By Joshua Holland
There has been a flurry of speculation surrounding various reports suggesting that a “coordinated,” nationwide crack-down on the Occupy Movement is underway. The problem with these stories lies in the fact that the word “coordinated” is too vague to offer any analytic value.
The difference between local officials talking to each other — or federal law enforcement agencies advising them on what they see as “best practices” for evicting local occupations — and some unseen hand directing, incentivizing or coercing municipalities to do so when they would not otherwise be so inclined is not a minor one. It’s not a matter of semantics or a distinction without difference. As I wrote recently, “if federal authorities were ordering cities to crack down on their local occupations in a concerted effort to wipe out a movement that has spread like wildfire across the country, that would indeed be a huge, and hugely troubling story. In the United States, policing protests is a local matter, and law enforcement agencies must remain accountable for their actions to local officials. Local government’s autonomy in this regard is an important principle.”
But there has not been a single report offered by any media outlet suggesting that anyone – federal officials or police organizations – is directing or in any way exerting pressure on cities to crack down on their occupations. Instead, there have been a lot of dark ruminations that such an effort is underway – notably by Naomi Wolf in an error-filled blog-post and a somewhat bizarre column for The Guardian in which Wolf takes an enormous leap away from any known facts to suggest that Congress is ordering cities to smash the Occupy Movement in order to preserve their own economic privilege.
Before digging into Wolf’s claims, let’s review what has actually been reported.
1. Five major occupations were evicted in different cities in a span of less than a week. Although they didn’t follow the same pattern, there were similarities in the tactics employed by these different municipalities.
2. A police membership organization called the Police Executive Research Forum, PERF, organized two conference calls between local law enforcement officials to share information on OWS, including, presumably, how best to evict them.
3. The US Conference of Mayors organized two conference calls between various city officials to discuss the same issues.
4. The Examiner, quoting an anonymous source in the Justice Department, reported that DHS and the FBI were sharing information and advice with local law enforcement agencies. But the source stated quite clearly 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.”
5. Chris Hayes reported that a lobbying firm had offered a plan to the American Bankers Association to vilify and marginalize the Occupy Movement. The ABA insisted that it hadn’t acted on the proposal.
6. DHS vehicles were reportedly spotted near at least one eviction.
Among the “advice” reportedly disseminated by DHS was that cities should demonize their occupations by highlighting health and safety violations, and evict them without warning in the dead of night. As a supporter of the Occupy Movement and a civil libertarian, I find that offensive and inappropriate – DHS should be worried about terrorism, not political dissent.
But missing here is any suggestion that cities are being compelled to crack down on their Occupations in any way – mayors of all of the municipalities that evicted camps in recent weeks had made it very clear that they were going to do so. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan held three press conferences urging people to leave Frank Ogawa Plaza and promising that they would be removed by force if they didn’t comply. Local officials have an agenda, but it is not a hidden agenda, and thus not a particularly shocking story.
I don’t find it in the least bit surprising that law enforcement officials communicate with each other, and such communication is in no way an assault on local communities’ autonomy. Every day professionals dealing with similar issues get on conference calls, send messages to list-servs or otherwise talk shop – it’s just part of our “interconnected world.”
Having established a baseline of reality, let’s turn to Wolf’s claims.
Here’s how she opens her blog-post:
Now is the time to get cops on board with the OWS movement — especially now that Alternet has broken the story that municipal police are being pushed around by a shadowy private policing consultancy affiliated with DHS. If you study any closing society decent people get handed monstrous orders and are forced to comply, and right now municipal police are being forced to comply with brutal orders from this corporate police consultancy, by economic pressure.
AlterNet has “broken” no such story – nobody has. We have asked Wolf to retract this claim, but as of this writing, it still remains on her site several days later.
PERF is not “shadowy” – they are quite happy to talk to the media and recently sent a spokesperson to appear on Democracy, Now! PERF is a membership organization without any actual police powers. It can’t “order” anybody to do anything and has no means to apply “economic pressure.” Its only “affiliation” with DHS is that PERF’s Executive Director, Chuck Wexler, also sits on a DHS “advisory board” (along with a dozen police chiefs, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton).
PERF organizes conference calls among police officials to discuss areas of common concern. Last year, it held a conference call among police chiefs who were worried that Arizona’s harsh immigration law, SB 1070, would drive a wedge between law enforcement agencies and the immigrant communities they are supposed to protect and serve. Fox “News” ran a story at the time alleging that PERF was some sort of far-left police organization and therefore illegitimate. Now we’re getting a similar story from progressives, which is discouraging.
