The highest-profile Occupy encampments in New York, Oakland and Portland have been cleared one after the other over the past three days in what was clearly a centrally-planned Homeland Security operation. Sweeps also took place in Philadelphia, Toronto, and Phoenix, among other cities. More than 200 people were arrested in New York, most from inside the camp.
The timing of the raids is significant because they took place one week before the congressional supercommittee reports on its decisions whether to cut social security. Democratic politicians appear to be accepting a deal which lets them agree on revenue levels now but delay decisions about exactly how to raise taxes. Paul Krugman blogged: “this is even worse than my worst imagining: a deal to undermine key social insurance programs in return for a promise that Congress will come up with a plan for raising revenue at some future date.”
The police in all of the clearances used standardized and sophisticated tactics of mobile “kettling,” using lines of police with plastic shields and batons held horizontally to force protesters into small areas without the use of more photographically threatening weaponry. This technique of “handling of Occupy movements” was coordinated at a high level, as Portland Assistant Police Chief , Larry O’Dea, admitted to Oregon Live. In New York, the raid was carefully timed for when there would be the fewest protesters present. A perimeter was established around the site with nobody allowed to enter the square, and a media blackout was implemented.
According to the New York Times, “Police officials watched how the occupations in other cities played out, often with much less tolerance by officers for the social movement — and with greater degrees of aggressive force. Police commanders in New York held conference calls with colleagues in other cities. They increased so-called disorder training — counterterrorism measures that involve moving large numbers of police officers quickly — to focus on Lower Manhattan.”
The planning included orders to ignore journalists’ constitutional protections in order to intimidate them and control coverage of the operation. “As the police approached the park they did not distinguish between protesters and members of the press, said Lindsey Christ, a reporter for NY1, a local cable news channel. “Those 20 minutes were some of the scariest of my life,” she said. Ms. Christ said that police officers took a New York Post reporter standing near her and “threw him in a choke-hold.” “Andrew Katz, a digital journalist at Columbia Journalism School, told police, ‘I’m press,’ to which an officer replied, ‘don’t care.’ Anthony De Rosa, Social Media Editor at Reuters, spoke with the CBS news desk, who were told to ‘leave the airspace above Zuccotti’ by the NYPD.”
Alison Kilkenny blogged: “The obstruction of witnesses seemed a high priority for the NYPD, who in addition to blocking media access, also prevented residents near the park from leaving their building, and told doormen to ‘lock up,’ according to NBC New York reporter Melissa Russo.”
A parallel campaign by administrative officials prepared the ground for the sweeps by painting the occupations as lawless and criminal, and used the rhetoric of public safety and hygiene to undermine the legality of the occupiers. Allegations that makeshift weapons, “such as cardboard tubes with metal pipes inside,” had been seen among the occupiers’ possessions were made by New York deputy mayor Cas Holloway. According to the Guardian: “The Portland mayor, Sam Adams, … told CNN on Sunday that the camps were linked to increases in crime and drug overdoses, and that one camp had been used as cover by an arsonist.”
An NPR report quoted Gene Policinski of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University who considered that mayors and police chiefs were preparing their case for future legal challenges: “Bloomberg is making the public safety case. In his press conference earlier today, Bloomberg said the continued occupation posed ‘a health and fire safety hazard to the protestors and to the surrounding community.’ Oakland Mayor Jean Quan issued a similar statement after a man was shot and killed near the site. … And in Burlington, Vt., police made the same case after a shooting there. … Clearly, said Policinski, these are attempts to ‘build the case’.”
To their eternal shame, NY sanitation workers (Teamsters Local 831) participated in destroying the encampment, assisting the administration to portray the occupiers as having accumulated tons of garbage when in fact the camps were turned into trash by the police trampling over tents. As BagNews put it, “What we have here is a massive PR war — the battle for hearts and minds (and noses) — playing out between the protesters and the city in front of the media.”
Although the state is trying to put a lid on the Occupy movement, it cannot prevent opposition breaking out afresh and finding new spaces for protest because it is driven by the deteriorating economic situation, likely to get much worse as the euro implodes. Occupy Wall Street/We are the 99 percent has succeeded in creating a focus for popular resistance to the collusion of Democratic and Republican leaders with plutocratic financiers to place the entire burden of an economic crash on the majority of Americans. The occupation’s symbolic power in the political space the movement established lay in its assertion of popular sovereignty independent of the two-party system.
The police action has strengthened the determination of protesters to devise imaginative strategies to continue the movement and further its political impact. Through the nonviolent tactics of the Occupy movement’s resistance, many have learned ways to combat the anti-democratic and unconstitutional nature of state measures to control the population. More importantly, they have captivated our nation’s collective political imagination and are opening the door for us to fight for a debt-free future.