For the last few weeks Points has maintained a judicious silence about the populist protest movement(s) clustered under the name of “Occupy Wall Street.” Though we certainly don’t shy away from politics here, we do try to stay at least nominally on topic. While OWS’s capacious platform, not to mention its street theater aesthetic, suggests that participants may have definite ideas about drug policy, the issue has not come to the fore in either mainstream media or progressive coverage of the movement.
At least it hadn’t until last Thursday, when an otherwise bland LA Times piece (the movement is growing and facing logistical hurdles; celebrities are visiting and they are rich– what does it all mean??) included, as a colorful background detail, the quotation that appears in this post’s title. The author contextualized the quote by noting that OWS “bans drugs and booze from [Zuccotti] park, restrictions that are difficult to enforce as the crowd grows,” and then immediately moved on to the pressing question of what OWS’s signature color should be (hey, it’s the LA Times— style really matters out there!).
A ban on alcohol and drugs in the occupied areas makes strategic sense–sort of. No sense giving the cops something actionable to work with, and there are substantive benefits (reduced violence, fewer medical issues, easier crowd control) as well as PR value in keeping the space chemical free. At the same time, though, why bother? The right-wing press already published a slew of pieces last week on what Glenn Beck called the “sex, drugs, and criminals” at the heart of the protest. This was real content farm stuff– a NY Post reporter encountered a guy at Zuccotti park who was high and who claimed that the day before he’d seen another guy who was really high; @SnarkAndBoobs commentator Lori Ziganto mocked a protestor’s “coke nail”; (Houston) Chronicle conservative blogger Kathleen McKinley (aka “Texas Sparkle”) harumphed that all the protestors were addicted to drugs as well as to “entitlements”; etc. The veracity of any of these claims is beside the point: the aesthetics of OWS align it with ’60s counterculture, and that visual link is sufficiently powerful that whatever is behind the image hardly matters. For conservatives, where body painting is, there illegal drug use shall be.
But for anyone actually interested in what OWS thinks about drugs and alcohol, Points offers a bit of coverage. New York’s no drugs and alcohol policy seems to have been adopted several days ago, though attempts by this blogger to determine when and how the issue came to the General Assembly’s attention have been largely fruitless. But the policy– and the problem of maintaining compliance with it– is referenced as early as this CNBC article of October 10th. As of 13 October, it appeared as the leading plank in OWS’s “Good Neighbor Policy,” which was developed in dialogue with neighborhood residents as part of the preparation for resisting the eviction threatened by Mayor Bloomberg. The decision to use the loaded term “zero tolerance” in this public document is an interesting one, and incongruous in its evocation of former New York major Rudy Giuliani, notorious for helping to create, at the local level, the political and economic conditions that the protestors are organized against. Again, there’s both strategic and practical value to taking such a stance, but the rhetorical moves here lend credence to the (predictable) claims scattered across the blogosphere that the OWS’s leadership is anti-democratic.
OWS’s approach to the logistical headache of managing consumption of alcohol and drugs in the thick of the protest is one thing, but what of the larger issues? Reasonable people may wonder what OWS has to say, or at least what its larger politics imply about drug policy. But thus far, the thrust of the conversation coming out of the New York protests, at least, has been enough to make even the most vulgar Marxist proud: political economy, class, and more political economy. Whether what Nathan Schneider calls the system of “horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based”-decision-making and platform building “with roots in anarchist thought”–whether that thing can sustain this level of focus, however, remains to be seen. Schneider again: “The General Assembly is currently in the midst of determining how it will come to consensus about unifying demands. It’s a really messy and interesting discussion. But don’t hold your breath.” In the meantime, the rowdy forums at OccupyWallStreet.org are entertaining the drug-related topics that may surface later: commodity trading of marijuana, global drug war, the economics of the “prison planet” ethos, links between race, class, and incarceration, etc. [Editor’s note: the very large, very lively, and VERY poorly organized site does not have a search feature or any clear organizing principle. Forum threads that existed when I began this post can no longer be located. If you find them, please post in Comments.] Whether the micro-issues dear to identity-based movements and activists will create discrete gravitational fields that pull against OWS’s current central focus on regulatory reform of the financial sector and the political process remains to be seen.
A final note, and a challenge to Points readers. The affinities between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are pretty clear for all to see, even if they are cloaked, as noted above, by different visual styles. Scouring the OWS message boards, it’s difficult to miss the shout-outs to Ron Paul and Herman Cain, currently vying for the title of Most Libertarian Republican presidential candidate. Drug policy has historically been an area in which the Left establishment has skewed Libertarian– towards tolerance, decriminalization, commoditization, and harm reduction–though they remain Great Society Liberals when it comes to wanting the government to mandate and pay for all those things. Occupy Wall Street will almost certainly continue that trend, even as the Obama administration veers increasingly rightward. (More on that topic in a guest post next week.) But where are our Republicans who skew Libertarian in this frothy campaign season? I mean, we all know (and love) that Ron Paul believes in legalizing heroin and cocaine, but where is the Tea Party–and I mean the true Tea Party, not the one that has been taken over by “establishment politicians”— on these and related issues? Points tried our best to get Michelle Bachman to go on record with her views on medical marijuana, prescription drug abuse, and federal agencies’ intrusion into private doctor-patient relationships– but she wouldn’t bite. Before Herman Cain can say “9-9-9” one more time, can somebody please pin him to the wall about federal sentencing guidelines? Maybe the deeply weird world of drug policy is the place where we can start to separate the libertarian wheat from the conservative and the liberal chaff.