Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.
Last fall, Occupy Wall Street was a fledgling protest movement that few took very seriously, but then two events occurred that quickly and dramatically threw the group into the national spotlight.
An NYPD officer named Anthony Bologna single-handedly turned OWS protesters into a symbol of martyrdom when he pepper-sprayed peaceful young women who were protesting at an October Union Square rally.
Earlier that same month, 700 protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge in one of the largest mass arrests of nonviolent protesters in US history.
Suddenly, everyone wanted to talk about Occupy.
On Sunday, hundreds of OWS protesters marked the six month anniversary of the mass arrests by marching across the Brooklyn Bridge, though this time on the walkway. (all photos by Allison Kilkenny unless credited otherwise)
Bob Broadhurst, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Boston, told me he was marching to represent labor's solidarity with the movement, but stressed he was there in an "unofficial" capacity.
Broadhurst was one of the 700 individuals arrested on the bridge last fall, and as he reflected upon the ordeal, it was clear the memories still haunt him. He describes the scene as "terrible," saying the activists were penned together—"crushed"—is the word he uses, and some protesters began climbing any structure within their grasp just to secure a moment's worth of breathing space.
Broadhurst considers himself one of the lucky ones because he was "only" detained by police for seven hours, and yet he still contends he was falsely arrested. He even uses the world "falsely" on the sign strung around his neck. Many protesters believe the mass arrest was unjust because they claim officers corralled OWS members onto the bridge, and then penned them there so they couldn't move.
Those claims were part of a filed federal class action lawsuit against New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the city, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and many police officers by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund on behalf of Occupy.
This time, marching on the street wasn't even an option as protesters were greeted with a barrier of police motorcycles, sealing off the way. Activists instead marched on the pedestrian walkway, carrying an elaborate Brooklyn Bridge puppet.
A protester named Finn at one point walked out onto a beam, but the other protesters urged him back onto the walking path, and yet despite this dangerous action, police didn't arrest the young man, perhaps mindful of the bad publicity that rained down upon the department last time. (Photo by CS Muncy)
During the march, protesters carried banners declaring "Health Care for the 99 Percent," "American Spring" and "Occupy Patriot." One man held a sign above his head that read "Angry Pacifist."
Despite what Broadhurst described as a "disappointing" turnout, Occupiers remain hopeful that the spring, particularly the so-called "General Strike" on May 1 will serve as a rallying point for the movement.
Organized labor thus far has expressed severe reservations about the concept of a General Strike, and yet the specific, local actions such as the the MTA fare prank suggest that individual union members may have gone rogue and joined Occupy actions without leadership approval.
Broadhurst said we'll continue to see this kind of independent action from workers until "union leadership stops toeing the line with the Democratic slash Republican Party."
Hundreds of protesters were arrested in Oakland this weekend following activists’ unsuccessful afternoon effort to occupy a former convention center. Over a thousand protesters decided to head back to their former encampment outside City Hall, which is when police confronted the marchers and began arresting them en masse.
Those arrested included six journalists: Mother Jones’s Gavin Aronsen, independent journalist Susie Cagle, Kristen Hanes of KGO Radio, Vivian Ho of the San Francisco Chronicle, John C. Osborn of the East Bay Express, and Yael Chanoff of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Hanes had credentials, though from San Francisco police, not OPD, and Ho did have OPD credentials.
Aronsen describes his arrest:
As I waited in line to be processed and transported to jail, Ho approached me with an officer who had released her from custody. The two explained to my arresting officer that I was with the media. “Oh, he’s with the media?” the officer replied, although I had already repeatedly told him as much and my credentials had been plainly visible all night. He appeared ready to release me, until a nearby officer piped in, without explanation: “He’s getting arrested.”
This still lifted from @OakFoSho’s livestream offers some insight into how Oakland was placed under police lockdown.
Occupiers told harrowing tales of police firing tear gas, bean bags, and flash bang grenades at them during the protest. Some protesters built makeshift shields from scrap metal in order to protect themselves from the same projectiles that gravely injured veteran Scott Olsen during this fall’s protests.
A young man named Kevin told me about an aggressive interaction he had with an officer, who he describes as “bloodthirsty.” According to Kevin, a “really big” officer (helmet number 881) started screaming at him, yelling, “Come on! Come over here! Come get some!”
In response to the police aggression and mass arrests, Occupiers in cities across the country participated in solidarity marches Sunday evening in New York, Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles.
I attended the solidarity march at Washington Square Park where around 200 protesters gathered to express support for the West Coast Occupy. There was definitely a lot of energy buzzing in the crowd and several participants remarked that it felt like the “old days” of Zuccotti. Much of that energy manifested in anger and discontent with the police. (Photo by Allison Kilkenny)
Some Occupy organizers attempted to quell the staple “Fuck the Police” chant which erupted during the march almost immediately.
As the group moved through the streets, the chant was replaced with a new one: “Racist, sexist, anti-gay. NYPD, go away!”
A young woman named Jodie told me she decided to attend the event because some of her friends were arrested at the Occupy Oakland action over the weekend.
“I hope we can generally raise awareness about the movement. It’s really hard now that there’s not a centralized location to keep up the media coverage and keep it in people’s minds,” said Jodie.
The goal of the solidarity march seemed to be the procession itself as a destination was never announced. Protesters left Washington Square and embarked on a march that lasted hours, and frequently spilled into the streets, resulting in more than a few tense standoffs with the NYPD.
Twelve protesters were ultimately arrested, and I witnessed police roughly treat some of the protesters by shoving them back onto sidewalks and throwing arrestees down to the sidewalk. At one point, a young medic claimed she had been punched in the back by the police, and later I saw an officer on 14th Street run for medical attention after apparently having been struck in the back of the head.
I recorded the following footage of one of the arrests:
The march ended up on 9th Street just east of Avenue B in front of an empty former school building that previously housed the Charas/El Bohio Cultural Community Center before the group was evicted ten years ago by the developer, Gregg L. Singer.
