Occupy Crackdowns: Naomi Wolf's Response to My Critique Largely Evades the Issue at Hand

It's disappointing that Naomi Wolf's response to my criticism of her November 25 Guardian column – and earlier blog-post -- doesn't address the many misstatements of fact, logical leaps and baseless assertions which I highlighted.

Wolf instead spends much time on a general discussion of heightened federal surveillance and the increased coordination between federal and local law enforcement agencies, which she says I am naïve not to acknowledge, and devotes an enormous amount of space to establishing that federal law enforcement agencies have had some sort of role in at least monitoring the Occupy Movement and offering some guidance to local law enforcement agencies.

She claims repeatedly and falsely that I wrote that DHS had “no involvement whatsoever,” when I acknowledged that DHS had reportedly offered advice to local law enforcement agencies. All of the paragraphs she devotes to discussing the Freedom of Information request filed by the National Lawyers Guild – and the fact that DHS hasn't denied any role – are wasted space. DHS officials have stated that they had some minimal supporting role. That isn't in dispute.

So it appears that Wolf glosses over the debate at hand. The question is not whether federal law enforcement agencies had some role in assisting cities that chose to raid their occupations; the issue in dispute, as I made crystal clear in my critique, is whether any outside agency had “some unseen hand directing, incentivizing or coercing municipalities to [crack down] when they would not otherwise be so inclined.”

The difference is not, as some of Wolf's defenders have suggested, a matter of semantics or a minor distinction. Aside from the fact that federal encroachment into what are strictly matters for local law enforcement is a serious assault on our federal system, whereas advising local officials is not, we have seen brutal instances of police brutality, and some blatant contempt for Americans' Constitutional rights. Contrary to Wolf's claims, there remains no evidence that the fault for these abuses lies anywhere but with city and police officials in New York, Oakland, Denver and elsewhere, but Wolf would deflect our attention from these officials who in fact bear ultimate responsibility for their decisions, onto a non-profit police research organization, the House Homeland Security Committee and DHS. This is an important story to get right.

My criticism rested on Wolf's reckless disregard for the available facts, a tendency towards inaccuracy that she displays in the very second paragraph of her response:

Holland's main premise is that I am part of a "flurry of speculation" that is without basis in fact, and that there was no federal involvement in the crackdown. I cited evidence that DHS was on the 18-member conference call of mayors, which Oakland Mayor Jean Quan alluded to in an interview with the BBC on 15 November, and my source was Wonkette on 15 November. Holland argues that his assertion to contrary has been qualified, and I am happy to adjust the citation accordingly.

Nobody has suggested that DHS took part in the two conference calls organized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. It wasn't suggested in the Wonkette post Wolf references as her source (serious journalism that featured a Darth Vader Youtube video), or anywhere else.

Jean Quan alluded to – and others subsequently confirmed – the fact that 18 mayors participated in two calls organized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors to discuss a variety of issues surrounding the Occupy Movement. These were not calls devoted solely to talking about evictions -- although we can assume that was among the topics covered -- and there has been no indication that DHS participated in those calls by anyone other than Naomi Wolf.  

She confuses that credibly reported fact with a second story, from the Examiner.com blog, which said that a series of crack-downs were “coordinated with help from Homeland Security, the FBI and other federal police agencies.” (That same post noted, “the ultimate decision on how each jurisdiction handles the Occupy protests ultimately rests with local law enforcement.” In a follow-up post, the same author, Rick Ellis, wrote that his sources assured him that “DHS is not actively coordinating with local governments or police agencies on the 'Occupy' evictions.”)

Wolf also devotes a lot of space to a general discussion of recent history – claiming, for example, that I am “unaware of the billions that DHS has pumped into domestic police forces,” or that DHS has established a so-called “downtown security zone” in Manhattan. These are widely reported issues, which are all irrelevant to the narrow question of whether any outside force compelled any city to move against an occupation on which city officials did not themselves choose to crack down.

