“This is Our Time”

“We do plenty!” she whispers. “We can vandalize the machines, we can work badly, work slowly, we can tear down their posters and put up others where we tell people the truth about how they are being cheated and lied to.” She drops her voice further: “but the main thing is that we remain different from them, that we never allow ourselves to be made into them, or start thinking as they do. Even if they conquer the whole world, we must refuse to become Nazis.” (Fallada 2010:32).


These words of resistance spoken by the young female character Trudel in Hans Fallada’s extraordinary novel “Every Man Dies Alone,” speaks to the ability of ordinary people to counter oppressive social and cultural orders under what often appears to be the most inauspicious of circumstances. Yet it is precisely these little acts of defiance that usually get overlooked when the final breach in that wall of exclusion and social control is recorded or when the Mario Savio’s [1]of our time stand aloft (in stockinged feet) to urge us to throw our “bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and… make it stop.” Part of the genius of such resistance movements as OWS lies precisely in its unpredictability, both in terms of its form and timing not to mention its short and long term consequences and its culture. In the brief comments that follow I want to focus on these questions and the meanings of resistance behavior as we have experienced them under specific conditions of the capitalist crisis, drawing on my observations of the movement in New York City and beyond. Thereafter I offer some lessons we might draw for the practice of critical criminology.

When the Dam Breaks Heads Will Fall

As has often been stated the social and subcultural movements that made up the historic rupture in Zucotti Park (followed by the re-appropriation of 300 plus spaces throughout the United States) owe their inspiration to the courage and self-sacrifice of a previously little known 26-year old Tunisian vegetable seller named Mohammed Bouazizi. Mr. Bouazizi made the ultimate sacrifice on December 17th, 2010 through self-immolation to express and symbolize his frustration at a society with limited opportunities, little regard for democratic rights and a growing class divide. A few weeks after his desperate act of defiance this is how Time Magazine described his action and the tumultuous results:

“…on Dec. 17 his livelihood was threatened when a policewoman confiscated his unlicensed vegetable cart and its goods. It wasn't the first time it had happened, but it would be the last. Not satisfied with accepting the 10-dinar fine that Bouazizi tried to pay ($7, the equivalent of a good day's earnings), the policewoman allegedly slapped the scrawny young man, spat in his face and insulted his dead father.

Humiliated and dejected, Bouazizi, the breadwinner for his family of eight, went to the provincial headquarters, hoping to complain to local municipality officials, but they refused to see him. At 11:30 a.m., less than an hour after the confrontation with the policewoman and without telling his family, Bouazizi returned to the elegant double-story white building with arched azure shutters, poured fuel over himself and set himself on fire. He did not die right away but lingered in the hospital till Jan. 4. There was so much outrage over his ordeal that even President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator, visited Bouazizi on Dec. 28 to try to blunt the anger. But the outcry could not be suppressed and, on Jan. 14, just 10 days after Bouazizi died, Ben Ali's 23-year rule of Tunisia was over (Abouzeid, 2011).

Perhaps in the past the suffering he experienced and the resistance he showed might have been kept private, within the confines of the local community, but the longer it went on the more it would resonate with the broader population, attracting widespread empathy and symbolizing the constant practice of disdain and authoritarian control that characterized that decrepit regime.  In time the diverse “meanings” of his action were communicated to an unlimited audience, who felt and sympathized on a broader terrain, the news permeating into unending contexts throughout the world via the internet. Tragically his act has now been repeated by dozens of others of equally frustrated and hopeless young people, driven to despair by the lack of democratic progress in the post-revolutionary period.

