Did Occupy Actually Make Police Departments More Accountable?
When Occupy Wall Street activist Cecily McMillan headed to court April 7 for the first day of her trial, she faced up to seven years in prison for assaulting a New York police officer. McMillan claims she reacted instinctively when she felt a police officer grab her breast as she left Zuccotti Park on March 17, 2012. Police say she elbowed the officer in the face. In either case, she was beaten and suffered a seizure before being hospitalized for cuts and bruises on her back, shoulders, head and breast that night.
Coming two years after her arrest, McMillan’s trial is one of a number of cases around the country, some of which are still winding their ways through the courts, that resulted from Occupy’s heady heydays. While most of the movement’s organizers and participants are no longer involved with Occupy itself, many are still connected through a strong post-Occupy activist community.
In Oakland last month another well known Occupy protester, Scott Olsen, received a $4.5 million settlement, the third-largest the city has paid in the last 24 years. Olsen survived two tours in the Marine Corps in Iraq but was almost killed while protesting with Occupy Oakland in 2011 when the Oakland Police Department shot him in the head with a lead-filled beanbag.
When asked during a press conference if he was still with the Occupy movement, Olsen said, “I am still in contact with some of the people who were from Occupy Oakland.”
Manissa McCleave Maharawal—an Occupy participant who is now researching post-Occupy community politics in New York and California as a doctoral candidate in the Anthropology department at the CUNY Graduate Center—explains that this type of relationship is typical for Occupy activists. “People are still drawing on the networks that they had or the friends that they made or just this general idea that the people they met through this thing are people they can trust.”
This community is still fighting the state, more than two years after the apex of the protests, only this time they’re fighting their battles in the courts. While prosecutors have dropped the majority of the cases that resulted from Occupy actions across the country, some of the high profile ones, like Olsen’s, have won large payouts.
In Bellingham, Washington, on February 20, a district court dropped the 2012 case against a man who disrupted a city council meeting with the movement’s famous “mic check,” citing the witnesses’ fading memory among other reasons. In New York, Shawn Schrader received a $82,500 settlement in December, claiming he was beaten and arrested three times for his involvement in the movement. Back in Oakland the city paid $1.17 million in July to a group of Occupy protesters who were claiming they were victims of excessive force at the hands of police in 2011. In December, Oakland also settled with Army aeteran Kayvan Sabeghi, who was clubbed by police during an Occupy protest. Sabeghi was awarded $645,000, the largest Oakland settlement after Olsen’s. Even tourists were reminded of the long-lasting effects of the movement on March 26 when the New York Police Department finally removed the barricades from the Wall Street bull.
The Justice for Cecily team—a group of organizers helping with press, outreach, emotional and legal support for McMillan—say activists from former working groups are still supporting her in the same capacity as they did during Occupy. People from Occupy-affiliated groups will be providing breakfast at McMillan’s trial, others from the Occupy PR team are writing stories and some of her court expenses were paid by the Occupy bail fund.
“All the people we are working with come out of our connections, so it is out of the Occupy network,” said Stan Williams, one of the organizers with the Justice for Cecily team.
Yoni Miller, another organizer with the team agreed and said, “None of us are involved in explicitly Occupy activities, but we still have those networks and the friendships.” But, in a “post-Occupy phase,” he has noticed these people taking on issues that are broader than the trials themselves. “I would obviously like to see an acquittal of all charges for Cecily, but we’re definitely also looking to set a more positive tone for the future of dissent and protest…. This is part of a broader police accountability issue.”
Many of Occupy’s protests focused on police violence, and Maharawal says that emphasis was part of the movement’s shift toward a community-organizing model after the encampments dispersed. “They began to ask what does wealth inequality in the banks mean on the ground in my neighborhood,” she said.
In New York, Occupy protesters linked the city’s unequal distribution of wealth to the institutionalized police brutality that communities of color have faced for years. The increased attention on the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactic helped the push for a federal class action case that eventually found the practice racially discriminatory and unconstitutional.
In Oakland, almost immediately following Olsen’s injury in 2011, the OPD hired the Frazier Group, a private consulting firm that specializes in assessing public safety operations, to review its response to the protests. The report provided sixty-eight recommendations for the OPD’s future handling of protests. Oakland Deputy Chief David Downing says all but two of these recommendations have been adopted as of today. A newly implemented report system also shows that the OPD used force less than a dozen times while conducting crowd control in all of 2013.
Now in New York, former Occupy organizers are looking to the newly appointed NYPD inspector general, Philip K. Eure, to make the department more accountable. New York’s City Council mandated the creation of the inspector general position in response to concerns with stop-and-frisk abuses, among other reasons.
Only police reactions to the next large slate of protests will show if policy changes actually take effect on the ground, but for now the post-Occupy network continues to build and organize in their communities.
Read next: Michelle Goldberg on the outrageous trial of Cecily McMillan