Updated On my weekly local-access cable TV show I had taken to referring to the official push-back against the Occupy movement as "the Empire strikes back." It turns out that I was righter than I knew.
Over the past two weeks, more than a dozen cities have moved to evict Occupy protesters from city parks and other public spaces using disturbingly similar claims and tactics.
An early case was the violent, unprovoked attacked on student protesters at UCal Berkeley on November 9. I won't bother with the particulars as I'm sure you've seen the video. Bottom line is that the students were standing with arms linked, just standing in one place, taking neither any aggressive action nor any aggressive stance whatsoever, when police suddenly began viciously ramming their nightsticks into the students' midsections - something which, in a bitterly amusing aside, some outfits such as AP referred to as "nudging" or "prodding" the students.
(Interestingly, it develops that in use of clubs the body is divided into three zones, designated green, yellow, and red. The abdomen is a yellow zone and close to two red zones: the groin and the solar plexus. Even by what are supposed to be the standards of police practice, this was an illegitimate attack.)
Creepily, Margo Bennett, the captain of the UCal police, justified the attack, describing the students as taking a violent stand against police.
"The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence," [she] said. ... "[L]inking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest."UCal Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau agreed, saying in a statement that what the students did - that is, standing still in one place - "is not non-violent civil disobedience." Which leaves us with the image of heavily-armed police beating non-threatening students as an act of self-defense. Frankly, I don't think either Margo or Bobby have the philosophical or emotional maturity to be lecturing others on what constitutes nonviolence.
But that, in a way, set the stage for the wave of forcible closures of Occupy sites that took place starting over last weekend.
On Saturday, it was Occupy Denver (20 arrested), Occupy Salt Lake City (19 arrested), and Occupy St. Louis (27 arrests).
On Sunday, it was Occupy Portland (more than 50 arrested) while Occupy Philadelphia was faced with beefed-up police patrols amid ominous noises from the city about "dramatically deteriorating" conditions at the camp.
Over the weekend, Occupy Burlington (Vermont) was also shut down.
On Monday, Occupy Oakland got the hammer (33 arrested).
And on Tuesday, of course, it was Occupy Wall Street that got targeted with a military-style, middle-of-the-night assault. Nearly 200 were arrested, bringing to total number of arrests in NYC to that point to clearly over 1000. Mayor Michael "I'm just an ordinary, everyday, subway-riding billionaire" Bloomberg gave a nice surreal touch to events, saying that the occupation was coming to pose a health and fire safety hazard to the protesters. In other words, "we came in the middle of the night, threw you out, arrested you, and destroyed your stuff - all for your own good." I'm sure that made them feel much better.
What makes this wave of attacks on the right of peaceful assembly extra disturbing is a report from Rick Ellis at the Minneapolis Examiner, who said he was told by a DOJ official that the actions were coordinated with tactical and planning advice from federal police agencies, including the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland and the FBI.
According to this official, in several recent conference calls and briefings, local police agencies were advised to seek a legal reason to evict residents of tent cities, focusing on zoning laws and existing curfew rules. Agencies were also advised to demonstrate a massive show of police force, including large numbers in riot gear.Attempts have been made to downplay or even dismiss the story, with one person at Salon.com claiming that "[c]iting the Examiner is the journalistic equivalent of saying, 'my friend Bob told me.'" However, Ellis's bio seems to indicate a pretty good background in journalism and the same original report noted that he had contacted the FBI and 14 local police agencies for comment, all of which declined to offer any. What's more, he followed up by talking to "several high-ranking DHS officials on background" and asking specific questions about support and advice DHS might have given to local police, questions the agency still has not answered.
It should also be noted that the main argument seems to be over if the feds "coordinated" the attacks on the encampments, with the DHS denying only that it is "actively" coordinating with local officials - which not only "leaves a lot of room for advice, both tactical and otherwise," as Ellis points out, but could in fact mean that the agency has done so in the past. Like, say, last week. Even more to the point, federal "coordination," active or otherwise, was not the issue. Even Ellis's original source said that
while local police agencies had received tactical and planning advice from national agencies, the ultimate decision on how each jurisdiction handles the Occupy protests ultimately rests with local law enforcement.The coordination was in establishing a common set of strategies and tactics to undermine the encampments and then break them up with minimal press coverage. That sort of coordination also existed among the mayors and police forces of a number of cities with Occupy sites, with AP reporting that
officials from nearly 40 cities turned to each other on conference calls, sharing what worked and what hasn't as they grappled with the leaderless movement.Beyond all that and perhaps more significantly, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a group with ties to various law enforcement agencies including the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland, has admitted to the group having coordinated of a series of conference-call strategy sessions with big-city police chiefs and mayors about dealing with Occupy protests, one of which took place on November 10 - shortly before the nationwide crackdown began.
