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.
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?