Similarly, Wolf says my criticism is “ahistorical,” and then cites a long list of previous instances where federal officials also played no direct role in the local policing of protests -- they offered advice and monetary assistance but, as appears to be the case here, they didn't direct, coerce or otherwise compel the cities to do anything local officials didn't opt to do.

But historical determinism is also dangerous. In his own criticism of Wolf's column, political scientist Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, offers some history that Wolf would be wise to take to heart. “Like many critics of state coercion in America,” writes Robin, “Wolf seems to assume that political repression requires or entails national coordination and centralized direction from the feds. But ...that notion gets it wrong.”

From the battles over abolition to the labor wars at the turn of the last century to the Red Squads of the twentieth-century police departments to the struggles over Jim Crow, state repression in America has often been decentralized, displaying that very same can-do spirit of local initiative that has been celebrated by everyone from Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam. Though Tocqueville and Putnam were talking of course about things like creating churches and buildings roads, the fact is: if the locals can build a church or a road on their own, they can also get rid of dissenters on their own, too, no?

Even where there has been coordination and direction from above, as in the epic cases of the Red Scare, McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, or now the War on Terror, what’s been most striking is how local police and officials have managed to manipulate that federal involvement to their own ends.

This gets off track, however, as my criticism of Wolf's piece was based on the many inaccuracies in her writing – it was not intended to be a “historical” analysis. Just consider the substantive points I raised which she left unaddressed.

In her November 22 blog post, Wolf claimed that “municipal police are being pushed around by a shadowy private policing consultancy affiliated with DHS,” in reference to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). She added: “municipal police are being forced to comply with brutal orders from this corporate police consultancy, by economic pressure.”

I noted that PERF – a non-profit whose most recent available tax filings reveal a modest $6 million annual budget for 2009 – is a research and membership organization that organizes meetings and conference calls and issues reports. It has no police powers whatsoever and certainly can't issue “brutal orders” to anyone. I als noted how tenuous the connection between the organization and DHS really is.

Wolf ignored this substantive cricism entirely in her response.

In her November 25 Guardian column, Wolf claims that Rep Peter King, R-New York, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, “told the DHS to authorise mayors to order their police forces – pumped up with millions of dollars of hardware and training from the DHS – to make war on peaceful citizens.”

I noted that while the committee has oversight of the agency, the chain of command goes up to Janet Napolitano – Congress doesn't have any control over day-to-day operations and can't order DHS to do anything. I also noted that mayors require no “authorization” to order their police forces to do anything – the authority is theirs.

Wolf's only substantive response to this criticism is to note that members of Congress “also draft legislation.” That's indisputably true, but wholly unresponsive to the point.

Wolf claimed that a proposal to smear the Occupy Movement prepared by CLGC, a lobbying firm, for the American Bankers' Association was evidence of her nationwide crackdown. I simply noted that a proposal prepared by a private company – which was reportedly rejected – is irrelevant to a discussion of what the government is or is not doing.

Wolf's response is two-fold. First, she notes that this proposal “was written by sophisticated and connected political insiders,” including lobbyists who formerly worked for Speaker John Boehner. Then, she says that I was “journalistically careless” because she was also referring the "'message coordination' that I was witnessing as rightwing commentators on television shows were using similar soundbites.” This again, is irrelevant to her theory that the federal government is mounting a nationwie crackdown (right-wing commentators are always on-message).

So, what we're left with, after thousands of words back and forth, is what we began with:

* There are reports that federal law enforcement agencies are offering advice to local law enforcement agencies.

* Some police officials participated in two conference calls set up by PERF, a police think-tank.

* The US Conference of Mayors set up two additional conference calls to discuss various issues surrounding the Occupations.

Maybe the FOIA requests Wolf makes so much of will reveal more. Maybe they won't. Until then, we should keep our focus on the city and police officials who appear to be wholly responsible for these often violent crack-downs. 

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