Commentary by Gar Smith / The Berkeley Daily Planet – 2011-12-18 23:48:03
(December 15, 2011) — I don’t know about you, but I’m getting fed up with these self-important gangs of masked, black-clad agitators running roughshod over our city streets. They’ve occupied parks, shut down roadways, vandalized private property, assaulted law-abiding citizens and left entire communities afraid to venture into financially struggling downtown business districts. They’ve wielded spray cans and left behind eyesores that have incensed the community.
I am speaking, of course, about the police.
It’s one thing if a group of political anarchists walks into a bank and spray-paints slogans on vaults and filing cabinets. It’s another thing when police march into a peaceful tent encampment brandishing batons and pepper-spray.
Question: What’s the difference between a cop and an anarchist?
Answer: An anarchist defaces files. A cop defiles faces.
During a single Oakland night in early November, the violent misdeeds of these anarchists-with-badges shredded Constitutional rights, amassed a growing body count of innocent victims (including several combat veterans hospitalized with crippling injuries), and turned downtown Oakland into an urban No-Buy Zone.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, a flurry of in-your-face police assaults left an 84-year-old woman blinded by a blast of pepper-spray. At the same time, a 19-year-old woman who screamed at police, “Don’t hurt me! I’m pregnant!” was singled out for another blast of pepper-spray while a police officer took aim and kicked her in the stomach. She was rushed to a hospital where she subsequently suffered a miscarriage. (This appears to be the first police-related death attributable to the nationwide crackdown on the Occupy movement — it was, tragically, a literal “miscarriage of justice.”)
In theory, the police to exist to enforce laws. Increasingly, in post-911 America, the police seem to exult in defying laws. In many cities, the police now have more power than mayors, council members and judges. In November, despite a court ruling that Zuccotti Park was to remain open to the Occupy Wall Street campers, the NYPD refused to allow the demonstrators to re-enter the public park — an act of constabulary defiance that constituted obstruction of justice.
In a pattern that has been seen in Occupied cities across the US — from Manhattan to Santa Cruz — local police have tried to stoke social tension and civil unrest by encouraging hungry, homeless, drug-addicted and violent individuals from other parts of their cities to relocate to the nearest “Occupy” site where, the police promise, they can expect free food, shelter and medical assistance. It would appear that the goal is not to improve public safety but to raise the potential for disputes and disruption that might contribute to discrediting the Occupy camps.
Another tactic used in cities across America is for city officials to claim that encampments must be eradicated because they constitute a “health and safety hazard.” This meme is then driven home by orchestrated “photo ops” featuring city workers who are ordered to don full-body hazmat suits and gas-masks before hosing down sidewalks and lawns with blasts of high-pressure steam.
How Police Are Empowered to Violate the Constitution
Another example of the Police Establishment’s imperial power: local police enjoy the unique ability to suspend the US Constitution â€“ on a whim! In a court of law, a judge needs to convene a hearing and weigh both sides of an argument before rendering a verdict. In the streets, a city police sergeant has the power to void the First Amendment simply by declaring a peaceful public gathering to be an “unlawful assembly.”
In the new United Police States of America (UPSA), you don’t even need to commit a crime to become eligible for arrest, detention and/or physical abuse. Citizens swept up in police raids can be charged with nothing more than “resisting arrest.” In a truly free country, any citizen would be perfectly within his or her rights to resist being arrested on that charge alone.
Seriously, if the police can’t be bothered to at least fabricate some trifling criminal pretext for an arrest, they shouldn’t be allowed to bust someone for “resisting.” Not only is resistance in the name of self-defense not a crime, it is recognized as a right under international law. (Resisting police-inflicted crime should not be a crime. Consider: If you thwart a pickpocket or chase away a burglar, you aren’t charged with “resisting theft.”)
The Costs of Policing Occupations
As far as the charge that Occupy Wall Street activities cost cities money that could better be spent on social services, let’s take a look at one preliminary estimate for the City of Oakland. In mid-November, Oakland officials announced the “costs spent on responding to Occupy Oakland events” topped $2.4 million. But most of this money was doled out to pay for police who were either (1) standing watch over nonviolent assemblies, (2) challenging people trying to exercise their First Amendment rights or (3) pushing, beating and tear-gassing crowds provoked by the police presence.
According to official city expense figures quoted by the ACLU, Oakland paid $1.04 million to the OPD, $1.09 million to city personnel, $500,000 to other police agencies in the form of “mutual aid,” and $540,000 to VMA Security for a “30-day contract.” The cost of “policing” would appear to far outweigh the city’s costs for any “clean-ups” or “property damage.”