“This was once a vibrant community center,” a man said as others pounded on a tall plywood fence that sealed the empty building off from the sidewalk. “The people in Oakland wanted to create a community center.”
A security guard emerged from inside the building and peered down from an elevated plaza at those outside. A man tried to clamber over the fence, but police officers quickly pulled him down and arrested him as a helicopter with a spotlight hovered overhead.
By 10:30 p.m., most of the marchers had moved to Tompkins Square. One man strummed a mandolin. Another tapped on a drum. Several others stretched out on an asphalt pathway, using backpacks as pillows and gazing at the sky as a line of police officers stood at a nearby entrance to the park.
Back in February 2011, I started reporting on a movement called US Uncut that formed in opposition to the practice of tax-dodging. As it turns out, corporate tax avoidance is a huge, huge problem. In fact, the United States loses an estimated $100 billion in revenue every year as multinational corporations hoard their cash overseas in havens.
It’s true that no one movement or cause is solely responsible for the birth of Occupy Wall Street, and protesters list an impressive spectrum of issues and events that inspired them to get involved in OWS, ranging from the Arab Spring to tuition debt to the corrupt political system. However, US Uncut was definitely at the forefront of framing the “99 percent” narrative seized upon by Occupy. Except, back then, US Uncut referred to America’s woes as being “The Corporations versus Everyone Else.”
Quite simply, major companies (GE, Apple, FedEx) were robbing the country blind during a time when the 99 percent were being asked to sacrifice their already meager means. As teachers were fired, and firefighters laid off, US Uncut tried to alert the public to the presense of one percenters shovelling buckets of cash offshore. For example, General Electric paid no federal income taxes in 2010, even though it raked in $14.2 billion in profits (and another $3.2 billion in tax benefits.)
Nearly a year after the birth of Uncut, the movement is chronicled in We’re Not Broke, a documentary (and official Sundance Film Festival selection) about the meteoric rise of the group. Filmmakers Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce are the recipients of the duPont–Columbia University Award for excellence in broadcast journalist for their first film, The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, and also produced and directed Held Hostage in Colombia, a documentary about three American contractors captured and held hostage by FARC guerillas in Colombia.
We’re Not Broke, which follows a group of activists from the start of US Uncut in February 2011, piqued my interest. I was curious as to why the issue of tax-dodging appealed to directors who previously dealt with the considerably sexier issues of hostages and guerillas.
“Neither one of us had any experience in this type of high finance prior, so we thought it was a great challenge to dive into,” says Hayes.
Bruce had some early reservations. “I was totally unconvinced. I usually end up finding a good story, but this was a very hard one, and I felt totally unprepared to go into this world. Fortunately, the story tells itself,” she says. “At first, we thought we’d make it about the Swiss whistleblower, and individuals who dodged taxes, but every time we sat down with an expert, they’d say, ‘Oh, no. The big problem is what corporations do offshore.’”
And as it turns out, the problem is not a small one. Every time Bruce would ask experts to name some of the major corporations that steal tax revenue, the experts would reply, “All of them!”
“And then your world closes in on you, and you realize everything you do: your phone bill, and your electricity, and the gas for your car, everything is owned by one of these multinational corporations that’s actually screwing you all the time,” says Bruce. “That was the hook of the film, because it hit me in my gut. Once people know this, then maybe things can change.”
Three of the US Uncut protesters featured in the film are Carl Gibson, 24, from US Uncut Mississippi, Chris Priest of US Uncut Boston, 24, and US Uncut D.C.’s Ryan Clayton.
It’s impossible to talk about US Uncut without also talking about Occupy Wall Street. Just three weeks before OWS starting camping at Zuccotti Park, Clayton told the filmmakers that he believed US Uncut would prove to be “the spark” that started a much larger movement.
“He said we sparked a dialogue that no one else was talking about.… Then the whole world exploded,” says Bruce.
I ask Clayton if he thinks US Uncut was absorbed by OWS. “That’s like asking if the tadpoles were absorbed by the frogs,” he responds, adding he thinks it’s all part of a natural, healthy evolution. “The work of many organizations in the early months of last year, including US Uncut, We Are One, and Rebuild the Dream, was really the proving ground for a new progressive movement that burst onto the scene in a powerful way with OWS.”
The targeting of corrupt corporate influences made it easy for many Uncut protesters to transition into the OWS movement.
“I’ve been heavily involved in Occupy Houston since late September,” says Gibson. “I’ve been arrested twice in the last three months during actions. Occupy has a lot of respect from both inmates and prison guards, it turns out.”
Clayton agrees. “I have been spent nights at Liberty Park at Occupy Wall Street and have been apart of the local community at Occupy D.C. More importantly, many of my friends (and fellow Uncutters) were some of the first people on the ground at OWS from day one, and many Uncutters organized local chapters of Occupy around the country.”
That includes Chris Priest, who was instrumental in the founding of both Occupy Boston and Boston Uncut. “Literally every US Uncut organizer I know has been deeply involved with their local Occupy chapter since the beginning. That’s no coincidence,” says Priest. “Occupy Wall Street provided a priceless opportunity for every progressive organization to unite and fight on multiple fronts.”
Priest sees US Uncut as merely one of many events that snowballed into Occupy. “US Uncut began in February 2011, and shouldn’t be discounted as an influence for OWS. The same can be said about Wisconsin, Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen,” he says.
As Priest mentioned, Occupy’s strength is in its broad appeal. Whereas US Uncut was devoted to a very narrow, albeit highly important, issue, Occupy can mean almost anything to anyone, and it’s that all-inclusive nature that appeals to many disillusioned individuals.
“I know there are a lot of people out there who have different agendas that are more pertinent to them, so perhaps Occupy appeals to them in that way,” says Bruce.
This shouldn’t give anyone the impression that US Uncut is by any means defunct, though the group has appropriated the language of Occupy.
