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

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.)

“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.”

Michael Ratner noted that the idea of protesters being unclean has a long history in this country, that various generations of immigrants were described as dirty, as outsiders, as not really American. “What it does is it paints the protesters as a dangerous infection in america that has to be cut out, it's like saying they're a cancer or radioactive, that's saying they're not part of our country, not part of our tradition of protest.”

Some of the items “cleaned” out of Liberty Plaza in New York were over 5000 books, thrown into the back of a garbage truck by the sanitation workers, and winding up at the Department of Sanitation in a heap, according to reporter Melissa Gira Grant, mangled and smelling of gasoline and shrimp.

Occupy Wall Street librarian Betsy Fagin wrote of her experience trying to reclaim items from the city:

“What happened at Liberty Park wasn’t just clearing a park of a bunch of campers or people leaving piles of books around, it was an attempt to sever the ties of love, community and support that had taken root and begun to grow.”

Cleanliness, obviously, wasn't a concern for the city if it could simultaneously toss thousands of books into a trash truck and then allow protesters to pick through them at their leisure to reclaim their personal items.

Instead, it seems that the real contagion is community, as Fagin said, but more than that, the very idea of fighting back. Whether it's a mayor shutting down an occupation in his or her city or a businessman complaining that his workers want to collectively bargain, the idea that people might work together appears to be, itself, a hazard.

Collective action, after all, is the thing that is spreading from the Occupy camps around the cities and towns where they've begun, with giant marches spinning off into campaigns to move your money out of the big banks, to reoccupy foreclosed homes and protest student debt. Collective action itself is contagious.

Now that the camps have been cleared in LA and New York and many other of the biggest cities, it remains to be seen what pretext will be used to crack down on protesters as they move to different tactics. But as Ratner noted, the language of dirt, of disease and contagion, has a long history in this country and will not go away easily.

Ratner said, “It's a bad pretext, because it goes back to the larger theme, which is to make protest dirty.”  

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