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One of the things that has kept Occupy Wall Street vital over the past six months is the way protesters constantly reassess and adjust their tactics.
In the last two weeks, the new Union Square encampment has proved an especially vivid laboratory for that process, as each night police move in overwhelming force to clear the park, erecting and garrisoning metal barricades until the park reopens in the morning.
Tonight, protesters are taking the opportunity of this dramatic ritual to stage their second weekly “People’s Rap Battle,” in which anyone who wants can challenge one of the police officers behind the barricade to a contest and let their words fly. At last week’s rap battle, the police forfeited, standing stony-faced and unwilling to respond when their turns came up.
For Austin Guest, Austin Guest, an occupier who is helping to coordinate tonight’s event, the massive show of police force presents the occupiers with an opportunity.
“It’s very rare that the police create a stage set complete with proscenium and background and props for us to stage a play about police brutality on,” said Guest. “It’s asymmetrical combat — they’re assaulting us frontally and expecting us to fight back frontally. But instead, we’re sidestepping, and then when they fall on the ground we’re pointing at them and laughing.”
Organizers have extended invitations to big-name MCs to join the weekly contest, but Guest says tonight’s focus is on talent a little closer to the street. Anyone can take part, so if you’ve got something you want to say to a police officer, swing by Union Square tonight at 11:30.
The rap battle may use humor to avoid the kind of direct violence that has frequently characterized police reactions to Occupy Wall Street protests, but it’s still focusing on the police, a strategy that some within the movement have been questioning recently.
“Some people within our movement have expressed their concern that drawing attention to our conflict with police draws attention away from our bigger message about economic inequality,” Guest says. “But I’ve come to the conclusion — as have a lot of people who deal with the police on a regular basis out in the Bronx and Queens and Brooklyn, that it’s impossible to separate the two issues. The job of the police is to enforce economic inequality. For a lot of people in this city, the police can stop and frisk you for no reason,
they can shoot you just for sitting on their porch. That’s just a reality that is part of the fabric of economic inequality in our city.”
The belief that police power and its abuse is inseparable from the core economic issues that first inspired Occupy Wall Street is partially a symptom of the radicalization of protesters brought on by six months of arrests and heavy-handed treatment by the NYPD. But there’s still a concern about how those still outside the movement will react to a movement that embraces its conflict with police as emblematic of the social change it seeks.
“Will this alienate Middle America?” Guest asks. “That’s a valid question. But that’s why it’s coated medicine. It’s humor. It’s pop culture. Everybody likes rap. And if this doesn’t work, we’ll change it next week.”