A ‘Conflict of Interest’ in Conflict
Although it is seldom mentioned, it is a fundamental fact that the police have a “conflict of interest in conflict.” As long as there is money to be made in police overtime, there will be a temptation to provoke situations that require overtime.
And it’s not just the local police that benefit from staring down and/or beating down protesters. In early November, when the OPD stormed through downtown streets amid a blizzard of tear-gas, Oakland’s finest were backed up by at least 15 other police agencies including the California Highway Patrol, Alameda Country Sheriffs, and officers from police departments in Hayward, Berkeley and Gilroy (located about 75 miles south of Oakland).
The same mutual-aid situation prevailed at UC Berkeley and UC Davis (where, in both cases, local campus cops were reinforced by Berkeley City police). It’s a situation straight out of the old Buffalo Springfield song: “What a field-day for the heat. A thousand people in the street.”
Troubling Signs of an Emerging
National Police State
The nearly simultaneous timing of the police sweeps that cracked down on Occupy encampments across the nation suggested a level of national coordination. The paranoia turned out to have some basis in truth.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (who initially told the media that she had no knowledge of the coming police crackdown against people camped out in Frank Ogawa Plaza because she had been out of town) subsequently revealed during a BBC interview that she had been one of 18 big-city mayors who participated in a nationwide conference call to discuss how to handle the tent camps.
London Guardian journalist Naomi Wolf reported that the conference call was initiated by representatives of the Department of Homeland Security who offered suggestions on “how to suppress” the Occupy protests. Sue Piper, Special Assistant to Mayor Quan, disputes this charge. [See update at end of article.]
“Our system of government prohibits the creation of a federalized police force, and forbids federal or militarized involvement in municipal peacekeeping,” notes Guardian reporter Naomi Wolf. Wolf herself was subjected to arrest after leaving a social event with her husband and walking down a Manhattan sidewalk during an Occupy protest. (A YouTube video shows Wolf, resplendent in an evening gown, being handcuffed and hustled into detention.)
But Wolf was lucky. According to The New York Times, during a subsequent crackdown on peaceful protesters, NYPD’s finest thugs “arrested, punched, whacked, shoved to the ground â€¦ reporters and photographers” trying to document the police violence. Reporters were ordered to raise their hands, threatened with detention, roughed up and arrested after being warned that in New York, “the greatest city in the world,” it was no longer legal “to take pictures on the sidewalk.”
The NYPD did such a thorough job that their beating victims included a state Supreme Court justice and a New York City councilmember. Not to be outdone, police enforcers in Berkeley managed to bludgeon Poet Laureate Robert Hass while grabbing a university professor by the hair and throwing her to the ground.
Police Used UC Campus to Practice Tactics for Occupy Oakland
UC Berkeley Chancellor Richard Birgeneau was rightly targeted for a vote of censure by his own faculty after police viciously attacked students and teachers with truncheons on the steps of Sproul Hall â€“ the historic Mecca of Free Speech. But Birgeneau’s complicity in police violence went even deeper.
It was bad enough that Birgeneau responded to a 2009 student occupation of Wheeler Hall by allowing outside police agencies to invade the campus armed with batons, tear-gas canisters and rifles equipped to fire “bean-bag” bullets. It was inexcusable that the “investigation” of police abuses from that event failed to prevent the latest violence. But Birgeneau’s most egregious crime has not yet been widely addressed.
According to a remarkable article by Max Blumenthal (reposted online by Berkeley’s Tikkun magazine), in October, Birgeneau invited the notorious Alameda Country Sheriff’s Department and other police agencies onto the UC campus to hold a “mutual response” military training exercise in preparation for the November assault on the tent camps of Occupy Oakland.
In Blumenthal’s words, the little-publicized exercise — dubbed “Urban Shield 2011” â€“ “turned parts of the campusâ€¦ into an urban battlefield.” Following November’s violent crackdown on Occupy Oakland’s tent city in Frank Ogawa Plaza, Police Magazine reported that “law enforcement agencies” credited the Urban Shield’s campus rehearsal for the “effective teamwork” that characterized their Oakland raids.
In the US, it is a long-accepted practice that domestic military exercises are opened to the participation of troops from a small number of select allied nations. The same pattern now appears to have been extended to domestic police exercises as well. Blumenthal reports that the “mutual aid” exercise held on the Berkeley campus included a contingent of military police from Bahrain, “which had just crushed a largely non-violent democratic uprising by opening fire on protest camps,” and a delegation of Israeli Border Police called the Yamam. According to Blumenthal’s report, the Yamam is “known for its extra-judicial assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders.”
