line of armored officers each dutifully grabbed the nearest person echoing the speaker, and started to cuff them. Including Peter.
“Look at your fellow officers,” Sue said as her brother grabbed her arm and turned her around. “How many of you are there? Twenty? Thirty?”
“We are not threatening you.” This time it was someone else. Natalie had been grabbed as well.
Sue repeated the words as loudly as she could while Peter fastened her wrists together with plastic straps. When he was finished, she faced him again and said, “If this law applies equally to everyone, you’ll also have to arrest one another!”
He stared at her for a moment, and then glanced left and right, at the row of armored officers in what might just as well be lockstep action.
“But you,” the new speaker continued, “are violating our right to peaceably assemble.”
Sue echoed, addressing the words directly to Peter this time. Then she added, “Is that why you joined the force?”
He smiled weakly at her, and nodded. “Okay, sis. I get it. I get it.”
“So now what?”
Peter stirred the air with a finger. “Turn around, Suki, and I’ll cut you loose.”
After freeing her, he raised his face shield and slipped the helmet off. While the officers to his left and right looked on, he stepped across an invisible line and stood beside his sister, facing into the street. “Are you still worried about me getting hurt out here?”
She rapped his armor a few times. “Not as long as they let you keep that outfit.”
(The story continues in “Making it Count“)