“We’re kicking things back up, ironically the week Sundance is happening, teaming up with grassroots groups in over a dozen major cities for actions against corporate tax dodgers,” says Gibson. “Specifically, ones that paid their lobbyists more than they paid in taxes. These allies consist of every facet of the 99 percent, from organized labor, to unemployed and underemployed workers, interfaith groups, clergy, the uninsured and Occupiers. Look for us to hit the streets with national days of action each month leading up to tax day. We’ve got some fun things planned for spring shareholder meetings, too.”
Bruce and Hayes hope to seize upon what they see as a very easy-to-understand, populist message that should outrage the majority of Americans, if only they were properly informed about what’s going on. Corporations, flush with cash, have been very successful in running disinformation campaigns and shielding themselves by claiming they’re not doing anything illegal by tax-dodging, which unfortunately is true.
“Since they have lobbyists, and they have this huge amount of money that they’re able to donate to candidates, and Congress people and presidential campaigns, they have influence over the politicians, and they’re able to basically walk their laws that they want passed into the hands of the Committee members who are writing the tax code. In that way, the extent of influence that the corporations have over politicians is massive. A lot of it has to do with the huge amount of campaign costs, and that’s where the candidates go. They go to the corporations. It’s like a you scratch my back, I scratch yours type of thing,” says Hayes.
Bruce sees the issue of tax-dodging as a morally repugnant thing. “Slavery was legal. Child labor was legal. Now, these corporations are here, they’re using all of our public services, they’re putting a lot of pressure on our infrastructure, all their [employees’] kids use public schools. Don’t they owe something back to the country that’s been making them wealthy?”
The official We’re Not Broke website can be found at: werenotbrokemovie.com.
In late December, more than a half-dozen major museums and organizations, including the Smithsonian Institution and the New York Historical Society, announced they would begin collecting materials produced by the Occupy movement.
The timing seemed odd. Here was a movement in its infancy—not yet four months old—that is still very much ongoing. For example, sixty-eight people were just arrested in Zuccotti Park during a New Year’s protest.
Naturally, the desire to preserve Occupy makes sense. The camps were temporary and any items left from their time are now precious relics any history enthusiast would be eager to examine. But the rush to archive, preserve and endlessly study the Occupy Wall Street movement perhaps also reflects America’s thirst for a grassroots protest, and the belief that any such movement is, by its very nature, extremely temporary.
NYU and Columbia University have both announced they will offer courses on the nascent movement.
Offered by [Columbia’s] Anthropology Department, the course [pdf], called “Occupy the Field,” will offer “training in ethnographic research methods alongside a critical exploration of the conjunctural issues in the Occupy movement: Wall Street, finance capital, and inequality; political strategies, property and public space, and the question of anarchy; and genealogies of the contemporary moment in global social movements.”
[NYU’s] “Cultures and Economies: Why Occupy Wall Street?” lists goals as wide-ranging and frenetic as the protests themselves. According to the class description, students will focus on “economic inequality and financial greed” around the globe. Alright, that’s a honed-in goal —but they’ll examine those in the context of “race, class, gender, sexuality, region, religion and other factors.” It’s a mission statement as diverse as the demands of the actual protesters.
The fact that major education institutions are now hurrying to tailor their curriculum to accommodate an Occupy world is remarkable. Here are universities that normally study protest movements as archaic events — something poor people of color did way back in the day. Once there was a lady named Rosa, and so on.
It’s curious to witness the archival process of a movement that may be merely the opening salvo of a great cultural shift in America. The process of collecting the scraps of Liberty Park has a sense of finality to it. Once there was something called Occupy…
The desire to dissect OWS may reflect the modern era in which everything and all things are consumed at a frantic pace. Sure, Occupy just got off the ground, and is constantly evolving, but the want for information about the movement is overwhelming. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the archiving Occupy might also be a byproduct of Americans’ limited ability to imagine the possibilities of a serious protest movement.
No one, including those of us who have been following Occupy since its first day, truly understands its power. As such, every day of Occupy seems like it might be the last day, which has led countless publications to tirelessly declare the End Of Occupy seemingly every day since September 17.
After all, major protest movements happen in Tunisia, or Egypt or Libya, but not in America. Whatever minor blip occurred in some parks has come and gone and now it’s time to reflect on what the hell happened. That reflection, by the way, is a great thing, and universities and museums should be applauded for recognizing the majorness of OWS.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how Generation Meme handles an ongoing protest movement of Occupy’s magnitude. Barely four months in, Occupy is beginning to lose its shininess and the Smithsonian is hurrying after it with a broom and evidence bag. At least OWS has the luxury of being a protest movement in America, so by its very nature, every action is new and thrilling because it’s someone doing something instead of sitting on the couch.
A funny thing happens when one uses the term “police state” to describe behavior by authorities in response to the Occupy protests. Very Serious Company turns pale and insists that the United States is not turning into a police state—at least not yet. America isn’t North Korea or East Germany or Russia, for goodness sake, Very Serious Company continues. Police don’t physically snatch journalists off the streets and murder them in back alleys, so no one has the right to label the United States a “police state.”
Yet what the Occupy Wall Street protests have helped reveal is that it is this hesitancy to acknowledge the authoritarian behavior of police that gives them cover when they—along with city officials—blatantly violate the rights of citizens.
Wall Street Mercenaries
Back in October, I wrote about how Occupy helped to highlight the problem of disappearing public space. Many Occupy camps (Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston and Zuccotti Park in New York City, for example) were built in parks owned by a mixture of public and private interests, and it was this private half of the partnership that gave authorities cover when they moved in to destroy the camps.
After all, private property is private property. When presented with this aphorism, people tend to imagine dirty hippies wrestling their own beloved possessions from their arms when, in fact, private companies often receive a far sweeter deal with the state than average citizens.
