Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Occupy as Form: Seth Holmes

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the working session "Occupy as Form" on February 10, 2012. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Seth Holmes, Assistant Professor of Health and Social Behavior at UC Berkeley.

Keyword: Health

After news of the initial eviction and arrests at Occupy Oakland spread, thousands of people gathered for a general assembly outside the Oakland Public Library.  After 5PM that day, some two thousand people marched from the library toward the jail to demand the release of the protesters.  Marchers held signs regarding economic justice, racial justice, and re-funding education and health care.  Close to 6PM, my colleagues and I witnessed dozens of police and sheriffs in riot gear throwing tear gas and shooting projectiles into the marching crowd.  Later that night, we witnessed further rounds of tear gassing and shooting of projectiles.  The City of Oakland Mayor’s Office quickly released a statement - on the internet and posted on the temporary fencing erected around the plaza - indicating “concerns for health and safety” as the reasons for the police action.

Foucault indicates that biopower has taken the place of sovereignty as the primary mode of power in the modern world.  By this, he signals that power now functions chiefly through the control of bodies and the administration of populations – by the state and by the self – in order to maximize life, instead of through the right of the sovereign to cause death.  There are many places and times, perhaps especially in the field of public health, in which power and control are exercised within desires for health and life.  In some ways, the technologies and practices of biopower are so broadly appealing precisely because they are often effective in improving health and life.

During the eviction and the march, several people were sent to the hospital.  One of the injured people, Scott Olsen, is a young, employed, white, Iraq War Veteran who sustained a head wound and brain injury from a projectile.  His severe injury while standing quietly was caught on youtube and ended up on the front page of several newspapers and spread through the internet.  From the broken bodies of protesters, especially this particular young person, a challenge to the justifying narrative of biopower arose.  In this instance, the language of biopower – specifically the need to protect “health and safety” – had been used not to maximize life and health, but rather to cover over and legitimize violence, injury, the opposite of health and life.  Through these events and their broad media coverage, the veneer of biopower was cracked in such a way that the violence it had been intended to hide could not but be seen in living color.

How broad was the recognition that “health” is not a valid justification for state violence against civilian protesters and how long might this recognition last?  What made this instance capable of bringing widespread media attention and recognition of the illegitimacy of state violence and how does it relate to class, race, employment status, veteran status and other moralized categories?  How might other bodily victims of state violence be valorized in such a way as to maintain this recognition as well as a potential movement against such violence?


  1. Thought-Provoking Photos Related to Occupy:

    "Aquapy Oakland" Lake Merritt January 2012

    "Student Debt" from the Oakland Port Shutdown

    "Not a Freak"

    "Stilt Walkers" from Oakland Port Shutdown

    "Dear Capitalism"

    Occupy Oakland Dances and Paints


    "Schools Not Banks"

    "A Lot to Protest"

    Crochet Montreal

    Occupy Canada

  2. A question that comes to mind for me after reading other blog postings (and thinking of Alain Badiou and Brian Massumi), how and for whom has the police violence this Fall and Winter against protesters, students, faculty, and bystanders become an event? In what ways have these events changed the perceptions, thoughts, and practices of those who experienced them, producing new subjects?

  3. Thank you, Seth - I think this discussion of health is related to Erin's keyword of care. While incidents of police violence associated with Occupy Oakland and elsewhere bring into question the ability of the police, the state, and government to protect and support public health and safety, I would say that the Occupy movement is providing spaces of care and spaces in which we can, more effectively, care - both by providing medic services and mental health services in some cases, but by providing public space for debate and collaboration, which I consider crucial for mental health! Legal and financial advising, food and open kitchens, and places to gather and live also seem to bolster public health and safety, but whether this is seen as a positive gain depends on who is assessing the situation.

    I'm interested in how this resonates in the conversation about demands - why are we so focused on demands while little is heard about achievements?

    I know that groups like the Occupy Oakland Research Group are making a space for qualitative and quantitative research within the movement, to assess what is happening and work with media teams to disseminate their findings. While it's not my particular area of focus, this seems like critical work to support as it suggests not what the movement wants, but what it is actively doing.