Trigger warning: first two videos below show aggressive and violent action which some may find distressing.
By now many of you have probably seen the video of UC Davis students being pepper sprayed point-blank after staging an Occupation of the Quad at their University – to protest against tuition fee increases, and also in solidarity with UC Berkley students who were brutalised by police at their own occupy site.
At UC Davis, police were brought in on the order of UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.
Assistant Professor Nathan Brown wrote an Open letter to UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi which is very powerful, describing the events, and demanding nothing less than her resignation for the brutality which these students were subject to on their own university grounds.
The next day, UC Davis students staged a silent shaming protest. Students lined the street as the Chancellor walked to her car after finishing work at night. The power in these student’s silence, the power in their simply being there, holding vigil, evidently shocked the Chancellor.
You can see a video of the silent shaming here. Note the presence built by a negation of sound, and the focus placed on the long walk of the Chancellor, slow, silent herself. Her face is stricken, her voice low and soft.
Yelling, slogan shouting etc. are externalisastions – and can be effective in certain contexts. The person or institution is subjected to that kind of action. Silence however, is unnerving because it demands the person or institution to internalise. There is no thing to react effectively to with aggression or scorn.
Dr. Gene Sharp’s famous book The Politics of NonViolent Action describes Silence as a method for NVDA – under Withdrawal and Renunciation. The book also lists 198 methods for non violent direct action, and how they are used used to thwart, denounce, change, oppose, challenge and resist governments or other oppressions.
Dr Gene Sharp was a nominated for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, which he lost to Barack Obama. A very interesting documentary of Dr Sharp’s work and its influence in activism particularly in America, was recently shown on SBS. You can watch it here.
Governments, including Australia’s, are not monolithic or invulnerable, and they gain power through the participation and complicity of the people. A simple action to negate the power of the government, is to simply stop participating or complying with the expected actions or machinations the government demands.
The action, in its practice of solemnity and grief, is hard for people to resist as people experience this solemnity in other contexts. Silence is a strong socialised action. If people are keeping silence it is something which is socially respected. You can see that in the Chancellor’s response, defiance or anger would have seemed inappropriate or petulant. Silence creates a gravity you cannot dismiss.
Also see Susan Sontag: “The Aesthetics of Solitude” in Studies of Radical Will - some good notes are here.
So Occupy Sydney – when are we going to get silent?
Thanks to Frankie for talking this through with me.