Poetries of an Occupation: Police Violence and Peoples’ Voices
— By Edgar Garcia | November 22, 2011
These are interesting times indeed. When something we collectively call time is interrupted by a situation, when by situation we mean something that has moved although we know not yet in what direction, we have something very interesting developing. Lauren Berlant says a situation is a kind of time “in which a relation of persons is sensed to be changing but the rules for habitation and the genres of storytelling about it are unstable, in chaos.” Situation is interruption, a fiery bowl poured onto the sea.
A canister of pepper spray on a line of seated students: I see the video from UC Davis showing the officer whose name has not been released lowering a smooth and righteous handle of pepper spray from the sky to the students’ heads and faces. The nameless judge throws down upon them a sword of fire. It is evidently well practiced. I wonder how many others have swallowed his burning fist. An incident videotaped and an officer suspended doesn’t change certain facts.
What brought Los Angeles to a breaking point in 1992 wasn’t just that famously grainy video but that that video finally revealed what had been experienced as the status quo for years. And the police seem to understand the terms of their relationship to an increasingly agitated group of disaffected people; so the status quo hasn’t changed, their defense of it has just learned to allow itself such excesses across a broader base. The end product, so to speak, is an antagonistic police force with an increasingly diminished compulsion to hide its use of excessive force. Notice how he raises the canister to the sky before lowering it with an air of grace over their lowered heads. So high that the four corners of the earth should see.
And they would be gathered for battle, their number like the sand of the sea. And they would march up over the broad earth and surround the camp of the saints and the beloved city.
In college I took a translation course with Robert Hass. He was working on the Japanese Haiku of Basho and I was into doing some variety of Latin and Romance lyrics. Given as he was at that time to environmental concerns, his selections were pretty idiosyncratic and, likewise, my own probably reflected a range of interests limited to matters erotic if not blithely inebriated and esoteric. Something like a decade later, I read his opinion piece in the New York Times describing his assault by the Alameda County deputy sheriffs. The story of his wife thrown to the ground while he is bludgeoned in the ribs follows a string of similar stories and incidents: Women and the elderly pepper sprayed and beaten, military veterans killed, all kinds of people submitted to egregious uses of oppressive force. The videos I see show me an army who would kill but are at the moment content to maim. If I were taking Hass’ class today, my selections would be different. Ernesto Cardenal, Roque Dalton, and Pablo Neruda would be more pertinent voices.
I am surprised by the difference ten years can make to the social tick of the earth’s clock.
We have a situation here: And they marched up over the broad earth and surrounded the camp; but fire came down from heaven and consumed them and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
The weeds seem to laugh as they hit and slide on each other in the wind until the wind brings a fire upon their hissing bodies, a situation.
Hass’ editorial ends with the strange image of a tent lifted by helium balloons into the air, hovering over the plaza, “large and awkward,” he says, “occupying the air.” “Today and everyday,” echoes Geoffrey G. O’Brien, “we occupy the air.” And from one Abiezer Coppe again the injunction to “occupie the ayre.” After a recent post, I was criticized for comparing the voices of the occupy movement’s human megaphone to a hymn of ghosts, enchanting alien bodies to be re-chanted by alien windpipes. When air traverses the windpipe it is breath or spirit, the vital principal within living beings. In German “spirit” is geist, our etymological ancestor for “ghost,” of which Hegel says that communal forms of life are built. Geist, as he uses it, could also be translated as “mind,” if mind is understood to be operating at a higher level of existence than just self-awareness. “Spirit, so far as it is the immediate truth, is the ethical life of a nation: — the individual, which is a world.” This worlding of the individual occurs by a process of acculturation and, in moving his discussion to effective cultural objects, he defines culture as the “world of self-alienated spirit.” Although we might feel ourselves to be reflected in another person’s poetry, for example, we are not committed to it except insofar as we are bound to its alienations. Culture allows us, more generally, to reflect and, in doing so, enter a concrete actuality, a grounding effect. Spiritual substance brings us into actual reality. Geist is breath and is also mind, much like Donne’s spiritus or pneuma, (“Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath”), the motile air bringing body and mind together in the speaking voice. When air traverses the windpipe, it, also voice, likewise can be poetry. So I likewise repeat the injunction that we occupy the air.
And though they might stand at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree, a vial of air will be released with a great voice out of the temple of heaven. And the voice will be as of many waters.
When a certain illusion is eroded, gnawed like a cliff-base by the sea’s persistent tooth, it will not be again stabilized. Who still believes (viz., gives spirit to) the fantasy that they are today there to serve and protect anything other than a system designed to serve and protect a privileged few? The number of violent police might be like the sand but the sand is not the sea, churning in its spirited contradictions, even swallowing the sand, if it will. These waters rush from the voice of the occupations. They are the churn of history, even as that churn might sicken the sick. They have become the intractable situation.