The Downward Spiral: Drugs in the Occupy Movements

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.

4 thoughts on “The Downward Spiral: Drugs in the Occupy Movements”

  1. I remember thinking along similar lines when I read Jeremy Varon’s “Bringing the War Home” (about Weather Underground &the Red Army Faction) and Scot Brown’s “Fighting for US” (about the “US” black power group). Drug use/abuse appeared at many crucial moments in these stories, but it didn’t seem to be something the authors wanted to explore very deeply. In part, I’m sure, because it’s uncomfortable to dwell too long on topics that give anti-radicals some of their favorite ammunition (although neither book sanctifies its subjects). But it may also have to do with the reluctance–on the left as in general–to think of “drug use” and “political agency” as possibly cohabiting the same person at the same time. (I don’t know, maybe it’s the circles I move in, but it seems like a long time since I heard anyone making serious arguments about drugs as a route to “revolutionary consciousness”! I gotta get out more I guess.) But like you say these aren’t mutually exclusive categories, especially among political activists. Pro- or anti- drug sentiment tends to be cast in political terms, for one thing, thus participating in the dynamic formation of political philosophy (cf. Malcolm X, e.g., or the anti-methadone community activists in Sam Robert’s excellent paper from the ADHS conference last summer, for political antidrug views; cf. Tim Leary or the pro-weed OWS people for the political pro-drug side). Then too, both drug use and anti-drug efforts within activist movements–if they are there (and obviously they are not always or even mostly there)–tend not to stay cordoned off in some discrete and discreet location, irrelevant to the main political story. Instead, as in Varon, Brown, and OWS, if drug use is there, it has a habit of popping up at crucial moments, suggesting that the drug user (or anti-drug believer) is intertwined in some meaningful way with the political activist. It’s a tough analytical nut to crack: exploring the significance of drug use, including its undeniable potential to harm activist movements, without falling into the Ghaddafi-style “they’re-all-drug-fiends” trap. But it seems worth it, both for what it might reveal about social movements, and for what it might reveal about the politics of using drugs.

  2. I wonder if the drug users being drawn to OWS are looking for something resembling civil disobedience. As MLK said, civil disobedience is about creating social tension over an issue, so that it can be dealt with in the open. When the government and the media discredit OWS because of drug use, it creates the tension and the dialogue that the pro-drug advocates seek. They are highlighting the hypocrisy of those who will elect a president who “inhaled many times, that was the point”, but will discredit a movement for including folks who do the same.

    Maybe there is also a feeling among OWS drug users, although I haven’t heard it articulated from them, that the political economy directly threatens them, too. For instance, wealth generated from the prison industrial complex is directed towards lobbying for tough drug laws and electing politicians who are tough on crime. Some speculators claim the pharmaceutical industry has played a hand in inhibiting medical cannabis policy efforts.

    Maybe they are testing the limits of what “solidarity” really means to OWS.

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