Policing the 99%, and Occasionally Finding Common Ground
The spread of the Occupy movement, and its increasing popularity, shows that not only do Americans want Wall Street held accountable for its role in the economic crisis and ensuing recession, but it's painfully clear to that there has been no accountability — and more and more Americans are beginning to understand why. Glenn Grenwald explained in a post that's been republished all over the web that the wealthy subverted the legal system, resulting in what Robert Scheer called "thirty years of unleashed greed".
Today, it is glaringly obvious to a wide range of Americans that the wealth of the top 1% is the byproduct not of risk-taking entrepreneurship, but of corrupted control of our legal and political systems. Thanks to this control, they can write laws that have no purpose than to abolish the few limits that still constrain them, as happened during the Wall Street deregulation orgy of the 1990s. They can retroactively immunize themselves for crimes they deliberately committed for profit, as happened when the 2008 Congress shielded the nation’s telecom giants for their role in Bush’s domestic warrantless eavesdropping program.
It is equally obvious that they are using that power not to lift the boats of ordinary Americans but to sink them. In short, Americans are now well aware of what the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Illinois’s Dick Durbin, blurted out in 2009 about the body in which he serves: the banks “frankly own the place.”
If you were to assess the state of the union in 2011, you might sum it up this way: rather than being subjected to the rule of law, the nation’s most powerful oligarchs control the law and are so exempt from it; and increasing numbers of Americans understand that and are outraged. At exactly the same time that the nation’s elites enjoy legal immunity even for egregious crimes, ordinary Americans are being subjected to the world's largest and one of its harshest penal states, under which they are unable to secure competent legal counsel and are harshly punished with lengthy prison terms for even trivial infractions.
Case in point: banker arrests, 0; protester arrests: 2,511. Just to be clear, as Bruce Johnson spelled out, that's " 2,511 people arrested for disturbing the peace and related activities," and " no arrests for any of the financiers who broke the law and plunged millions into untold misery." DailyKos featured an even starker comparison. via Ragan Fox on Twitter.
Last weekend, 100 more OSW activists were arrested. The total number of OSW-related arrests is approaching 3,000. I if these events were happening elsewhere, and these images were being beamed to the U.S. from across the globe, as one Twitter user pointed out, the media and political elite would be condemning police violence against unarmed protesters who were merely exercising what in this country are still enshrined as basic rights.
As Naomi Klein pointed out while writing of her own arrest, the images and footage of police violence against OWS protesters is a rude awakening for Americans that our country is beginning to look more and more like part of the world we were used to hearing about on the news.
In the worst incident so far, hundreds of police, dressed in riot gear, surrounded Occupy Oakland's encampment and fired rubber bullets (which can be fatal), flash grenades and tear-gas canisters - with some officers taking aim directly at demonstrators. The Occupy Oakland Twitter feed read like a report from Cairo's Tahrir Square: "they are surrounding us"; "hundreds and hundreds of police"; "there are armoured vehicles and Hummers". There were 170 arrests.
My own recent arrest, while obeying the terms of a permit and standing peacefully on a street in lower Manhattan, brought the reality of this crackdown close to home. America is waking up to what was built while it slept: Private companies have hired away its police (JPMorgan Chase gave $4.6m to the New York City Police Foundation); the federal Department of Homeland Security has given small municipal police forces military-grade weapons systems; citizens' rights to freedom of speech and assembly have been stealthily undermined by opaque permit requirements.
Suddenly, the United States looks like the rest of the furious, protesting, not-completely-free world. Indeed, most commentators have not fully grasped that a world war is occurring. But it is unlike any previous war in human history: for the first time, people around the world are not identifying and organising themselves along national or religious lines, but rather in terms of a global consciousness and demands for a peaceful life, a sustainable future, economic justice and basic democracy. Their enemy is a global "corporatocracy" that has purchased governments and legislatures, created its own armed enforcers, engaged in systemic economic fraud, and plundered treasuries and ecosystems.
But it's important to understand that the arrests part of story that is more complex than "the police vs. everybody else."
As I wrote in the previous post, this is a story about the policing of the 99 percent by the 99 percent. And the police are the 99 percent, too. Bryce Covert, at New Deal 2.0, writes that not only are police officers part of the 99 percent, but even the top 1 percent of the is still in the 99 percent. Not only are they living with the consequences of the economic crisis caused by Wall Street, but they are contending with the very conditions that motivate the protesters.
