Fighting Back: Occupy Wall Street Sues New York City, JP Morgan

One of the continuing and largely unrecognized aspects of the ongoing media coverage of Occupy Wall Street is that police brutality and lesser abuses have been airbrushed out.


In the early days of the movement when the number participating was small, it was overly aggressive policing that put them on the map. YouTube clips of women who were already kettled being pepper sprayed and arrests of people on Brooklyn Bridge went viral. Later arrests from a march across Brooklyn Bridge garnered more sympathy when reconstruction of events showed that the protestors had actually been directed by police to walk on the roadway, setting them up to be incarcerated. The real eye opener was when Oakland police critically wounded Iraq war vet Scott Olsen while using tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades to clear Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, with no evidence of any provocation by the protestors.

The powers that be quickly realized their error. When Zuccotti Park was cleared on November 15 as part of a coordinated, national, quasi military crackdown, journalists were not only kept well away from the park, the few that managed to get inside the cordon were roughed up and arrested despite identifying themselves as members of the media. While there were some videos of police assaulting protestors during this period (see this example), major media fell into line, in many cases cheering the efficiency of the policing. In the case of the New York Times, this appears to have resulted from Times journalists having been embedded in the operation.

The heavy handed assaults and media control is meant to convey the message that defiance is useless. Yet this is turning into a protracted struggle over the legitimacy of authority. We’ve commented before on how these crackdowns consume a lot of tax dollars at a time when municipal budgets are already being cut. And they wind up being even more costly than most imagine, because the courts have generally been sympathetic to protestors who are injured in the course of unwarranted police roughings-up, particularly now that what really happened is caught more often than before on smart phone video cameras. The point is a little police overzealousness over time leads to not cheap settlements.

A less costly but nevertheless important front for pushing back is via suits against police violations of Constitutional rights. Bloomberg reports that two cases were filed today, one against four New York City council members, JP Morgan, Brookfield Properties, and Mayor Bloomberg over the use of excessive force by police and denial of constitutional rights. OWS also filed a separate suit against police chief Ray Kelly by five protestors seeking class action status over detention of protestors when they were “never charged with any violation, misdemeanor or crime.”

This may on the surface appear to be a quixotic salvo against overwhelming police/bureaucratic force. But this is actually part of a war of attrition. The real game here is to undermine the legitimacy of authority by putting a spotlight on their illegitimate actions. As Richard Kline wrote on an earlier post:

"One has to erode the legitimacy of those in the wrong before public opinion shifts sufficiently for their efficacy to sag. This isn’t a linear process, which is why polling is really, really stupid about things most of the time. Supposing some of your friends went down and cop just haulded off and slammed them in the kisser with a baton. Do you think they’d sue? Of course. They wouldn’t see the cop as just doing his job: they only see that when he’s doing his job on somebody else. So in fact, they’re _not_ indifferent to injustice but insulated from it.

Part of a social change movement is pulling out handfuls of insulation—or more often about the police burning it. I know that this isn’t a very satisfying rebutal to your concerns, which are real, but the fact is that you do influence people wearing that symbol simply by being a reasonable person endorsing something which isn’t the same tired bullshit. You can’t know the incremental effect you have until the shift comes. And yes, it may take years. In Egypt, they’d been organizing (in far more difficult conditions) for five years before The Big Unwind. The point is for the Occupation Movement to maintain intitiative and keep the pressure on. The authorities only have a limited playbook, and no solutions whatsoever."

It remains to be seen whether the Occupy movement has the staying power to effect or foment lasting change. But with unemployment high (reducing the stakes to participation in protests) and the elites far more keenly interested in the needs of the 1% than those of ordinary citizens, there is plenty of dry timber for a spark to set off a bigger conflagration.

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