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Policing the Protest: The emerging dynamic between the Occupy movement and city officials

Uncategorized | December 4, 2011

In the early morning hours of Tuesday, November 15, the New York City Police Department descended upon Zucotti Park, the symbolic birthplace of the original Occupy Wall Street movement. The raid was conducted with intentional secrecy; police began taking down tents before the sun rose, and reporters were not allowed inside the park.

This move by New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg was part of an increasingly visible backlash by the governments of cities where the movement has taken root. Whereas most cities have tolerated nonviolent protesters in public spaces in the past weeks, recently, government crackdowns have become increasingly widespread.

Professor Matthew Williams, who teaches a course at Tufts on social movements, explained the motivation behind governments’ responses. “The Occupy movement represents a loss of control of public space, which governments generally find very threatening, since governments see it as their job to maintain control of public space,” he said. “Ceding it to a movement challenging them represents a major loss of face.”

At first glance, the actions of individual cities’ police forces seem like unique responses, calibrated to local needs. But the oddly coordinated crackdowns led to investigations that discovered calculated cooperation between various cities’ governments. The Guardian cited reports that the Department of Homeland Security participated in an 18-city conference call to advise city leaders on “how to suppress” Occupy protests.

The first, most controversial crackdown came on October 25 in Oakland, California, when police violently removed protesters from their encampment, spurring Occupy responses across the country. Public outcry caused the raids to backfire, forcing the mayor to apologize and allow the Oakland occupiers to return to the site.

The Oakland raid inspired solidarity not only among protesters but also among antagonized cities. Encampments in Burlington, Vermont and Portland, Oregon were dismantled just before the second Oakland raid on November 14, and police raided Zuccotti Park soon afterward. Police responses in these evictions has been controversial—police have used teargas, pepper spray, and mass arrests, as well as infamous beatings of individuals such as a former New York state Supreme Court Justice, the poet Robert Hass, and an Iraq war veteran.

Still, Williams notes that, as a whole, responses have been relatively tempered. In light of the fact that the movement is airing grievances common to a wide base of Americans, governments want to be cautious not to appear overly oppressive.

“If you compare it to the way the government handled the last major wave of protests around economic justice—those targeted the WTO, IMF/World Bank, and other elite meetings in 1999 and the early 2000s—the response has been more controlled, in the sense that there’s been less brutality on the government’s part, although they still use tactics like illegal mass arrests.”

As the name “Occupy” suggests, reclaiming control over public space has been a key strategy of this nascent movement. Loss of public space would therefore appear to be a crucial blow. Yet Dale Bryan, the assistant director of the Peace and Justice Studies Department at Tufts and a veteran of American social movements believes that perceiving a single Occupy strategy would be misleading—that in fact tactics vary by site. As such, he posits that the resilient movement will be able to respond in a number of different ways.

“On one hand, as the activists are no longer tied to their camps, they are trying new tactics and identifying new targets for making their claims,” Bryan said. “Every movement needs to be innovative to keep participants energized, opponents uncertain, and the larger public curious and interested. Unleashing creative responses should give Occupy adherents a boost of confidence and courage.”

Bryan acknowledged, however, that for some members of the movement, the camps remain an instrumental symbol of Occupy’s message. “On the other hand,” he said, “some activists will struggle to maintain the camps. Some are devoted to the sense of community and bottom-up democracy, and their command of the space to embody both practice and culture will be paramount.”

As the battle for control of physical space rages on, another battle has emerged—over media space. Media in all of its forms has played a crucial role in the development of the movement, and thus cities and protesters fight for control over imagery and dialogue. City crackdowns have often targeted journalists; The New York Times noted that NYPD has asked reporters to identify themselves and prove their credentials, only to then forcefully remove them from scenes of unrest with violence and arrest threats. The National Union of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists have since issued a Freedom of Information Act request to investigate possible federal involvement with this targeted policing.

Yet in the age of social media, blocking journalists cannot suppress documentation of events. Blog posts and YouTube videos of police aggression have become instantly viral and often the subject of outrage. Meanwhile, city agents attempt to document their own perspectives. Fox News has reported the use of cell-phone cameras by police, and such footage can prove essential not only to public perception but also to legal investigations.

In some ways, however, any news is good news for the Occupy movement—the crackdowns and media coverage sustain the occupy conversation. “To have families, co-workers, teachers and students, and all manner of people in daily social relations continuing to discuss Occupy’s grievances about political and social inequalities is to deepen [the movement’s] significant impact on political agendas and policy concerns,” Bryan said. “Their message must continue to find expression in all that Occupy undertakes, regardless of the space they find themselves in.”