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Davis, California

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Column: Hallelujah, I’m a Bum

The U.S. Bank occupations taught us a lesson we can’t afford to forget: Direct action works. Protesters who refused to wait for institutional permission won a victory that official campus organizations and representative assemblies can only dream about.

The next time we get into a tired debate about the movement’s mass popularity or the need to dialogue with this or that member of the administrative apparatus, we have only to recall the closure of U.S. Bank. A group of activists, without the help of any formal organization, defeated the fifth-largest commercial bank in the country in less than two months. Enough said.

But now the Empire strikes back.

In the aftermath of the sit-ins, the Yolo County District Attorney charged 12 members of the UC community with violating California Penal Code Section 647c, “Obstructing a Thoroughfare.” This law holds that a person who “willfully and maliciously obstructs the free movement of any person on any street, sidewalk or other public place or on or in any place open to the public is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

In other words, the Banker’s Dozen may face 11 years in jail and a million dollars of damages for allegedly blocking a footpath.

To understand the yawning gulf between the severity of the charge and the alleged crime, we have to go back to when the law was created. As attorney Rebecca von Behren points out in a recent blog post, Section 647c seems to be a response to Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham, a case that criminalized African American civil rights protests in the 1960s.

In 1963, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and a crowd of activists picketed in front of a department store in Birmingham, Ala., protesting racial segregation in local businesses. After refusing to move at the request of a police officer, Shuttlesworth was arrested and sentenced to 180 days in jail with hard labor. As in Davis, the city of Birmingham decided that ease of traffic was more important than social justice or freedom of expression.

Even more troubling, the Birmingham ordinance and Section 647c were both ostensibly drafted in order to combat panhandling, prostitution, public intoxication and other forms of disorderly conduct. Indeed, Section 647 was originally titled “Vagrancy, definitions; punishment.”

Under the eyes of the law, the Occupy protesters become homeless, with no proper place at Davis. Here the law only makes literal what conservatives have been saying all along about protesters: Left-wing activists become “stinking bums” or “rogue elements,” alien and threatening to the body politic.

While it’s little comfort, I would suggest that the best response is Industrial Workers of the World’s protest hymn, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.” The radical labor organizers and civil rights activists of the 20th century were construed as vagrants because they took the side of those who didn’t count within the social order. Because they acted in solidarity with those who lacked any recognized power, they were forced to give up respectability and work outside of established institutions.

This suggests that those struggling to support a new group of invisible subjects, the debtors and the unhoused, must return to direct action. Students and faculty who felt at home on campus, finding a voice at campus forums and a position in the committees and clubs, were utterly helpless to stop U.S. Bank from extracting more money from indebted students. It’s so-called vagrants who made real change.

And we can be sure that only further direct actions will stave off repression.

UC Davis wants to punish the Banker’s Dozen not only as an alibi to avoid litigation from U.S. Bank, but also as a sign to future banks that might want to set up shop on campus that the school is willing to fight for capital.

The charges also serve critical strategic goals: to deflect attention from the November 18 incident and tie the movement down with a long legal battle.

In this period, there will be a temptation to quiet down, entrench and wait things out. To resist this, Occupiers will have to work half in and half out of established institutions to provide material support for the Banker’s Dozen while maintaining pressure from the outside through unsanctioned protests.

As long as financial capital wanders up and down the earth, protest movements will have to do the same. Only by matching the flexibility and mobility – the rambling vagrancy – of capital can Occupy hope to halt its circulation. And, at the moment, direct action is clearly the tactic that allows Occupy to move quickly and effectively.

JORDAN S. CARROLL is a Ph.D. student in English who can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.

5 COMMENTS

  1. The people who closed down a legitimate business, cost us thousands of dollars for student services and threw working people out of their jobs (almost all women and many students) deserve to face some consequences. Poorly planned, poorly executed and totally misguided and misdirected fringe that harmed hard working people. ACTIONS have CONSEQUENCES. Notice that sound of NOBODY rallying to aid of this angry little bunch. It’s the sound of teeny, tiny violins playing.

      • The District Attorney has it right. This is not a game (although you seem to think so). The HARM done is REAL. The consequences should be real. You asked for it, and asked for it and guess what–finally you got it..and so did your little misguided group. The only sad news here is that this action wasn’t taken sooner so working class people supporting families and college students wouldn’t have lost their jobs and much needed income.
        Teeny, tiny violins still playing, Jordan.

  2. Mr Carroll –

    I’m confused as to your grand assumption that ‘financial capital’ is inherently bad, or at least that you label it widely as the antagonist of this crusade. Understandably there have been experiences in which ‘financial capital’ has been introduced to a business or market with poor results, however, it is because of this injection of capital that our economy is given the ability to develop, evolve, compete, and excel. Why is it that capital from private sources is so horrible (ie a bank or other private company which may invest in research, facilities, or teaching at UCD) while ‘capital’ from the taxpayers via the government is not included in this? Are you suggesting that institutions such as UCD be rid of all capital investments? I would hope not, so I will assume that you mean all private investments. Therefore you are assuming that Big Brother (oops I mean government) knows what is best for dividing up taxpayer ‘capital’ among the public institutions. This would be in contrast to the private companies – albeit small or large – who would then be assumed to know nothing about investing in institutions, and all have some criminal nature to them?

    My point is that your argument here walks a thin line between vague and philosophical. When you brandish ‘financial capital’ as the enemy, you deserve to inform your readers of what you mean.

    JM

    • The article is directed at Occupiers rather than skeptics, so I don’t spend a lot of time establishing the central premises of Occupy. If you want to know more about the crimes of financial capital, I’d suggest starting with “Generation of Debt” by Reclamations journal, as well as the various commentaries by Occupy UCD. Next, check out Doug Henwood’s business reporting. Then read something broader and more theoretical like “A Brief History of Neoliberalism” by David Harvey. After that, I would recommend returning to the concrete to review the events of the ongoing economic crisis.

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