Brookfield Properties, the company that owns Zuccotti Park, owes $139,000 in back taxes. The company, on whose board Mayor Bloomberg’s girlfriend Diana Taylor sits, didn’t pay its taxes in 2009… or 2008… or 2007. Or 2006. This means that Brookfield is permitted to own the land for a song, and taxpayers step in to fill the revenue void. Then, when actual taxpayers attempted to use the land, Mayor Bloomberg’s private army rushed in to immediately defend the land on behalf of Brookfield.
Along with the NYPD, private security contractors such as MSA Security, defended Zuccotti from the First Amendment. Kevin Conner, co-founder of Public Accountability Initiative, reports:
MSA Security (formerly Michael Stapleton Associates), has even stronger ties to the NYPD. MSA Security, which advertises itself as being “In the business of business as usual,” listed Brookfield Properties on its website until a few days ago, but the client list has since been taken down. The google cache is available here. MSA’s clients in the financial sector include AIG, Goldman Sachs, NYSE Euronext (the stock exchange), and Bank of America. It also provides security services to Fox News and a number of real estate firms, including World Trade Center site developer Silverstein Properties.
Retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis refers to the NYPD as “Wall Street mercenaries,” which is an apt title given that JPMorgan Chase made a massive $4.6 million donation to the NYPD, the largest such gift in the history of the New York City Police Foundation.
As massive corporations buy up public space and police forces, protesters are faced with the impossible task of facing off with police who increasingly work on behalf of Wall Street, and not the American people.
Free Speech Zones
In late November, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa released a midnight press release in anticipation of a raid on Occupy LA, which included this line: “During the park closure, a First Amendment area will remain open on the Spring Street City Hall steps.” The absurdity of that statement should be immediately apparent to anyone who understands how real journalism works. Good reporters don’t obediently stand in a “First Amendment area,” deliberately placed far away from the heart of the story. Reporters need to be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with protesters, precisely so they can witness how the police interact with them.
Earlier in the month, journalist Josh Harkinson reported on being alerted to the existence of something called the “frozen zone” when he attempted to cover the eviction of Zuccotti.
A white-shirted officer moved in with a bullhorn. “If you don’t leave the park you are subject to arrest. Now is your opportunity to leave the park.”
Nobody budged. As a lone drum pounded, I climbed up on the wall to get a better view.
“Can I help you?” an burly officer asked me, his helpfulness belied by his scowl.
“I’m a reporter,” I told him.
“This is a frozen zone, all right?” he said, using a term I’d never heard before. “Just like them, you have to leave the area. If you do not, you will be subject to arrest.”
He grabbed my arm and began dragging me off. My shoes skidded across the park’s slimy granite floor. All around me, zip-cuffed occupiers writhed on the ground beneath a fog of chemicals.
“I just want to witness what is going on here,” I yelped.
“You can witness it with the rest of the press,” he said. Which, of course, meant not witnessing it.
“Why are you excluding the press from observing this?” I asked.
“Because this is a frozen zone. It’s a police action going on. You could be injured.”
His meaning was clear. I let myself be hustled across the street to the press pen.
“What’s your name?”
His reply came as fast as he could turn away: “Watch your back.”
The “frozen zone” is an arbitrary title that the NYPD simply made up. Like Villaraigosa’s “First Amendment zone,” it has zero legal merit and was created to suppress the media coverage of the Occupy raids. In early December, Occupiers once again encountered the frozen zone when they turned out to protest outside a swank fundraising dinner starring President Obama (corporate donors paid between $1,000 and $36,000 a plate).
Jeff Smith, a longtime OWS protester, tweeted that the “Free Speech zone has been officially ‘frozen’ until Obama is all clear.”
Journalist Andrew Katz reported that he and Josh Harkinson were escorted by three NYPD officers from 53rd Street and Seventh Avenue because they “weren’t allowed in the frozen zone with about 100 people.”
“I was doing nothing but…doing my job”
In addition to being harassed and intimidated, journalists also have to fear extended detention times, and in some cases, physical abuse. According to Josh Stearns, director at Free Press, thirty-four journalists have been arrested since the beginning of Occupy. While I don’t have the space to tell all of their stories, here are a couple examples of press intimidation by police.
Independent journalist John Knefel, whose work has appeared in Salon, was arrested December 13 for the crime of filming police actions during an Occupy protest. Knefel and a majority of the sixteen others arrested with him were held in prison for more than thirty-six hours. Several members of the Occupy 17, as they’re now called, were punished with extended detention times after they refused en masse to submit to an eye scan.
Along with methods like fingerprinting and mug shots, the NYPD now uses iris scanners as part of an effort to “improve security and safeguard identities.” Jailed individuals are given the option to decline such an eye scan, but warned that doing so may slow down their processing. Knefel told me a couple of the Occupy 17 had to get out of jail quickly to go to their jobs, so they submitted to the scans. The rest of the Occupy 17, however, were held in prison for the full thirty-six hours.
NPR reported on the controvery surrounding eye scanners, namely that the technology could be used for “facial profiling,” concerns over how the massive database of scanned images will be managed, and privacy worries centered around facial recognition software that can easily identify individuals from far away.
Another troubling testimony emerged when Democracy Now! journalist Ryan Devereaux tweeted in disturbing detail abuse he and his colleague suffered at the hands of the NYPD. An officer jammed his fist into Devereaux’s throat and told him to “get the fuck back” despite Devereaux repeatedly informing the officer he’s press. His credentialed cameraman suffered an arguably worse fate when an officer punched him in the kidney three times.
“My neck is red, my press pass was ripped. I was going nothing but standing on the sidewalk doing my job,” Devereaux tweeted.
Since the beginning of Occupy, more than 5,600 people have been arrested and all major Occupy camps have been raided and shut down. The cases of abuse suffered by protesters at the hands of police are literally too numerous to name, but readers surely have images of an officer casually pepper-spraying UC Davis Protesters, and of a pepper-sprayed 84-year-old woman, burned into their minds.