What Was the Cops-per-Vandals Arrest Ratio?
While a great deal of justified criticism was directed at the damage wrought in downtown Oakland by the “black bloc” vandals who broke windows and sprayed slogans on the walls of banks, a significant question remains unanswered: How many of the 80 citizens arrested by the police during the night and early morning hours of November 2-3 were vandals?
It is difficult to know. The Oakland Police Department’s Weekly Crime Report (WCR) for October 31-November 6 does not list any arrests for vandalism — although it does list one arrest for arson and two arrests for “Assault on Officer — Other.” (In fairness, the WCR notes helpfully that: “both reporting of crimes and data entry can be a month or more behind.”)
In 2003, Oakland’s newest Police Chief Howard Jordan was caught on tape reflecting upon the ease with which police could infiltrate public demonstrations. “It’s not that hard,” Jordan said. “San Francisco does it. Seattleâ€¦.” In addition to using infiltrators embedded inside crowds to gather “intelligence,” Jordan also boasted these infiltrators could even “make them [the protestors] do what we want them to do!” (Local video-journalists have posted clips showing OPD officers caught participating in the demonstrations out-of-uniform.)
This, of course, raises the possibility that the police (who, remember, have a “conflict of interest in conflict”) could easily place “provocateurs” in the streets to encourage â€” or even instigate â€” acts of vandalism that could justify police violence. The release of the arrest figures for the OPD’s generalized strike against people in the streets of Oakland might help remove some of these fears. A good number of solid arrests for vandalism, upheld by court hearings, would suggest that the police are “doing their job.” On the other hand, a paucity of busts for significant crimes might suggest the police were mainly out to bust heads, not to bust criminals.
The Planet has made repeated calls to the OPD’s media department in an attempt to glean how many of the 80 arrests that followed the peaceful day-long General Strike were for crimes of violence, arson or vandalism. As of press time, the OPD had not responded to any of these calls.
Are the Police Doing Their Job?
Another case that questions the role of civic accountability occurred after an argument near the Occupy camp at Frank Ogawa Plaza erupted in gunfire that left one man dead. Mayor Quan responded by demanding that Occupy Oakland had a choice: it either had to take responsibility for controlling violence in the area or, if it failed to do so, Quan would be forced to remove the tents from the Plaza.
It was an odd bargain. Put in a different context, it would be comparable to the mayor demanding that the residents of East Oakland accept responsibility for ridding the neighborhood of violent crime. And, if they failed to do so, the mayor would see to it that they would be driven from their homes.
Quan seemed to have forgotten that it is the role of police to deal with violent crime. Instead, the onus was shifted to the civilian community while the cops were left free to “police” public protests. An essential point about the proper role of the police in a democratic society is now being reinforced by a new crowd-chant: “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?”
The role of the police has mutated towards what Dick Cheney famously called “the dark side” with up-armored cops becoming increasingly indistinguishable from combat troops. One of the key reasons the US was forced to pull its troops out of Iraq by the end of this year was not Barack Obama’s campaign vow to “bring the troops home.” Rather, it was the Iraqi government’s absolute refusal to guarantee “immunity from prosecution” for US troops who committed crimes inside the country.
In this regard, the Iraqi government showed the kind of moral courage that seems to be absent in the United States where the police are rarely called before the courts to answer for crimes committed against the civilian populations they are supposed to be safeguarding.
Recent events in Manhattan, Oakland, Portland, and other “Occupied” cities, have further underscored the fact that, in the UPSA, police are still largely “above the law.” Think about it: in what other profession can you kill someone knowing in advance that your only sanction will be a paid vacation? (In police parlance, this is known as “paid administrative leave.”)
In a world where trigger-happy responses are not reined in (or worse, are actually encouraged), we are all existential prisoners of a police state and all its potential victims. This troubling state of affairs needs to be faced, addressed and corrected. Until the police are retrained, restrained and disarmed, many struggling Americans will have a hard time accepting them as part of the “99 percent.”
The sad fact is that, under these prevailing standards of indecency, any pistol-packing beat cop who feels stressed-out by the demands of the job — and feels like indulging in some fully paid R&R — might be tempted to gun down a random unarmed protester just to claim some of that precious “paid administrative leave.”
Or, as Dirty Harry might put it, if he were part of today’s modern police militia: “Go ahead, punk. Make my holiday.”