But no no no, they cry, there was no "coordination." It was all just a big coincidence.
Really? Are we really supposed to imagine it was all a coincidence? It was just a coincidence that across the country, Occupy sites faced the exact same complaints from city officials and ultimately faced the same massive show of force directed against what officials and police had to know were non-resisting protesters? Really?
We're supposed to accept that the limitations on press coverage were all just coincidence? That is was just by chance that when attack on Zuccotti Park occurred the NYPD deliberately and aggressively kept press and legal observers, including a retired state Supreme Court judge and a member of NY City Council, blocks away from the scene? That when the city shut down the airspace over lower Manhattan that is was just gosh darn it bad luck that it blocked access to news helicopters? Really?
If so, instead of accepting it we should recall that Rick Ellis's DOJ source also asserted that
the FBI ... advised on press relations, with one presentation suggesting that any moves to evict protesters be coordinated for a time when the press was the least likely to be present.And when the media are present at the evictions, they are often treated as criminals themselves: arrested and handcuffed despite having and displaying press credentials. The treatment of the media has been bad enough that Reporters Without Borders, which of necessity spends most of its time on places like Rwanda and China, denounced it:
"The attitude of law-enforcement officers supports the theory that not only the movement itself but also coverage of Occupy Wall Street is being obstructed."So yes, when I used the phrase "the Empire strikes back" I was righter than I knew.
Coincidence? All by chance? Bullshit. What we are seeing is a coordinated, planned attack on the Occupy movement; a coordinated, planned attack on the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly. Trying to turn these evictions, all based on the same complaints, using the same tactics marked by the same massive police force, all in the same short period of time, into something just coincidental on the grounds that no one ever said "synchronize your watches" is a foul and transparent lie. The coordination lay in the overall agreement that "we want to break this movement, we want to do it now before it gets too strong, and this is how we can best do it."
The thing of it is, the Empire has learned how to ignore demonstrations. It's learned how to ignore single-day events, no matter how massive. (Just consider how literally millions of people around the world turned out in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, to no avail.) They've learned how to hunker down and let the storm pass.
The problem for them was that Occupy Wall Street, in fact the whole Occupy movement, is something they couldn't ignore and can't ignore. Something they don't know how to ignore. Because it was, it is, in your face, 24/7. That's why they want to crush it - because they don’t know how to contain it in ways that they know how to control and ignore.
So it can't be denied that the movement has suffered setback - but perhaps not in that this was not really unexpected; the Occupiers knew this sort of attack would happen eventually. But the movement will not be crushed so easily, despite the wishful dreams of the empire. Some encampments were re-occupied and thousands across the country and tens of thousands in New York turned out on Thursday for the planned day of actions.
Meanwhile, it's not all bad news on occupy front: Encampments continue in Boston, Washington DC, Albany, San Francisco, and a number of other places even as officials try to raise the pressure on some of those sites. Still, as officials - some of who may be honestly sympathetic - feel increasing pressure to act on the desires of their local power elites, more Occupy sites are going to be abandoned or destroyed. And the thing is, again, that the movement will not be able to sustain itself for the long term on the basis of one-off actions: The Empire has become too adept at controlling and directing them into "acceptable" - that is, non-threatening to the Empire - channels.
The silver lining is that occupations actually don't have to be 24/7: The issue is not and never was the physical occupation of a particular space. The issue is the visibility. The issue is being visible, persistently, insistently, in-your-face visible. That is what is important.
As one minor example, Occupy New Brunswick (New Jersey) felt it wouldn't be able to maintain a constant physical presence. So instead it "occupies" the city three hours a day. Every day. Each day from 4-7 pm there are marches or rallies or teach-ins or some kind of action. And at the end of that time, Occupiers gather on the steps of the local branch of the Bank of America to plan future actions.
The Occupy movement has become important not only to the cause of economic justice but by virtue of the attempts to undermine and repress it, it has become a canary in the coal mine for the rights of speech and assembly. If it is squeezed out of existence, we will know that we are in deep, deep trouble.
Go Occupy something!
Footnote: Mayor Mikey B., ever ready to add his surreal touch, dismissed the protests on Thursday because, he said, a lot of the protesters were not Occupy Wall Street activists. Rather, they were union members, so
"It was just an opportunity for a bunch of unions to complain or to protest or whatever they want to do."Yup - Occupy folks have nothing in common with union workers, who just want to "complain or whatever," says the man with his finger on the pulse of the public.
Updated with the paragraph about the Police Executive Research Forum's role.