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Occupy: Noam Chomsky’s Guide to The History and Practice of Protest

How to protest intelligently without risking your freedom, or what flower petals have to do with PVC.

Noam Chomskypolitical critic, education anarchist, father of modern linguistics — has described the Occupy movement, which began on September 17, 2011, as “the first major public response to thirty years of class war.” His new book, simply titled Occupy (public library), is at once a vivid portrait of the now-global movement and a practical guide to intelligent activism, infused with Chomsky’s signature meditations on everything from how the wealthiest 1% came to steer society to what a healthy democracy would look like to how we can separate money from politics. Alongside Chomsky’s words are some of the most moving and provocative photographs from the Occupy movement.

From the very dedication, Chomsky’s stance and conviction reverberate:

Dedicated to the 6,705 people who have been arrested supporting Occupy to date, from the first 80 arrested in New York on September 24, 2011, to the woman arrested in Sacramento on March 6, 2012, for throwing flower petals. May our numbers swell and increase.

Chomsky peels away the many sociocultural layers of what culminated in OWS, examining the history of the American economy, the ecosystem of the working class, the osmosis of politics and money, the environmental catastrophe, and much more.

From his Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture on October 22, 2011:

I’m just old enough to remember the Great Depression. After the first few years, by the mid-1930s — although the situation was objectively much harsher than it is today — nevertheless, the spirit was quite different. There was a sense that ‘we’re gonna get out of it,’ even among unemployed people, including a lot of my relatives, a sense that ‘it will get better.’


It’s quite different now. For many people in the United States, there’s a kind of pervasive sense of hopelessness, sometimes despair. I think it’s quite new in American history. And it has an objective basis.

Along with the historical context, Chomsky also offers some practical points on engaging with protest in a way that wouldn’t jeopardize your freedom. For instance, some laws to be aware of:

You have First Amendment rights to protest lawfully. You have a right to hand out leaflets, rally on a sidewalk, and set up a moving picket line, so long as you don’t block building entrances or more than half the sidewalk. The law requires a permit to march in the street, rally in a park with 20 or more people, or use electronic sound amplification. In New York, a “Mask Law” makes it unlawful for three or more people to wear masks, including bandanas: the NYPD aggressively enforces this law. Police will seize signs on wooden sticks, metal, or PVC piping — it’s OK to attach signs to cardboard tubing. The police will not allow placing signs on fences or trees. If you hang a banner from a bridge over a highway, you risk arrest for Reckless Endangerment.

And some advice on what to do if the police try to talk to you:

You have a constitutional right to remain silent. If the police try a friendly conversation, you can say nothing and walk away. If the police say, ‘MOVE!’ or give some other order, you may ask, ‘Why?’ but you are advised not to say anything more. Notify a Legal Observer about the order. If the police ask to search you or your bag, you should say, ‘NO, I do not consent to a search.’ If the police search anyway, you are advised to continue to say, ‘I do not consent to a search.’ If you physically interfere with the search, you risk arrest. If the police question you, including asking your name, you may say nothing and walk away. If the police prevent you from leaving, ask, ‘Am I free to go?’ If they answer ‘YES,’ you may say nothing and walk away. If they answer ‘NO,’ say, ‘I wish to remain silent. I want to talk to a lawyer,’ and wait for the police to arrest or release you.

So there you have it, a What-Would-Chomsky-Do for the modern revolutionary.

Occupy comes from Zuccotti Park Press as part of the Occupied Media Pamphlet Series and is a fine addition to these 10 essential books on protest.

Published May 14, 2012




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