Nonetheless his act went far beyond his intentions and became one of the matches that ignited the Arab Spring, first in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and then in turn in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.  “Somehow,” the dominant narrative goes, the tinder spread to Spain, Greece, Italy, England and eventually to New York City – from the developing to the developed world, from the periphery to the center. I mention this simply to underscore that few saw it coming. The revolts’ size, connectivity, innovation and speed produced another wonderful moment of politico-cultural lag in our consciousnesses, just like we experienced the shock of the Free Speech Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the various revolts of ’68 from France, Germany, and Italy to Mexico. All of them seeming to emerge and erupt  (often with celebrated instigators) in short order and then take on lives and cultures of their own which the dominant social order through wealth, stealth and threat finally brought under control, or so the story goes. [2]

Of course none were more surprised than the elites themselves in countries where all the spies, provocateurs and stooges at their disposal failed in their ultimate mission to terrorize and threaten the masses into inaction and submission. As J. Edgar Hoover found out to his chagrin, there are issues of political principle and public morality that cannot be bullied out of existence. There are times when the impulse to reform, reconfigure and reimagine the everyday cannot be put on hold. Thus dominant classes and their agents across the world have been repeatedly exposed as men without ideas, without scruples, and without wits –  many of them the most salacious of emperors have lost their clothes (if not their heads) entirely. As events overtook them, they were abandoned by the mechanisms and accoutrements of power as in the political cover of sham congresses and elections, the buffer zones of state filled with bureaucratic flunkies and careerists, and the critical support of international power brokers chief among which are the imperial nations of the West.  In such cases where the autocrats fell their narcissistic life-styles and penchant for tasteless possessions fell with them. In no time their demise was universally broadcast, made into public spectacles of private overconsumption, evidence of egregious theft and exposés of the systematic hoarding of a country’s wealth. These representations also became social occasions to expel our individual and collective fear while expressing our loathing under conditions in which the state, as Engels noted, was reduced to little more than bodies of armed men (sic).  

After first responding with brutish, illegitimate force these tired, washed-up “has beens” retreated behind a smoke screen of desperate political and legal maneuvers that no longer worked.  In short order, these erstwhile strong men suddenly became members of an international club of illegitimate ones, succeeding only momentarily in delaying their departure[3] as they conceded broader democratic powers to the have-nots, those men, women and youth of hope, and to the citizens of the future. History, you see, was not on their side and the unofficial transcripts from below could no longer be suppressed in the same old way. In the process of revolution, however, these conquests are but one stage, albeit an initial and highly important one. Henceforth begins the struggle of struggles which must address that most fundamental question facing all of us in the 99%: what to do about social systems based on unequal socio-economic relations? Even the good members of the Davos Forum, that annual think tank of the chosen few, have understood this pressing order of the day.[4]

Youthful Signs of Convergence: Building New Societies in the Old

Naturally in all the countries where this loose amalgam of workers, students and disenchanted members of the middle-classes have shown their willingness to challenge the status quo there are long histories of organized and overt political struggle for democratic change and the right to be free and responsible citizens (as well as everyday acts of spontaneous social defiance) that were sometimes evaluated for purposes of risk assessment but mostly dismissed and ignored by intransigent hierarchies intoxicated with their own hubris and deaf to the cries of the “little people.” But what are the common threads that tie these revolts together? This report from the corporate Bloomberg Newsweek published a year ago after the uprisings in the Middle East attempts an answer:

  “In Tunisia, the young people who helped bring down a dictator are called hittistes—French-Arabic slang for those who lean against the wall. Their counterparts in Egypt, who on Feb. 1 forced President Hosni Mubarak to say he won't seek reelection, are the shabab atileen, unemployed youths. The hittistes and shabab have brothers and sisters across the globe. In Britain, they are NEETs—"not in education, employment, or training." In Japan, they are freeters: an amalgam of the English word freelance and the German word Arbeiter, or worker. Spaniards call them mileuristas, meaning they earn no more than 1,000 euros a month. In the U.S., they're "boomerang" kids who move back home after college because they can't find work. Even fast-growing China, where labor shortages are more common than surpluses, has its "ant tribe"—recent college graduates who crowd together in cheap flats on the fringes of big cities because they can't find well-paying work.