The simple truth that “things could be worse,” can’t distract us from the reality that things are quite bad right now. It’s virtually impossible for protesters to exercise their First Amendment rights, and now it’s increasingly difficult for press (even credentialed press) to report this abuse.
Americans are taught in school that moments of great social change always come when the public demands them, but what happens when the state no longer permits the public to make such demands?
I’ve always suspected that Mayor Bloomberg’s handlers keep him in a giant plastic bubble cut off from world events, but last night confirmed my suspicions when the mayor delivered one of the strangest, tone-deaf performances of his political career. While Occupy chapters in nearly two dozen cities participated in direct actions to reclaim foreclosed homes on behalf of needy families, Bloomberg invited an exclusive media pool to dine at Gracie Mansion for his annual holiday press party, and in order to make light of his recent bad publicity.
Bloomberg has been widely criticized for his handling of Occupy Wall Street’s eviction from Zuccotti Park last month in which reporters were denied access to the park, roughly treated by police, and in some cases, threatened by officers. Rosie Gray, a writer for the Village Voice tried to beg her way into gaining access to the plaza. “I’m press!” Gray reportedly exclaimed, to which a female officer replied, “not tonight.”
Josh Harkinson from Mother Jones had a more intimidating encounter with police. When an officer physically dragged him away from the park, Harkinson demanded to know why he couldn’t observe NYPD actions. “Because this is a frozen zone. It’s a police action going on. You could be injured,” the officer replied.
“What’s your name?” asked Harkinson, to which the officer replied:
“Watch your back.”
In a statement released from Bloomberg’s office on November 17, spokesperson Stu Loesner casually admitted that accredited journalists have been arrested by the city’s police force. Loesner clumsily tried to silence criticism of the mayor by pointing out “only five of the 26 arrested reporters actually have valid NYPD-issued press credentials.” In this statement, Loesner incorrectly assumed the twenty-six arrests all occurred in New York City, thereby accidentally admitting the city had knowingly arrested credentialed press.
The harassment of press opened up new discussion about the city’s procedures to accredit reporters. New York City is famously stingy with handing out press passes, especially to nontraditional outlets such as blogs. I personally had to fight tooth and nail to get mine, and the application process borders on insane. A reporter must present articles, commentaries, books, photographs, videos, films or audio published or broadcast within the twenty-four months preceding the press card application, sufficient to show that applicant covered in person six or more events occurring on separate days. Additionally, applicants must prove they cover events where police lines have been established by the City of New York.
Basically, a reporter must prove he/she crossed a police line before he/she had the means to do so. It’s no easy feat and I was fairly shocked when I secured my pass. As soon as my credentials cleared the laminating machine, I practically ran from the office, convinced there had been some dire error and my press revocation was imminent.
In a sane world, the ongoing harassment and intimidation of press by police and city officials should have inspired Bloomberg to perhaps remain mute when it comes to matters such as the First Amendment and OWS. Yet, he took the opportunity of having a select group of media at Gracie Mansion to mock his authoritarian behavior. Nida Kahn, an independent journalist who attended the event, tweeted that the mayor at one point remarked, “I know only 5 of you in here actually have valid press creds,” an obvious reference to the media storm that erupted after Loesner’s embarrassing statement.
A pack of gross sycophants NY Daily News photographer Todd Maisel generously describes as “reporters” then bestowed the mayor with a rain poncho as a gag gift, perhaps a reference to the familiar uniform of occupiers who oftentimes persevered through harsh weather. Another party attendee bestowed the mayor with a book titled Class Warfare. Bloomberg is frequently called “Mayor One Percent” by occupiers who use the language of class warfare when describing the widening wealth divide in America, and a government system they perceive as being ruled by the financial elite, such as the billionaire Bloomberg.
It’s not surprising that Bloomberg privately expresses open contempt and mockery when talking about OWS. After all, the movement is comprised of his ideological opponents, but it’s sickening that press—any press—would so willingly play the role of obedient lapdogs, and even laugh along while the mayor makes light of his own authoritarian behavior that landed some of their colleagues in jail.
The party in Gracie Mansion serves as a microcosm of the larger problem of co-opted media, in which so-called journalists become the servants of the one percent. Rather than adopting adversarial roles in which reporters constantly approach every government claim with the highest degree of skepticism, reporters allow themselves to be sucked into the world of the ruling elite, including being wined and dined at exclusive clubs. Eventually, it’s hard to play the role of fact-checker on one’s golfing buddies.
Clearly, not all journalists who attended the event thought Bloomberg’s humor was appropriate, but those who stayed, applauded, and went as far as giving the mayor gag gifts should be ashamed of themselves. Laughing in the presence of a creeping city police state should be grounds for immediately revoking a reporter’s press card.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa delivered what has become familiar jiujitsu-like rhetoric used by city officials when they speak about Occupy Wall Street. On the one hand, it’s important to look supportive of the purely democratic movement, while simultaneously indicating a desire to crush the uprising as quickly as possible.
The mayor of Los Angeles congratulated Occupy for “awakening the country’s conscience,” but also invited them to get the hell out by 12:01 am today. After announcing the eviction, Villaraigosa went back to pretending like he cares about Occupy LA, even offering the group some helpful advice.
“The movement is at a crossroads,” the mayor said. “It is time for Occupy LA to move from holding a particular patch of park land to spreading the message of economic justice and signing more people up for the push to restore the balance to American society.”
Neat words of wisdom! However, lost in that thoughtful analysis, of course, is the concept that the only meaningful forms of protest are acts of physical resistance, including camping outside. But I digress.
Mayors responsible for other Occupy raids have used similar rhetoric in the past. Oakland mayor Jean Quan pre-eviction released a statement claiming her administration supports the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and that they too are “part of the 99%,” a remark nearly equalled in hilarity by Mayor Bloomberg pretending to be a sentinel guarding the Constitution by claiming protesters would be permitted to remain in Zuccotti indefinitely.
Both Oakland and New York City’s Occupy camps were ultimately evicted by police.
