Are Federal Officials Pushing a Nationwide Crackdown on the Occupy Wall Street Movement?
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Several news stories this week raised the possibility that local and federal law enforcement agencies had coordinated a series of crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street camps across the country. The tale set off a wave of dark speculation. Were cities under some sort of federal orders to evict their local occupiers? Had “the establishment” finally had enough? Was Barack Obama, conveniently out of the country during the raids, ultimately responsible for clearing out campers in New York , Oakland, Denver, Salt Lake City, Portland and several other municipalities over the past few days?
The narrative began to gel when Oakland Mayor Jean Quan casually mentioned to the BBC that she'd taken part in a conference call with officials from 18 other cities to discuss what to do with their respective occupiers. Then, the Examiner offered a story, based on an anonymous Justice Department source, about how federal agencies (Homeland Security and the FBI) had offered assistance to local police, including advice that officials justify the crackdowns by citing health and safety issues and avoid setting fixed deadlines that would allow occupiers to rally their supporters before cops moved in.
MoJo's Andy Kroll confirmed that the US Conference of Mayors had organized two conference calls between various city officials, and the Associated Press reported that the Police Executive Research Forum had organized two additional calls to discuss what tactics to employ in the raids.
On Tuesday, I got word that a source within Mayor Quan's office was willing to talk, off-the-record, about this "coordinated" effort to smash the movement. It turned out that the adviser had no firsthand knowledge of the conference call that Quan participated in. But he noted that this kind of information-sharing – swapping intelligence, tactics and strategies – is simply a routine part of modern law enforcement, especially in the post-9/11 era. “I don't really understand why this is a story,” he told me. “We have emails, we have phones, there are various list-servs that cops and city officials – and, yes, DHS – use to talk to each other about all sorts of problems that are common to our cities.” He added: “Why would anyone think we don't talk?” In other words: the story is much ado about nothing at all.
Of course, if federal authorities were ordering cities to crack down on their local occupations in a concerted effort to wipe out a movement that has spread like wildfire across the country, that would indeed be a huge, and hugely troubling story. In the United States, policing protests is a local matter, and law enforcement agencies must remain accountable for their actions to local officials. Local government's autonomy in this regard is an important principle.
But that's not what is being alleged. The Examiner article that got so many tongues wagging noted that “while local police agencies had received tactical and planning advice from national agencies, the ultimate decision on how each jurisdiction handles the Occupy protests ultimately rests with local law enforcement.” Andy Kroll reported that officials from several of the cities that have seen recent crackdowns denied that they'd participated in the calls. And occupations remain strong in other cities across the country. Ironically, the occupation that arguably maintains the best relationship with local officials is Occupy DC, and the Washington, DC government is directly overseen by Congress.
Which leaves us with advice being passed around among various agencies about how best to approach an eviction – or, as Jean Quan's staffer put it, “Why would anyone think we don't talk?”
That local officials have lost patience with the occupations in various cities is not news. In Oakland, everyone knew another raid was imminent – the mayor's office had been under intense pressure to clear the plaza for well over a week. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had signaled that an eviction was likely for some time.
That they justify crackdowns with exaggerated tales of protesters' perfidy – violence, and in the case of the occupations, health and safety violations – is not news at all. Police justified violent attacks on the civil rights movement by claiming that it was run by Communists. Protesters against the Vietnam War were demonized as treasonous freaks and accused of spitting on returning vets – a story that many who were involved in that movement say never happened.
And while recent raids have shared certain characteristics, their executions have varied. On Monday, Oakland officials leaked the exact time of the raid beforehand, and it was covered by a ton of media. New York officials had kept plans to raid Zuccotti Park a closely guarded secret and tried to block media coverage. Perhaps they got the same advice, but their planning was obviously different.
Ultimately, “coordination-gate” is reminiscent of one of the Right's silliest contrived psuedo-scandals: their dark ruminations about the “Journo-list.” In that one, a list-serv on which several dozen liberal academics and opinion writers – and maybe two to three “neutral” journalists who rarely participated – exchanged views, talked sports and made fun of conservatives. When it was then “unearthed” by Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller, this extremely typical email archive became a massive conspiracy to manipulate the news within the fever swamp of conservative blogs and talk radio.
Occupy Wall Street and its supporters have bigger fish to fry. Absent any suggestion that federal officials are in fact pressuring local governments to crack down on the Occupy movement, this story is simply a distraction.
But the recent spate of raids highlight some extremely troubling issues. In New York, police appear to have violated both state law and the First Amendment by denying credentialed journalists the ability to cover a major law enforcement action, and in several cases actually placed them under arrest. Reports of widespread use of excessive force against protesters have emerged in New York, Denver, Portland and Oakland, where the ACLU and National Lawyers guild are suing in an attempt to get the police department to follow its own crowd control guidelines. And while several years ago a federal district court in New York ruled that homeless activists camping on city streets were engaging in an "expressive political activity" guaranteed by the First Amendment, cities across the country are using local camping ordinances to step on occupiers' rights with little public controversy.
It is those issues, rather than a speculative narrative that doesn't conform to the facts on the ground, that should be the subject of our attention.