Reports from Occupy Wall Street’s May Day general strike action have shed some light on the intense pressure being brought to bear on the movement by state agencies. In These Times writer Rebecca Burns drew attention to a nation-wide shift in police tactics on May Day: “Targeted arrests, through which police attempt to head off large-scale civil disobedience by snatching individual activists out of the crowd, were documented yesterday in Oakland, New York and Seattle. Unlike the now-familiar Occupy scene of demonstrators being arrested en masse in dramatic, late-night evictions, May Day protesters in many locales were arrested individually throughout the day, in some cases for crossing over onto sidewalks or, according to local media on the scene in Oakland, seemingly at random.”
In New York, as a New York Times report reveals, the same tactics were accompanied by undercover infiltration of the march: “Around 3 p.m., a crowd surged out of Washington Square Park carrying a banner that read ‘On Strike.’ Officers shouted for protesters to remain on the sidewalk, but several protesters holding the banner stepped into the middle of Avenue of the Americas, where several officers — including one in plain clothes who had appeared to be marching with the crowd — tackled and arrested them.”
The shift in tactics appears to have been prepared well in advance. At a press conference held in Oakland a week before the May Day action, police chief Howard Jordan “spoke of using ‘small teams’ to extract ‘unlawful’ individuals from the crowd.” According to activist reporter Susie Cagle, the snatch-arrest of a woman during the Oakland demonstration was the spark that set off a large-scale confrontation: “As police made their arrest, the crowd gathered around them, chanting and throwing paint-filled balloons and eggs. Police set off tear gas and flash-bang grenades; they later called these deployments ‘very effective,’ though they ultimately had to make several more arrests before backing out of the crowd. A public information officer confirmed to reporters in the afternoon that the department was indeed using its new crowd-management strategies.”
David Graeber gives a detailed analysis of the way the snatch squads in New York are accompanied by systematic sexual assaults of women protesters. He writes: “I’m not aware of any reports of police intentionally grabbing women’s breasts before March 17, but on March 17 there were numerous reported cases, and in later nightly evictions from Union Square, the practice became so systematic that at least one woman told me her breasts were grabbed by five different police officers on a single night (in one case, while another one was blowing kisses.) The tactic appeared so abruptly, is so obviously a violation of any sort of police protocol or standard of legality, that it is hard to imagine it is anything but an intentional policy. … Why target women in particular? No doubt it’s partly simply the logic of the bully, to brutalize those you think are weak, and more easily traumatized. But another reason is, almost certainly, the hope of provoking violent reactions on the part of male protestors.
“I myself well remember a police tactic I observed more than once during the World Economic Forum demonstrations in New York in 2002: a plainclothes officer would tackle a young female marcher, without announcing of who they were, and when one or two men would gallantly try to come to her assistance, uniforms would rush in and arrest them for “assaulting an officer.” …
“There’s a good deal of anecdotal evidence that would tend to confirm that this is exactly what they are trying to do. One of the most peculiar incidents took place on a recent march in New York where police seem to have simulated such an assault, arresting a young women who most activists later concluded was probably an undercover officer (no one had seen her before or has seen her since), then ostentatiously groping her as she was handcuffed. Reportedly, several male protestors had to physically restrained (by other protestors) from charging in to help her.”
These kinds of crowd control tactics are more sophisticated than the initial police reaction of wholesale arrests of occupiers and are more difficult to document photographically, as BagNews points out. They seem to be derived from military counter-insurgency techniques, and it has become clear that federal agencies are involved with coordinating these strategies across police departments.
According to documents obtained by Truthout, the Department of Homeland Security “as well as its sub-agencies, such as Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), and officials stationed at fusion centers throughout the country, spent a considerable amount of time monitoring the [Occupy] protest movement, exchanging emails and ‘bulletins’ about OWS, and discussing the group’s plans with local law enforcement … the White House approved talking points for DHS in which the agency denied to reporters that it had participated in a coordinated crackdown on Occupy encampments last year.”
The Obama administration is very concerned to maintain state legitimacy at a time when disaffection with the political system is at an all-time high. Up until now, political acceptance has been guaranteed by the steady dismantling of union job protections and any kind of social safety net, a counterpart to the ideology of the American Dream. In order to maintain their hope of rising living standards, Americans are working more than one job, or long hours, and in any case are scared of losing that job and ending up homeless. They are too busy working – to pay off their mortgage or credit card debt – to get involved in political activism. The same ideology marks those who become unemployed with a social stigma which militates against common struggle.
In the context of a burgeoning recession, this means that the ideological basis of political legitimacy is rigid and brittle and cannot allow for any questioning of the enormous wealth and political power accumulated by the super-rich one percent. The extent of state surveillance and suppression of the Occupy movement is a testament to the fear it has engendered in the plutocracy and arrogant Wall Street charlatans. Institutions they have funded and control act as ideological policemen of political discourse in Congress and the media; while the Democratic leadership respects these imposed limits, the Occupy movement has breached them and, by capturing the public imagination, threatens to open mass flood-gates of resistance.