NOTE: Response to Mayor Quan’s Office
A representative from Mayor Quan’s office — who was reportedly present during the BBC interview 00 has disputed the mayor’s role in the conference call and claims that the DHS used the call to organize a nationally coordinated response to the Occupation encampments. Quan’s representative states: “She didn’t say that.” In response, the author provides the following additional information.
(December 16, 2011) — Reports of federal involvement in a conference call with mayors of several US cities prior to the nationwide crackdown on Occupy encampments have been widely reported by both bloggers and mainstream media (from In These Times to CBS).
While the Planet did not include any quotes from Mayor Jean Quan in our report, here is one key quote transcribed from the BBC interview:
“I was recently on a conference call with 18 cities across the country who had the same situation where what had started as a political movement and a political encampment ended up being an encampment no longer in control by the people who started them.”
There is no dispute that these calls occurred. There is, however, considerable debate about what role, if any, the DHS or the FBI played in these calls.
The US Conference of Mayor subsequently issued a statement explaining that it has “facilitated regular conference calls” to “exchange ideas about the Occupy Wall Street Demonstrations” and that “two of those calls… provided a forum for mayors and police executives to discuss the impact of the demonstrations… and how they are responding to it.”
Naomi Wolf, reporting for the Guardian newspaper in the UK, initially claimed that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) played a key role in the conference call. Wolf has subsequently revised her account (which was based on a report from the blogger, “Wonkette”). Although Wolf insists that police officials have personally informed her that there has been ongoing federal coordination in removals and arrests at local Occupy sites, there is no direct evidence that the DHS initiated the 18-city conference call.
However, one of the participants in the call was Chuck Wexler. Wexler is the Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum and PERF is a member of the DHS Advisory Council. Some reports have described Wexler as the “facilitator” of the mayors’ conference call but Wexler insists his role “was just information sharing” and maintains that he was responding to an invitation from the mayors. “We are pulled in to help when things happen,” Wexler says.
But in an AP interview, Wexler stated that PERF had taken the lead in organizing two conference calls with mayors — on October 11 and November 4. “It was completely spontaneous,” Wexler told the AP. “This was an attempt to get insight on what other departments were doing.” PERF’s conference calls weren’t just limited to mayors. Oakland’s interim Police Chief Howard Jordan also reportedly participated in at least one PERF conference call.
AlterNet reporter Joshua Holland has heatedly criticized Wolf for her assertion that the DHS played a key role in the conference. Nonetheless, Holland acknowledges that DHS has routinely “offered advice to local law enforcement agencies” and has “had some minimal supporting role” in directing the local response to the nationwide Occupy movement.
At this point, there seems to be no hard evidence that either the DHS or FBI directly used the 18-city conference call to orchestrate a “national crackdown” on the Occupy movement. But the overall role of these agencies in monitoring protest remains well-established.
This role is underscored by Examiner.com reporter Rick Ellis who filed the following report from Minneapolis on November 15:
“Over the past ten days, more than a dozen cities have moved to evict “Occupy” protesters from city parks and other public spaces. As was the case in last night’s move in New York City, each of the police actions shares a number of characteristics. And according to one Justice official, each of those actions was coordinated with help from Homeland Security, the FBI and other federal police agencies.
“The official, who spoke on background to me late Monday evening, said that while local police agencies had received tactical and planning advice from national agencies, the ultimate decision on how each jurisdiction handles the Occupy protests ultimately rests with local law enforcement.
“According to this official, in several recent conference calls and briefings, local police agencies were advised to seek a legal reason to evict residents of tent cities, focusing on zoning laws and existing curfew rules. Agencies were also advised to demonstrate a massive show of police force, including large numbers in riot gear.
In particular, the FBI reportedly advised on press relations, with one presentation suggesting that any moves to evict protesters be coordinated for a time when the press was the least likely to be present.”
Meanwhile, back in the Bay Area, when Mayor Quan’s name came up during a recent day-long strategy session among anti-nuclear activists meeting in Oakland, it was recalled that Quan currently presides as the head of Mayors for Peace in the US. Given the acts of police violence that have rocked many US cities over the past few months, the activists suggested that Mayors for Peace (international network of over 1500 cities) should be encouraged to take a public stand to denounce police brutality in each of their cities — with Mayor Quan at the lead.
Gar Smith is the winner of several Project Censored Awards and is the co-founder of Environmentalists Against War. This article first appeared in the online edition of the Berkeley Daily Planet.
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