Harcourt Argues "New Grammar" Needed to Understand Occupy Movement

Occupy's new grammar of political disobedience
Bernard Harcourt
The Guardian
November 30, 2011

The forcible police evictions of Occupy protesters in New York, Chicago, Oakland, Montreal, Toronto, Berlin and elsewhere raise critical questions about political speech – questions that accentuate many of the troubles we've been having with our public discourse surrounding this new leaderless resistance movement. The forcible evictions, naturally, raise a genuine first amendment free speech problem: denying the Occupy movement any public space to "occupy" and arresting them to boot, without making any reasonable accommodation for expressive political speech, deliberately creates a considerable chilling effect on what amounts to significant public expression of dissent. This is doubly problematic when the public spaces in question – such as Grant Park in Chicago – are used for other political events, such as President Obama's election night rally in 2008.

It is indeed ironic to think that the president-elect was making his political victory speech under a tent in Grant Park "after hours" on the very fairgrounds where his chief of staff and later mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, would direct the Chicago Police Department to arrest Occupy protesters – that is, to actually arrest 175 protesters in handcuffs on quasi-criminal charges, to book, fingerprint and detain them overnight in police holding cells, and then aggressively prosecute the cases in criminal courts, rather than merely to issue citations. (This was equally within the mayor's prerogative under the park ordinance at issue.) Some D/democratic speech clearly receives more first amendment protection in Chicago than others.

But the evictions also raise deeper grammatical issues about the way in which we discuss the Occupy movement – even within our limited forums of free speech. I've argued in the New York Times that the idea of a leaderless occupation movement represents a new paradigm of political resistance – what we might call "political disobedience" – that demands a new vocabulary. I'd like to suggest here that it also calls for an entirely new grammar.