According to Minneapolis Examiner.com reporter Rick Ellis, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other federal police agencies have been advising cities on how to destroy their Occupy movement encampments. Ellis’ source at the Justice Department says the feds have recommended massive shows of police force, middle-of-the-night raids to avoid press coverage, and justification of the evictions using local zoning or health laws. DHS denies involvement. President Obama has said only that each municipality should do its own thing.
So it’s unclear what, if anything, the feds had to do with last week’s crackdowns. But after Oakland, Calif., Mayor Jean Quan let drop that she’d been on a conference call with 18 mayors the Sunday night before the police raided Occupations from Portland to Nashville to Salt Lake City to New York, it’s hard to believe the whole thing wasn’t coordinated.
Not to mention that every police force employed tactics that looked just like the ones DHS endorsed.
But it’s not just the methods that are uniform. It’s the ideology. In dislodging the occupiers with batons, rubber bullets, tear gas and noise cannons; in kettling every street action, even the tiniest, with police and barricades; in trailing protesters everywhere they go, including church (in New York), every official has spoken the homeland-security gospel: We had no choice. Public safety was at risk.
“From the beginning, I have said that the City had two principal goals: guaranteeing public health and safety, and guaranteeing the protesters’ First Amendment rights. But when those two goals clash, the health and safety of the public and our first responders must be the priority,” announced New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg last Tuesday, after a massive phalanx of police in full riot gear stormed into Zuccotti Park at 1 a.m. Besides bloodying human bodies and ravaging tents, generators, computer equipment and a kitchen that served hundreds of people a day, the cops stuffed the encampment’s 5000-plus-book library into a Dumpster — a fire-code-abiding version of book burning.
Denver Police spokesman Sonny Jackson also explained that the department’s 17 arrests on Bank Transfer Day last month were “a public safety issue.” The infraction? Erecting a folding food table on the edge of Civic Center Park. “When you have people that have to walk around these things that are blocking the sidewalk, having to walk almost to the street, having them basically trip hazards and things like that,” Jackson said, “we have to be conscious of that.”
They were more than “conscious,” Denver occupiers reported. “An officer waited until a protester turned around and hit him in the back three times,” read a press release on occupydenver.org. “They assaulted people verbally, including threats to ‘break the teeth’ of protesters. One officer told another officer to ‘SHOOT EM!! SHOOT EM NOW!’ One protester was struck by an officer on a motorcycle and was hospitalized.” Denver shut down its encampment last week, too.
After University of California Berkeley campus police charged into a crowd of students last week, jabbing billy clubs into their bellies, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau allowed that the university is “not equipped to manage the hygiene, safety, space and conflict issues that emerge when an encampment takes hold and the more intransigent individuals gain control.” Contending that linking arms to resist the police onslaught is “not nonviolent civil disobedience,” the chancellor spoke of the beatings in the passive bureaucratic voice: “We regret that ... the police were forced to use their batons.”
UC Berkeley had offered the students the use of Sproul Hall for a week to talk about their issues, which they declined. Was it an ironic coincidence or a veiled threat for the administration to choose Sproul, scene of the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement occupation, during which thousands of students spent two days studying, singing and even celebrating Chanukah before the police cordoned off the building at 2 a.m. and moved in to arrest 800?
Even in progressive Burlington, Mayor Bob Kiss’ (waffling) support for the City Hall Park encampment was rescinded after a transient named Josh Pfenning shot himself inside a tent. It was great for the protesters to exercise their First Amendment rights, Police Chief Michael Schirling suggested, explaining the city’s newly imposed midnight-to-6-a.m. curfew to the press. But “it just has to be done in a way where we can do a better job of ensuring safety. And right now the biggest impediment to that safety is the presence of the tents.”
In other words, mentally ill homeless people are safer with no roof, even a canvas one, over their heads. And (as numerous mayors have argued), the “public” is safer when homeless people do not gather at tent cities seeking the food, medicine and attention they’re not getting elsewhere.
Brutality is peace. Arm linking is violence. Eviction is shelter. Food tables are hazards. Book trashing is free speech. Crushing a movement against gross economic equality makes the citizenry safer. From Robespierre to Pinochet to Gaddafi, every authoritarian regime in history has justified political repression and police thuggery as public security.
Since 9/11, America has moved closer and closer toward a police state, and the Occupy events have shown its paranoia and legal impunity like nothing since the roundup of Muslims after the terrorist attacks. This latest shameful moment is lightened only by the grace and optimism with which the occupiers have met their assailants. La luta continua.
“Poli Psy” is a twice monthly column by Judith Levine. Got a comment on this story? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.