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Hazmat Suits to Break Up Occupations? How Mayors Feign Concern for Health to Trash a Growing Movement

Mayors and police around the country have pretended public health is the reason for shutting down Occupy protests, but their actions belie their words.

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“I went through that park, it was less dirty than my street,” Ratner noted.

All over the country, the complaints from mayors about cleanliness, hygeine and health seem to bump up against actual practices by the police and mayors. In Boston this week, an industrial sink donated to the occupation reportedly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after the health inspector said they needed one for their kitchen was confiscated by police.

And in Chicago in October, all concerns for public health went out the window when Mayor Rahm Emanuel's police department arrested nurses from National Nurses United, who had set up a first-aid tent in the park with the occupiers. A sophisticated health tent also supported by the nurses' union as well as actual medical doctors, providing flu shots and other medical treatment for free, was part of what went in the trash at Liberty Plaza in New York as well.

The claims of health concerns, it seems, just don't add up. Laarman said, “They haven't given a satisfactory reason for the hazmat suits. A lot of people have had colds or what they call Occu-flu,” but the stories of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or other infections seem farfetched at best. He pointed out that the entire time the camp has existed, police officers have been in and out, both undercovers and even uniformed officers, and that they would be well aware of what was going on in the camp.

“We had a health tent, it was very accessible,” he continued. “One of the irritants about the city's complaining is that we did ask many times for them to send social workers. The camp was blocks from Skid Row, LA is the homeless capital, and we had some people who clearly needed mental health attention, we asked the city to help us with that and they did nothing.”

“In my view it's using safety and health as a pretext for violating First Amendment rights,” Ratner said. “It's saying that you have First Amendment rights but you're exercising them in a dirty way and therefore we have the right to shut you down.”

And those traditional guardians of the First Amendment, the media, have been for the most part willing to go along. Reports from LA include media outlets repeating that the “ stench of urine” was left behind, that officers feared protesters might fling urine and feces at them, that there were diseases in the park to be avoided.

Yet Villaraigosa himself has admitted that there were no health violations found by inspectors in the park. 

Laarman, who was standing next to the public information officers outside of the park as the spoke to the media, said, “They know these people and they were massaging them and telling them exactly what the story would be in advance, which is why the stories also were sanitized.”

Laarman noted, “It's the language of sanitize and cleanse and the never-quite stated assumption that occupiers are disease-ridden beasts.”

Illness in the Body Politic

It's not just Occupy that the 1% perceives as a disease. Just this week, the CEO of American Crystal Sugar compared unions to cancer, saying:

“I’m not saying a labor contract is cancer, but it affects you, it will drag you backward, you can’t do what you need to do. And I’m not saying we’re trying to get rid of the labor contract, we are not about union-busting. Take that one home with you, we are not about union-busting, but we can’t let the labor contract make us sick for ever and ever and ever. We have to treat the disease and that’s what we’re doing here.”