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?