In each of these nations, an economy that can't generate enough jobs to absorb its young people has created a lost generation of the disaffected, unemployed, or underemployed—including growing numbers of recent college graduates for whom the post-crash economy has little to offer. Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution was not the first time these alienated men and women have made themselves heard. Last year, British students outraged by proposed tuition increases—at a moment when a college education is no guarantee of prosperity—attacked the Conservative Party's headquarters in London and pummeled a limousine carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla Bowles. Scuffles with police have repeatedly broken out at student demonstrations across Continental Europe. And last March in Oakland, Calif., students protesting tuition hikes walked onto Interstate 880, shutting it down for an hour in both directions” (Coy 2/2/11).

Youth are generally identified in particular as victims turned activists in this current stage of the global social crisis which sits atop and within capitalism’s latest unraveling.  From Christine LaGarde (newly appointed first female head of the IMF) to Robert Zoellick (Bush nominated President of the World Bank) to George Soros (billionaire currency trader and major philanthropist of liberal causes) all are warning of the grim future ahead if we don’t do something to avoid planting the “seeds of dystopia.” What kind of adults are we that sit by and watch as conditions are created, quite willfully, to ensure a “lost generation”? The current rates of youth unemployment (16-24 years of age) are truly staggering and would seem to bear out Soros’ prognosis that if “we” do not move from the Age of Reason to the Age of Fallibility (i.e., end the hegemonic belief that markets are self-correcting and dispense with the notion that they are the most efficient means to distribute resources and organize production) then we must expect riots in our U.S. streets by the Spring, the uprisings in England being simply a precursor. [5]

It  is in this somewhat apocalyptical context that this admixture of youthful foreboding, vis a vis unemployment, rising debt loads, spreading architecture of white collar and corporate criminality, unsustainable military-security complexes and growing illegitimacy of the political process and its implicated classes, so thankfully saw its expression in the collective resistances and signifiers of Zucotti Park, Puerta del Sol, Plaza Catalunya, Tahrir Square, OccupyLSX St. Paul’s, Syntagma Square, 15M, OWS and so forth. For Soros, they are the canaries in the mine, that bit of society ready to risk it all, go out on a limb and transgress in a bid to focus our sights on what we can truly accomplish for the social good and not the privatized self. “We are realists but we dream the impossible,” said Che, and it was in that spirit of socially necessary idealism, even though many participants would probably eschew such ideological connotations, that prompted these extraordinary responses to the irrational horrors of the contemporary world order.

Thus, in all of these rhizomes of solidarity and subcultures of liberation the participants went about their business of restoring social and cultural meanings to their lives, finally doing what they had been educated and socialized to do but have rarely had the chance. They exercised their rights as citizens and as denizens, building societies of the imagination. They did it with candor, humor, humility, courage, sacrifice and technological innovation and sought like England’s Winstanley[6] to construct a new kind of world within the old. Inevitably, of course, the usual stolid protectors of private property and deputized arbiters of public decorum were sent in to carry out the necessary behavioral adjustment. Doing their job of wanton destruction, norm restoration, intimidation and harassment they practiced a version of “zero tolerance” which they had rehearsed for years on the “dangerous classes” of the city’s barrios and ghettos. The military did it in Cairo, the white shirts did it in New York City and the Mossos did it in Barcelona. You might call them “cogs in a wheel”  or true believers in the virtues of a special type of social order, but they are a more threatening force than that, more emotionally invested and more up for the fight. Rather they are likely to be the vindictive ones (in Jock Young ‘s apt description, see Young  2011), those who feel the need to act out their frustrations, assuage their ressentiment and compensate for their ontological misgivings. 

In a confusing, liquid and winner-loser world made more punitive, Manichean and fearful than at almost any time in the last three decades, these men and women of the organization are now found in all walks of lower and middle-class life ready to lend a hand. If the majority of the youth in Zucotti Park had come from the South Bronx or Harlem I wonder how long the city’s finest would have controlled their zeal for democratic purity?

 Critical Criminologists Adelante!

The beauty of the collapse of the dominant order’s political-economic, social and ideological nervous system is that those of us with different ideas about how to organize and think about the present, the future and the past start to be taken more and more seriously. The crisis simply doesn’t go into remission regardless of the efforts at obfuscation and denial by agents and supporters of a regime well past its shelf life. It should not be surprising. However, it does take some getting used to seeing our work exercise all kinds of folk as both academic and non-academic institutions are forced to deal with our somewhat contrarian analyses and positions. The last thing we are interested in is reproducing cultures of control and conformity wherever we work and/or study.