Following suit, the LAPD, a force that has always remained at the forefront of police militarization, arrived at the Occupy camp in the early hours today. Donning their usual riot gear costumes (helmets, face masks, batons), hundreds of police advanced on thousands of protesters, who had defied the order to disperse by midnight and another instruction to leave City Hall park at 4:45 am.
Police quickly arrested four people who were allegedly part of the groups blocking streets surrounding the park. As the arrests occurred, onlookers chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets!”
However, the park remained relatively calm and officers said their main intention was to clear the streets for morning commuters, but they made no further attempt to evict people from the park. CS Monitor reports that the camp, which has grown to roughly 400 tents, serves as a home for 700 to 800 people, at least one-third of whom are believed to be homeless.
Commander Andy Smith said the LAPD won’t raid the camp anytime soon before remarking, “Let’s go get breakfast,” the AP reports.
In Philadelphia, protesters are also bracing for eviction by city officials. Mayor Michael Nutter set a deadline of 5 pm yesterday, Sunday, for protesters to leave Dilworth Plaza. The eviction date came and went and occupiers hesitantly celebrated the delay.=
Few protesters seemed ready to declare outright victory as they’ve witnessed similar delays in other cities that eventually resulted in early morning raids.
Perhaps the single biggest factor that helped lead to the Occupy movement’s success in capturing the media and public’s attention has been its creativity. Novel protest strategies have served as OWS’s foundation since its first days. The very idea of occupying, and sleeping in, a park twenty-four hours a day was new and exciting.
Up until Occupy, most protests had become exercises in futility. Protesters would show up with their sad, limp carboard signs, march around for a little while—maybe press would show up, but most likely not—and then everyone would go home. Hardly effective stuff.
Even when the protests were massive, say during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, media had learned to ignore protests as being the hallmark of a bygone era of granola-munching hippies. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the media helped hand protesters loss after loss, perhaps recognizing the fact that protest waged within the perimeters constructed by city officials is completely ineffective.
Demonstrators need a permit to march, and even then must remain on the sidewalk and never disrupt traffic; they need a permit to use a bullhorn, a permit to play music, etc. Protesters, in other words, can protest as long as they never disrupt the normalcy of everyday living, which of course defeats the concept of meaningful protest in the first place.
After a while, all protests began to look the same. Protesters show up, march around, chant X or Y slogan, and if it’s super-exciting, clash with the police and everyone goes to jail. Repeat chorus. It’s no wonder the corporately controlled media were so easily able to write off protest culture as being unimportant or ineffective. The horrible truth was, it had become futile.
That is, of course, until Occupy showed up and refused to play by the city-written rules. No, they wouldn’t be getting permits. No, they wouldn’t be going home at curfew. They would remain in camps as permanent monuments to the injustice and inequality of America’s society. There was no “normal” anymore. There was only what Occupy chose to do, and to not do.
Beyond the creativity of the camps themselves with their libraries, clinics, food tents, media centers and very own newspapers, Occupy chapters are full of young protesters who are extremely savvy to what captures the media’s attention.
Hero Vincent, a young man who is one of the more well-known Occupy protesters and who has been arrested four times since the beginning of the occupation, one day casually remarked, “We need a bat signal. The 99%.”
And that idea came to fruition as thousands of protesters marched across the Brooklyn Bridge Friday. (photo by @OccupyJudaism)
Business Insider reports that a single mother of three named Denise Vega volunteered her apartment in a subsidized housing building across the way to set up the projector. When Occupy tried to pay her for the use of her apartment, she refused the money. “This is for the people,” she said.
From Denise’s windowsill, the projector shone the massive “99%” image across the side of the Verizon building. Not only was the image perfect media bait, it served as a profound statement. Verizon, famous for tax dodging and mistreating union members, has been an Occupy target for a long time. Here was the protesters’ chance to not only defiantly march by an archetype of corporate greed but also physically leave a mark, albeit temporary, on Verizon’s face.
The symbolic moment: the candlelight march, the projector’s alternating messages, including, “We are winning,” every element expressed awesome power. You could see it in the faces of the marchers that they had never experienced a profoundly empowering feeling like this before.
And it wasn’t just happening in New York. It was happening everywhere. The projector’s shutter closed and reopened, presenting a new message, “Occupy Earth.”
The Occupy protesters talk about Tahrir and Egypt’s youth not like they’re some foreign, abstract concept, but rather comrades in a common struggle. They express genuine love and solidarity for people who live 5,000 miles away from them, whom they’ll never meet, but with whom they recognize they have more in common with than Bank of America’s CEO.
Perhaps one of the eeriest and most powerful recent Occupy moments occurred when UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi left a press conference in which she was responding to the horrible images and video of UC Davis police officer Lt. John Pike nonchalantly pepper-spraying peaceful protesters.
Students must have been overwhelmingly tempted to shout at the chancellor, or chant “shame,” but such scenes have unfolded a thousand times before, and would have run the risk of being drowned out by similar displays in Oakland, New York City and elsewhere.
Katehi, who hadn’t leaved the press conference for three hours because “the crowd outside was perceived to be hostile,” finally exited the building and was not greeted with lobbed insults or slogans.
Rather, she was greeted with deafening, crushing silence.
Katehi cannot conceal the emotion from her face as she walks past the hundreds of stoic students, the chancellor’s heels clicking upon the pavement serving as the moment’s soundtrack.
When a reporter asks her if she still fears her students, she turns and softly says, “No…no…” But the look in her eyes is unmistakable. She has just attended the funeral of her legacy.
Where Occupy has flourished and other movements have perished is in the group’s refusal to be swept under the rug. Part of this resistance is displayed in moments of pure grit where protesters simply don’t give up when confronted with snow, rain, derision or the unyielding brutality of the police state.
But resistance also occurs when activists adopt guerilla tactics, including non-traditional protest. Much like Anonymous, OWS is a new wave of protest, a direct and significant challenge to the elite who are unaccustomed to such confrontation.
