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The Downward Spiral: Drugs in the Occupy Movements

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Occupy Wall Street may be getting the most coverage today, given Mayor Bloomberg’s overnight sweep of Zucotti Park, but those interested in the role of drugs in the Occupy movements may want to keep an eye on the West Coast, where media outlets are all getting “on message” about the “drug problems” in the Occupy encampments.

Memorial for an Overdose Victim, Occupy Vancouver

Our friends at The Fix asked  last week “‘Will Drugs Kill ‘Occupy LA’?”.  Their story may have been a bit breathless for high-minded readers of Points, but it posed key questions about public health and safety that seem to loom larger every day.  (An analogous issue was raised, with combined irony and pathos, in a post to online magazine n+1 about problems managing the Zuccotti Park drum circle— come to think of it, it may not be analogous, it may be the same issue.)  Yesterday, major Canadian news outlets confirmed that a woman found dead in an Occupy Vancouver tent was a victim of an overdose– the second in as many weeks.  Similar public health concerns have been raised about Occupy Portland.  Given that these stories are eerily coincident with police and government official crackdowns, any good social constructionist will be tempted to observe that “the scourge of drugs” is being mobilized as a frame to justify squashing the threatening politics of the movement.

This morning, however, NPR featured a story on the state of Occupy LA that, while in the same general vein as the reports above, was notable for the matter-of- fact way in which drugs– and a variety of drug interests and drug dynamics– in the downtown encampment were presented.  The drug problems enumerated were two: the threat of violence and disorder attendant upon street dealing of heroin and cocaine and, at a more technocratic level, the p.r. problem posed by pro-marijuana activists from the decriminalization and medical marijuana camps.

No, It's the Political Economy, Stupid

Their active (and smoking) presence, it appears, not only baits the cops, attracts folks who couldn’t give a damn about politics but who like street parties, and creates a public image that may not generate universal sympathy (cf: drum circles)– it also takes the focus off the issues of political economy that the Occupy movement continues to insist are its core.

It’s almost certainly true that the MSM and government officials are seizing on drug problems– crime, violence, toxicity– to create a discourse that will legitimate the crushing of OWS and its offshoots.  But it’s also almost certainly true that the movement– as a body of theory and as a series of sites of community practice– has not been able to deal effectively with drugs and the social dynamics that accompany them.  Among these are

Hey, Pusher Man-- Have You Read Foucault?

predatory behaviors like drug dealing and sexual violence.  These are traceable, certainly, to the oppressive nature of patriarchal capitalism– but they remain strangely resistant to stern lectures on the emancipatory theories of bell hooks.  A related issue is the problem of the left’s fetish of transgressive behavior and its love affair with “revolutionary consciousness,” sometimes achieved by serious study, other times via chemical shortcuts.

A long winter stretches ahead of us, and armchair radicals will enjoy plenty of opportunities to discuss the recent atrocities of the police state while they sip 70% cacao hot chocolates at the MLA, the AHA, the CAA, the Four Cs etc.  Points would ask its readers, politely but with some urgency, to please turn some of that critical acumen inward and begin to craft a theory and a practice of progressive activism that can both acknowledge and deal with the disruptive potential of alcohol and drugs as well as their utopian possibilities.



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