Our job traditionally is to provoke and stir debate, push the boundaries of limited discourses, enable the voiceless to be heard, strike a blow against the multiple logics of exploitation and when necessary stand with the ghost of Mario and jam those gears. For it is we who have a history of standing firm on the indivisibility of social and criminal justice. It is we who have always averred that laws are never above society but reflect both directly and indirectly the asymmetries of power within that society. And it is we who reject scientistic representations that turn “deviants” into ahistorical, decontextualized things and behavior into numerological truths devoid of theory and bereft of moral purpose.

Consequently we embrace the unpredictability of the moment and inject it with possibility. Rather than constructing a societal imaginary complete with fixed categories, unquestioned definitions, easily observed lines of transmission and cause/effect linkages we view life as messy, contradictory, inherently unstable and full of both intended and unintended consequences. Hence we consciously situate our work in societies of massive social and cultural complexity, among populations with shifting identities, and in communities with fluid norms. We are cognizant that many of the suppositions and vocabularies of modernity retain dubious validity and so we treat them accordingly with skepticism, rigor and the subject of critical revision. How does one understand strain theory for example in the epoch of collapsing U.S. political economic hegemony where rates of social mobility are the worst in the “developed” world? What do we make of re-entryism for populations who have been excluded at birth? How can we take seriously studies of terrorism without a thought given to the history of U.S. foreign policy intervention, the concept of blowbacks, or the training manuals of the CIA? How do we study lower class gangs “discovered” in communities of social disorganization without reference to the social impact of upper class gangs and the indirect violence of deliberately concentrated poverty and domestic orientalism? How do we think about collective efficacy as an upside of immigration flows without considering the state crimes of mass deportation and the misnamed program of “safe communities” all occurring in the same neighborhoods?  

It is precisely in this upside-down world, this Alice through the looking-class world, in which irrational power from above is increasingly challenged and made unworkable by those from below that newly emerging publics and energized communities  will seek and require our explanations, research, advice and solidarity. We should be on hand at all times to provide them with that praxis. This is our time too!.


Abouzeid,  Rania. 2011.

”Bouazizi: The Man Who Set Himself and Tunisia on Fire.” Time Magazine, January 21, page 5.

Coy, Peter.  2011.

“The Youth Unemployment Bomb.” Bloomberg Businessweek. February 2, page 1.

Fallada, Hans.  2010 (original 1947).

Every Man Dies Alone. New York: Melville House.

Young, Jock. 2012.

The Criminological Imagination. London: Polity.


David Brotherton is Professor and Chair of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York. His most recent book is “Banished to the Homeland: Dominican Deportees and Their Stories of Exile,” (with Luis Barrios) New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

[1] Mario Savio, a leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, made this famous speech on the roof of a police car on December 2nd 1964 in Sproul Plaza on the U.C. Berkeley campus. His action essentially heralded the tactic of direct action against the administration.

[2] It should be remembered that the social movements of the day came a lot closer to the revolutions they promised than we have been led to believe.

[3] Syria’s Assad cannot be far behind I would assume but surely the ruling clans and dynasties of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Morocco cannot be sleeping peacefully.

[4] Perhaps Libya is the exception but it seems clear that without NATO intervention and Libya’s ownership of large oil deposits the so-called “Libyan revolution” against the Ghadaffi family autocracy would have stalled. But were these revolts all so surprising?

[5] Youth unemployment rates are approximately as follows: Spain 51.4%; Greece 46.6%; Portugal 30.7%; Italy 28%; UK 21%, Egypt 25%, Tunisia 30%, Ireland 29%, U.S.A 21%.


[6] Gerrard Winstanley was a 17th century English radical at the time of the Glorious Revolution who founded a movement called the True Levellers (sometimes known as the “Diggers”) calling for a society based on Christian Communism. In one of several pamphlets he wrote: “in the beginning of time God made the earth. Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another." 

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