A bunch of states, including New York, are pushing their budget crunches onto cities, who in turn are scrambling to find places to slim down. And many have turned to benefits, pay, and jobs for public workers who had nothing to do with causing the budget holes. After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided not to restore $302 million in aid to New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has asked city agencies to find $2 billion in cuts. And he’s warned before that the NYPD may have to shrink because of the tight budget. “We cannot afford the size [of the] police force, fire department, of any of these agencies if we have a $400 million deficit,” he said in April.
The police force knows that lawmakers have set their sights on it. In fact, when the police in Albany refused to arrest protesters, an official brought this very subject up. “We don’t have those resources, and these people were not causing trouble,” he said.
Violence is not the only story. There have been moments when police have pushed back against pressure from elected officials, to arrest peaceful protesters. Covert notes that in Albany, NY, police refused to make arrests.
In a tense battle of wills, state troopers and Albany police held off making arrests of dozens of protesters near the Capitol over the weekend even as Albany's mayor, under pressure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration, had urged his police chief to enforce a city curfew.
… At the Capitol, in anticipation of possibly dozens of arrests, a State Police civil disturbance unit was quietly activated, according to officials briefed on the matter but not authorized to comment publicly. But as the curfew neared, the group of protesters estimated at several hundred moved across an invisible line in the park from state land onto city property.
"We were ready to make arrests if needed, but these people complied with our orders," a State Police official said. However, he added that State Police supported the defiant posture of Albany police leaders to hold off making arrests for the low-level offense of trespassing, in part because of concern it could incite a riot or draw thousands of protesters in a backlash that could endanger police and the public.
"We don't have those resources, and these people were not causing trouble," the official said. "The bottom line is the police know policing, not the governor and not the mayor."
There have also been moments when police officers recognized their common ground with the protesters. In Oakland, where 24-year-old Iraq War Veteran Scott Olsen was injured by a police projectile, the police chief has visited Olsen in the hospital and the Oakland Police Officers' association wrote an open letter to the citizens of Oakland declaring "We too are the 99%."
We represent the 645 police officers who work hard every day to protect the citizens of Oakland. We, too, are the 99% fighting for better working conditions, fair treatment and the ability to provide a living for our children and families. We are severely understaffed with many City beats remaining unprotected by police during the day and evening hours.
Mother Jones' Josh Harkinson spent some time talking to NYPD officers, and found some of them torn between following orders and sympathizing with the protesters.
"We are all in this together," says an off-duty cop—let's call him Jim—who described himself to me as a 99 percenter and supporter of the occupation. Jim says he believes that most of his fellow officers feel the same. "We have no problems with what goes on there," he says.
Jim has stubble, thinning hair, and circles under his eyes. He's been posted to Occupy Wall Street since Day One, and all the mandatory overtime is wearing him down. "I'm really working hard for this," he says. "I'm getting yelled at, I'm getting cursed out; I'd rather be at home with my family right now."
And yet he understands that the same group that's squaring off against him at Zuccotti is fighting for his future. A 10-year NYPD veteran who helped escort people out of the Twin Towers on 9/11, Jim has seen his retirement fund cut in half by a declining stock market, from $40,000 to $20,000. He worries that his kids won't be able to afford college or find jobs. And he's frustrated about not being able to talk about it openly. "We're getting lost in the shuffle," he says, pointing out that other public-sector unions, unlike his own, have backed OWS. "We are in a union as well, and we are not rich."
Harkinson writes of how the protesters in Zuccotti Park have worked hard to reach out to police officers, and police officers expressing their understanding of the protesters' cause — even using the protesters' "people's mic" to make a announcements, and adopting their hand signals for communication.
...On Monday, I found John de Clef Piñeiro, a former high-ranking New York Housing Authority official, standing on the steps of Zuccotti Park in a sharp pinstriped suit and holding a large sign directed at the men in blue. "Your pay, job security, and pensions are at risk, just like ours," it said. "We are not the enemy." Piñeiro told me he'd been to the park four times with the sign. "If I can prevent someone from getting maced in the face because the police realize they are part of the 99 percent, I have accomplished something."
I have taken part in "occupy"-style protests in the past, and I can tell you close proximity and regular contact between police and protesters leads to inevitable efforts on both sides to improve communications. Familiarity, in these situations doesn't always breed contempt, but leads to cooperation when both sides understand that neither really wants anyone to get hurt or anything bad to happen. That communication could lead to understanding, too — especially if congressional conservatives keep blocking efforts to project the jobs of public workers like teachers, firefighters …. and police officers.
This is a story of the policing of the 99 percent, by the 99 percent, on behalf of the 1 percent. The police are the 99 percent, too. They are the 1 percent, but they are called into action by state and local lawmakers who are every bit as beholden to the 1 percent as anybody in Congress, or the White House.