According to various reports, the Occupy Wall Street movement has cost cities upward of $10 million. As the protesters are angry at the diversion of public funds away from public services (I know people say no one knows what they want, but they are really quite clear about what they want), it might seem that this wasteful spending is only making things worse. The more cities spend on police, the less they can spend on libraries, public parks, infrastructure, and all the other things that make society work. We might ask whether military ordnance such as Tampa Police Department’s tank (no, armored rescue vehicle) is a good use of money, but policing protests takes a few pennies either way.
Somehow, it seems cities always have enough money to deploy an army to suppress a non-violent protest but not enough money for basic services. The cash tin for security is bottomless. But surely, even those in power would rather not have to spend all this money on security if it can be avoided. No one wants to have to live with barricades everywhere. And no one wants to live with the inconvenience of constant protests.
And that is the point. Protests are intended to create a situation that everyone would rather avoid. As Martin Luther King put it, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” This is what this movement, and any other political movement, seeks to accomplish. It is obvious that $10 million is not enough to create a crisis for the current established order.
When the current order is threatened, it will of course blame the dissenters for a new sense of crisis and chaos. This blame is misplaced. It is a breakdown of order that provokes civil disobedience in the first place. Mass movements are made up of people who want a just and civil society. As John Rawls, another great American philosopher, said, “If legitimate civil disobedience seems to threaten civil peace, the responsibility falls not so much on those who protest as upon those whose abuse of authority and power justifies such opposition.”
Which brings us to the final point. The purpose of protests is to make the cost, financial and otherwise, of injustice greater than the price of justice.