A clear pattern is emerging around the nation from police attacks on “Occupy” movement encampments. Force is used out of all proportion to the numbers or resistance of the protesters. In Oakland in the early hours of Tuesday morning over 500 police in full riot gear used “flash grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets after moving in with armored vehicles.” Some 85 people were arrested and camp gear was destroyed or stolen by the police. Police did not deny that some arrests took place after 6 a.m., when the park is legally open.
UPDATE: As protesters tried to re-enter the site of the encampment on Tuesday evening, police again used tear gas and flash bombs to disperse them. And in Atlanta, 53 people were arrested early Wednesday morning when police cleared an encampment in the city’s central Woodruff Park. See the New York Times report and videos here.
Susie Cagle, a graphic journalist, was an eyewitness to the police use of tear gas. “It was completely blinding and opaque. It just shot a white cloud up into the air, across a multi-lane road. It was quite a ways-away, but the quickness that it came to us took me by surprise,” she told the Guardian. “It burned my eyes and throat. We ran two blocks away but it was still coming down towards us, the wind was carrying it down the street.”
She described the police operation as extremely militant. “There were three helicopters, hundreds of police officers, vastly outnumbering any potential group of protesters that they would have faced, and then on top of that this gross use of force that just seemed completely out of line with what was happening.”
These are political arrests, intended to intimidate the occupiers and send them a message, no matter how much city officials or police justify them with sanitary and public safety concerns. The experience of the occupation at Wall Street itself proves that with political pressure the rules can be waived. Even so, Bloomberg denies the protesters municipal facilities like portable toilets in an effort to make life difficult for the occupiers and drive a wedge between them and local residents.
Why is this? In Chicago, one reason may be that mayor Emanuel hopes to curtail protest in advance of the G8 and NATO summits both taking place in May next year. Occupy Chicago will march to City Hall on Wednesday “to put pressure on Mayor Emanuel to publicly commit to giving march permits ‘within sight and sound’ of the May 2012 G8/NATO summits in Chicago, and that Police Superintendent McCarthy cease making threatening statements against would-be G8/NATO.” They will also demand that the City allow a permanent First Amendment encampment for Occupy Chicago. “Emanuel should allow the protesters to occupy Grant Park,” said Natalie Wahlberg, a spokeswoman for the Chicago activists. “All we want is a home, a 24-hour space to practice direct democracy, and he has been blocking us at every turn,” she said, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
The history of Chicago protests may also provide a clue to the knee-jerk reaction of officials and police in other cities. The notorious mayor Richard J. Daley and his son, Richard M. Daley, for whom Rahm Emanuel once worked, would not tolerate unofficial demonstrations in the streets, and, as until recently in New York, insisted that any public gathering had to be heavily permitted and policed, a strategy that, as the CSM observes, “was criticized as a way to stop protests from getting off the ground.” They did this to suppress any form of political dissent which bypassed the Democratic party machine that was the source of the mayor’s power and control.
So the conclusion that has be drawn from this is that the ruling elite is extremely threatened by a movement which seeks to assert its right for a place to openly “discuss ideas, grievances, and potential solutions to the problems apparent in our society,” as succinctly expressed by Occupy Boston. This is a parliament of the people, not a congress of politicians in the pockets of the super-rich and bankers. The movement has exposed the vulnerability and weakness of the political establishment by creating a voice and an imaginary for Americans facing dispossession and poverty throughout the nation.