Videos documenting riot police using pepper spray, teargas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets against unarmed Americans in Oakland and Denver have raised important questions about the abuses of state power justified by the rhetoric of public “security.” Police emboldened by the Patriot Act and federal Homeland Security funding, which makes them independent of those local officials who tend to be more responsive to the communities they represent, are suppressing the civil rights of demonstrators – who are themselves sections of the public deserving of security.
Although comparatively small numbers of protesters are occupying public parks in the middle of our cities, they make state administrators and police chiefs anxious because the Occupy movement has created a new political space that allows the expression of anti-corporate sentiment. OWS has successfully bypassed the tight corporate control of political discourse maintained through plutocratic funding of the Democratic and Republican parties.
In a guest editorial at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, occupier Gerald Ganann gives a succinct account of their motivation: “We want to restore the dream that has always been America; the dream embodied in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Constitution. The power of vast wealth in the hands of a few has horribly corrupted our environment, our marketplace, our government, and even our electoral process itself. So now we have no option left but to take up the rights and responsibilities bestowed upon us by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and restore our country.”
The Denver authorities’ response to the upholding of the Constitution was to intimidate and criminalize the occupiers on the grounds of a police-determined rule that no structures, including tents, be erected in public parks. The Associated Press reported that “Officers in riot gear moved into a park late in the day where protesters were attempting to establish an encampment, hauling off demonstrators just hours after a standoff at the Capitol steps degenerated into a fight that ended in a cloud of Mace and pepper spray. … Chantrell Smiley, 21, of Denver, said she has been protesting downtown for more than a week, sleeping on the ground in the park. …’It was just chaos. This wasn’t necessary. My friend got hit with rubber bullets in the face. He was screaming and bleeding, then they Maced him. We’re being peaceful. We don’t want to be harmed. They came through and took everything down — our food, our blankets, everything’s gone’.”
And according to the Guardian, “Patricia Hughes, 38, a nurse who was at the Denver demonstration described the police behaviour as ‘brutal and outlandish.’ She said that police were putting on their riot gear before the demonstration began and that more than 100 officers charged into the crowd after one officer fell while dismantling a tent. ‘It’s an extraordinary decision that the police in Denver think rubber bullets are an acceptable response to a peaceful protest,’ she said.”
A major achievement of Occupy Wall Street so far has been to raise the issue of infringements of our civil liberties into mass-circulated public discourse. Americans believe strongly in democracy, especially the freedom to express political dissent without being punished by arbitrary laws. The repressive measures of the state historically had been made acceptable to the general public by confining them to ideologically isolated immigrants and communities of color. But now that the same tactics have been used against a swath of multiracial OWS groups – treating their protest as “low-level terrorism” – the pretense of upholding the law in the service of the common good has been exposed as the abuse of power in the service of the one percent.
Nevertheless, there is a growing discord between the actions of a militarized police force and the constitutional conscience of some local officials. In Nashville, Tennessee, occupiers were arrested for two consecutive nights for violating a curfew but were released without charge by a local magistrate judge who denied that the state had the authority to create such a restriction. This is an important political victory for the protesters who encountered a minimal police presence on Saturday night.
The Washington Post reports that “New York’s Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been similarly thwarted by local officials in Albany, where Occupy protesters have pitched tents in a city park across the street from the Capitol. Cuomo reportedly asked Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings last weekend to begin enforcing the park’s 11 p.m. curfew. Jennings declined; he told the New York Post, ‘My counsel said we’d be opening ourselves up to civil liability if we forced them out’.”
In New York City, the police are even more vulnerable to losing public legitimacy because of a series of corruption scandals ranging from lifting traffic fines from relatives and friends to selling drugs from personally-owned businesses. Their image has not recovered from widely-circulated videos of white-shirted inspectors pepper-spraying young women and punching protesters in the face.
The real threat of the Occupy movement in the eyes of public officials is its potential to unleash a mass movement of political dissent championing popular sovereignty, independent of state structures and official political channels. The police nationally have been empowered by the Patriot Act and Homeland Security laws to act arbitrarily against the provisions of the Constitution. But while we may submit to waiting in line to be scanned at airports, we will not accept the sight of police violently attacking those who are simply exercising their rights of free speech and assembly.