And the one percent find such evolved protest—this kind of global awakening—absolutely bone-chillingly terrifying. If the elites can no longer exploit xenophobia, red state–blue state civil war, racism, sexism or homophobia, how will they keep the underclass bickering while they run off with the country’s wealth?
This is why a well-known Washington lobbying firm with links to the financial industry proposed a $850,000 plan to smear the activists, or as they put it, “opposition research” in order to construct “negative narratives.”
This is also why Mayor Bloomberg had the NYPD raid Liberty Park’s encampment in the dead of night, and perhaps offers a clue as to why he chose yesterday to parade around yet another alleged bad guy, whom the NYPD had been tailing for two years, yet chose Sunday night as a good time for the Big Bust.
As Bloomberg’s popularity wanes, and the public cries out about vanishing First Amendment rights and police brutality, what better time to simulate a terrorist attack on television and remind everyone to remain terrified and compliant to the billionaire mayor and his army?
I’ve seen countless speculations about “What’s next?” for Occupy, but such theorizing is made in vain. No one knows what’s next for Occupy because the group isn’t like any protest movement that came before it. Yes, OWS borrows from concepts like Hooverville and the global justice movement, but in other ways it’s completely new, so speculating about what they’re going to do a month from now is pointless.
However, there has been some indications that in the coming cold winter months, the occupations will move indoors to condemned buildings and foreclosed homes. Such a maneuver would again place Occupy at the forefront of creative protest.
Ever since the wave of foreclosures began, there have always been rogue sheriffs who refused to kick people out of their homes, and community organizers who help move homeless people into abandoned houses, but there has never been a serious, organized national movement to reclaim the homes.
If ever there was a protest group equipped to attempt such a feat, it’s Occupy.
On Sunday afternoon, around twenty-five police in full riot gear stormed an abandoned car dealership on Franklin Street and arrested a group of demonstrators who had been occupying the building. The occupation was “not orchestrated by Occupy Chapel Hill,” according to a flyer handed out to passersby, but was rather an “experiment,” and an extension of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Wielding assault rifles, officers rushed the building at about 4:30 pm, and pointed those weapons at people standing outside, ordering them to put their faces on the ground.
In a statement Sunday night, police said they had been monitoring the building since Saturday night when they learned attendees of an anarchist book fair held this weekend were aligning themselves with Occupy Chapel Hill and that about 70 people had entered the former car dealership.
“Officers also learned that strategies used by anarchists in other communities included barricading themselves in buildings, placing traps in buildings, and otherwise destroying property,” said the statement released by Sgt. Josh Mecimore. “The group in the…building used large banners to obscure the windows to the business and strategically placed members on the roof as look-outs.”
The raid at Chapel Hill illustrates a few interesting aspects that have become systemic to the entire police response to the Occupy movement.
First, there is the conflation of damage to property with “violence,” and it’s unclear how these “traps” or barricades actually damaged the property value of an already abandoned car dealership, but let’s set aside that vague accusation for the time being.
Even if the demonstrators were damaging property, “violence” is usually only considered dire when it’s directed at human beings, not at an abandoned car dealership. If society was to get really serious about “violence” applying to inanimate objects and the environment, then every multinational conglomerate on the face of the earth could be charged as being criminally liable.
Consider major companies that seek to seize private property under eminent domain laws. For example, right now in Nebraska lawmakers are debating tightening eminent domain rules for procuring land during discussions related to the proposed $7 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline. Here we have a major company, TransCanada Corp, proposing destroying property owners’ land, not to mention the environment. Put another way, it’s like dynamiting a billion car dealerships simultaneously. But since the criminals wear suits instead of bandanas across their faces, the police ignore such crimes.
Or ponder the major banks and financial institutions that treated the US economy like a casino over the past few decades. Chopping up crap mortgages and reselling them with stellar ratings resulted in millions of people losing their homes, which now sit on the market, unsold, rotting away. Some might consider that damage to property, too.
The moral of the story is it’s okay to damage property, as long it’s rich people doing the damage, they largely outsource the destruction, and the victims are poor.
Additionally, there are varying degrees of “property damage.” Shattering the window of a Starbucks with a trashcan is not the same as, say, trampling the grass of a park. Badly beating protesters for the crime of brown grass should not be allowed to exist as an official police policy without cities and towns across America first seriously discussing if they think that punishment fits the “crime.”
Second, Chapel Hill helped draw attention to the police state that not only permeates places like New York City and Oakland, but now also places like Chapel Hill, North Carolina, population 57,233 according to the 2010 census.
“It’s like Baghdad!” one Tweeter exclaimed when they saw a photo of police advancing on the former car dealership, assault rifles raised.
The perhaps subconscious implication is that this kind of rough police/military-like treatment is fine when the victims are poor, foreign brown people or maybe even domestic poor brown people, but not for the good, wholesome folk of a city like Chapel Hill.
Ask any Occupy Oakland or Occupy Wall Street protesters if police brutalize demonstrators and they’ll give you the war-torn smirk of a veteran deeply familiar with just how out of control the police state has gotten in this country.
Every seasoned protester has their story of mistreatment: being slapped, kicked, punched, shot with rubber bullets, tear gassed, pepper sprayed or verbally harassed by police dressed in full riot gear and equipped with dangerous weaponry that can land protesters in the hospital in sometimes critical condition, as we saw in the case of veteran Scott Olsen.
Right now, police across the country are permitted to abuse protesters, fairly accountability-free, because Wall Street activists are considered undesirables who need to be suppressed and marginalized.
In Oakland, numerous media outlets report that police routinely cover their badge numbers so they can declare open season on protesters without fear of retribution later. This, combined with the fact that OPD propels tear gas canisters at protesters with the same casual indifference of meter maids handing our parking tickets, means activists are in more danger than ever from the police, and at no other time has there been less chance for accountability.
