The Representation of the Non-Conformist as a Health Threat

I’m finding it interesting that in both the NY Zucotti Park ‘Occupy Wall Street’ clearing and the more recent incidents that took place at UC Davis, people in positions of authority have used ‘health concerns’ as justification for curtailing public protest.

In New York, Mayor Mike Bloomberg said that “health and safety conditions became intolerable”. UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi also reported that  “the encampment raised serious health and safety concerns“.

I find this very interesting. Although the ‘safety concern’ excuse has been used widely since 9/11, this new concern for peaceful political protect becoming the vectors of disease is something new.

Or… something very old.

All over Europe, during successive waves of the Bubonic Plague, Jews were identified as carriers of the disease and slaughtered in their thousands.

In 1915, venerable scientists determined that although African Americans under slavery were almost completely free of the disease of syphilis, 50% of free African Americans were ‘prone’ to venereal disease.

Before and during WWII, under the Nazis, Jews were first herded into ghettos under the excuse that they spread disease when allowed to walk around freely. Then the ghettos themselves were razed because they were breeding grounds for disease.

In the Soviet Union, dissidents were routinely locked up in mental asylums for their own good and treated for schizophrenia. The argument was that to allow them to mingle freely with the population was to risk ‘spreading’ their mental illnesses.

During the 1980s, movements to keep homosexuals out of various professions used the excuse that they were spreaders of HIV.

Historically, describing racial and politically unpopular groups of as disease vectors has been a very effective way for authoritarian regimes to treat these people as sub-human, to deny them their civil rights, and to distract popular attention away from the more problematic issues that these groups bring to light.

When I look at the footage of pepper spraying at UC Davis, I have to ask myself what health and safety concern hyperbole was at work in giving both the university administration and campus police leave to over-react against seated, peaceful protesters the way they did.

It reminded me of the Stanford Prison Experiment, where people in authority roles and the enforcers of that authority created false and threatening mythologies about the ‘prisoners’ in their charge in order to enable them to behave in cruel and inhuman ways towards them. I suspect that a similar psychological pathology emerged within the upper echelons of authority at UC Davis.

What we know for a fact is that poverty and lack of education are now and have always been two of the greatest factors in the spread of disease. The OWS protests are specifically protesting the rise of poverty in the US and the rising cost of education.

Ironic, ain’t it?