News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

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.

When the police came to raid Occupy Los Angeles, they wore white hazmat suits, sealed away inside extra layers of material designed to protect against biological hazards, radiation, or chemicals.

They looked like aliens, or astronauts.

Not all of them of course; there were still typical riot-suited officers. 1400 police in all came in to clear out the camp that LA's mayor had encouraged at first.

But the hazmat suits stuck out, not just because they were bright white against the darkness (like all the major Occupy raids, this one took place in the middle of the night), but because they seemed a final literal representation of the argument used against Occupy for months now. Disease. Contagion. Dirt.

“An audible gasp went up from people who were observing,” Rev. Peter Laarman, executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting and part of Occupy LA's Interfaith Sanctuary Support Network, told me. “When those white-suited hazmat people came running from a corner of the police station we weren't aware of, it was apocalyptic.”

Occupy LA's camp was directly across from what Laarman called the “spanking new, dare I say antiseptic” police headquarters, and he and other clergy were standing with public information officers, trying to get into the park, when they saw the suits come in.

“It's completely nuts. They've been busting demonstrations since the beginning of this country, and I've never heard of wearing a hazmat suit,” Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told me.

Indeed, the protesters themselves were treated as a sort of biohazard; according to some reports, all 292 arrestees were swabbed for DNA and the hazmat suits may have been connected to this. Ratner said, “What kind of business do they have taking DNA from people who were protesting a park? To build up a mug book for trespassers?” If the reports are true, he said, it's probably unconstitutional. (Police have denied reports that DNA was taken.)

“It was a display, a very pointed message to the public which is we are cleansing this for you,” Laarman said, noting that Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles' mayor, who had been publicly supportive of Occupy in the early days, needed to make a point to moderate to conservative voters across the state in case he's considering a run for higher office. 

Indeed, the mayor's post-raid statement seemed to congratulate both the police and the protesters, crediting the LAPD as “a shining example of constitutional policing” and saying “Instead of grinding to a halt amid confrontation, the Occupy LA movement can now amplify their calls for social justice and economic opportunity.”

But Laarman disagreed. “The thing that is enraging me is the tone of self-congratulation that it was a peaceful orderly police operation. It was not that. It was terrifying, and people were hurt,” he said. “There were a thousand officers inside the inner park, leaning over these cowering kids who were all seated peacefully with arms locked, teeth chattering, they were afraid.”

It's For Your Health

Villaraigosa is hardly the first mayor to use health and cleanliness as an excuse for clearing out an Occupy protest camp, though he is certainly the first to make it so literal. Mayor Bloomberg in New York also used health concerns for his final attack on Liberty Plaza, though none of the plagues he claimed were afflicting the activists in the plaza proved to be true.

Earlier in October, the first showdown with Bloomberg over the park took place under the guise of cleaning—and the occupiers called the Mayor's bluff by investing $3000 in cleaning supplies and enlisting additional volunteers to make Zuccotti Park the cleanest in New York. (It didn't hurt that thousands of union workers and other supporters turned up at 5 AM to face down the police with the occupiers, either.)