Before the raid, the Chapel Hill occupiers had drawn up plans to transform the space into a place for civic engagement and public support, including a free store, kitchen, clinic, performance space, school, workshop, library and dormitory. Right before the arrests, the space was hosting a free yoga class.
“Anarchism” does not always imply shattered store windows and scary masked black blocs. Some anarchists base their beliefs in mutual support, sympathy, and solidarity, truly bizarre and foreign concepts to police armed to the teeth with really cool toys designed to violently crush protest. Many police forces would benefit from a course in Anarchism and learning the difference between a peaceful occupation and the black bloc kind.
As Occupy chapters continue to resist nonviolently, Americans are beginning to understand that the police no longer exist to protect and serve but instead to bully, intimidate and crush peaceful dissent. And the justice system, rather than hold the most powerful criminals on Wall Street accountable, aims its scope at the most meager “criminals,” the one inflicting negligible damage—not to human beings but to property.
No other international protests in recent memory (with perhaps the exception of the global justice movement) have enjoyed the worldwide solidarity of the Occupy movements.
Around 1,500 Occupy chapters have sprung up across the globe, and the Internet permits these groups—that sometimes have tens of thousands of miles and oceans between them—to share information and monitor one another’s progress.
It is this success and popularity that attracted Egypt’s activists, who were at the forefront of the new global justice movement during the Arab Spring, to call for an international day of action to defend their revolution. From the Guardian:
In a statement appealing for solidarity from the worldwide Occupy movement that has taken control of public squares in London, New York and hundreds of other cities, campaigners in Egypt claim their revolution is “under attack” from army generals and insist they too are fighting against a “1%” elite intent on stifling democracy and promoting social injustice.
This is a precarious time for both the Egyptian revolution and global Occupy movements. Constant assaults by the military and police, respectively, leave the uprisings vulnerable to becoming purely defensive rather than offensive actions.
State-sponsored sabotage keeps the groups in constant crisis as they attempt to micromanage things like, for example, dangerous addicts in their campsite, who actually may have been introduced to the protest by police in the first place.
Or in the case of Egypt, state-run television broadcasting that “the Christians” had attacked the army, and “honorable” civilians should come and protect them during the Maspiro massacre that left two dozen dead and hundreds more wounded. Journalist Austin G. Mackell writes that what took place outside the Maspiro state television building was “more a case of the army attacking protesters than Muslims attacking Christians.”
But disinformation is something Egypt and Occupy have learned to deal with, whether it’s the right-wing media using the isolated case of a mentally ill homeless man making anti-Semitic statements to depict the entire OWS movement as being anti-Jewish, or the Egyptian army exploiting historical sectarian divisions to undermine the revolution.
Perhaps it is these commonalities that partly inspired Egypt to call for solidarity from the Occupy movement. Now is a critical time for the young revolution, as fear spreads that ruling generals are working to perpetuate their hold on power.
Many Americans might be surprised to learn about the nefarious workings behind the scenes to undercut Egypt’s fledgling democracy.
The military-appointed Cabinet recently introduced proposals to shield armed forces from any oversight and to give generals a veto over legislation dealing with military affairs. Basically, any proposal to cut military spending would first have to be approved by… the military.
These proposals generated tremendous backlash—to the extent that CBS News said the response threatened a “second revolution.”
The media love the romantic imagery of a popular uprising, but tend to shift their attention elsewhere during the critical aftermath, while the nitty-gritty details are sorted out and actually the most productive work begins. During our interview, Mackell likened the revolution to sex and the aftermath to pregnancy. Everyone loves the sex part—not so much the hard work of being knocked up.
And so Egypt looks to bypass the media, and aims its message directly to the “99 percent,” which of course they can do now because of the Internet.
“Again and again the army and the police have attacked us, beaten us, arrested us, killed us,” reads the statement by Egyptian activists. “And we have resisted, we have continued; some of these days we lost, others we won, but never without cost. Over a thousand gave their lives to remove Mubarak. Many more have joined them in death since. We go on so that their deaths will not be in vain.”
The end calls for an international day of action on November 12. “Nine months into our new military repression, we are still fighting for our revolution. Our strength is in our shared struggle. If they stifle our resistance, the 1% will win—in Cairo, New York, London, Rome—everywhere. But while the revolution lives, our imaginations knows no bounds. We can still create a world worth living.”
It’s not uncommon to hear solidarity for Egypt expressed at OWS, and the group prides itself on its inclusiveness. Part of Zuccotti Park is sometimes roped off for Muslims to pray, and the camp also facilitated a crowded Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur, including festive dancing with a scroll on Simhat Torah.
An OWS protester named Sandy Nurse told the Guardian, “The Egyptian people have changed the face of the regime and the revolution is momentous but unfortunately it is far from over. Changing the face of the regime, getting rid of Mubarak, is like changing the curtains: the military is in control of the country and has been for a long time.”
Nurse, who is on the direct action committee of OWS, expressed her personal solidarity with the people of Egypt and added: “I believe Occupy Wall Street would be in solidarity with the continued struggle of the Egyptian protesters.”
Anup Desai, a press spokesman for OWS, said: “The effort put out by the entire country in Egypt gave us motivation. Egypt has won the first step. I was not aware what was happening so I am grateful for this opportunity to learn and I thank the Egyptian activists. What is happening with the military and the military courts is 100% wrong and we need to share this and tell people about it.”
Desai, who is also a professor of philosophy at City University of New York, expressed solidarity with the activists and said: “We need to keep coming together.”
Part of what makes Occupy so powerful is its refusal to honor the nationalistic divisions of our global history. Young activists are increasingly educated about the west’s brutal subversion of foreign lands, including Middle Eastern and northern African countries, and they are learning about the injustice committed by the United States.
Occupy activists are much more interested in the commonality of causes than in flag-waving and chest-thumping, and it is that reality that makes the movements in Egypt and the Occupy chapters so incredibly dangerous to the ruling class.
Imagine a world in which individuals are more concerned with justice than nationalism.