Having basically invented a tale of arm-twisting at the national level – of a “shadowy” police organization affiliated with DHS issuing “brutal orders” to hapless mayors – Wolf then leaps even further afield with her Guardian column, in which she adds the dark accusation that Congress is involved, and is ordering this national crackdown to preserve a grift from which law-makers are profiting. The headline of the piece is “The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy,” but there is nothing truthful about what follows.
Here, we should pause to add another credible report to our factual baseline. CBS recently ran a report showing that members of Congress were using information that wasn’t available to the public to make tidy profits on the stock market. It’s insider-trading when ordinary citizens do it, but a loophole in the law makes it perfectly legal – if wholly corrupt on its face – for legislators to engage in the exact same practices.
This is extremely troubling, but wholly unrelated to Occupy Wall Street unless one engages in the kind of intellectual contortionism Wolf attempts. Indeed, the Guardianpiece borders on incoherence as it is, in the literal sense, a series of non-sequiturs – unrelated claims that simply do not follow one another.
She opens by recounting some of the more outrageous examples of police violence in recent weeks. Then she adds, “just when Americans thought we had the picture – was this crazy police and mayoral overkill, on a municipal level, in many different cities? – the picture darkened.” Did we have the picture or were we asking a lot of questions? Either way, what follows should address this in some way. But it doesn’t:
The National Union of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a Freedom of Information Act request to investigate possible federal involvement with law enforcement practices that appeared to target journalists. The New York Times reported that “New York cops have arrested, punched, whacked, shoved to the ground and tossed a barrier at reporters and photographers” covering protests.
This is a disturbing story pertaining specifically to New York. It’s a non-sequitur here.
Wolf then offers some more tales of protesters facing police violence. She then cites Chris Hayes’ report as some sort of evidence that these crackdowns weren’t the result of local decisions.
Journalist Chris Hayes reported on a leaked memo that revealed lobbyists vying for an $850,000 contract to smear Occupy. Message coordination of this kind is impossible without a full-court press at the top. This was clearly not simply a case of a freaked-out mayors’, city-by-city municipal overreaction against mess in the parks and cranky campers. As the puzzle pieces fit together, they began to show coordination against OWS at the highest national levels.
This is just sad. The memo Hayes unearthed was drafted on November 24, more than a week after the evictions of camps in Zuccotti Park, Oakland, Denver, Salt Lake City and Portland. There was no “message coordination” of any kind – it was a proposal that was reportedly rejected. It wasn’t produced by or sent to any organ of government – it was a memo by scummy lobbyists looking for a pay-check from the banking lobby.
Wolf then continues to throw everything she can get her hands on at the wall in the hope that something sticks…
I was still deeply puzzled as to why OWS, this hapless, hopeful band, would call out a violent federal response.
That is, until I found out what it was that OWS actually wanted.
The mainstream media was declaring continually “OWS has no message”. Frustrated, I simply asked them. I began soliciting online “What is it you want?” answers from Occupy. In the first 15 minutes, I received 100 answers. These were truly eye-opening.
The No 1 agenda item: get the money out of politics. Most often cited was legislation to blunt the effect of the Citizens United ruling, which lets boundless sums enter the campaign process. No 2: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation, with the most frequent item being to restore the Glass-Steagall Act….
No 3 was the most clarifying: draft laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.
When I saw this list – and especially the last agenda item – the scales fell from my eyes. Of course, these unarmed people would be having the shit kicked out of them.
I have probably interviewed 50-75 participants in the Occupy Movement, at multiple camps in the Bay Area, and heard all sorts of proposals and “demands” for healing our economy. But I have never heard any Occupier call for “draft[ing] laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.”
This seems to be the heart of her argument – Congress critters have a nice little rip-off going, they feel threatened by the Occupy Movement’s efforts to bring greater transparency to government, and as a result, they are “ordering” a nation-wide crack-down. But this central claim is based on emails she supposedly got from readers that seem pretty divergent from what the rest of us are hearing.
Wolf has that problem covered, however. Because even if the Occupiers don’t know that this is high on their list of demands, the police informants who have infiltrated the movement are able to discern their agenda even before the protesters have come up with it…
Since Occupy is heavily surveilled and infiltrated, it is likely that the DHS and police informers are aware, before Occupy itself is, what its emerging agenda is going to look like. If legislating away lobbyists’ privileges to earn boundless fees once they are close to the legislative process… [is] two beats away from the grasp of an electorally organised Occupy movement … well, you will call out the troops on stopping that advance.
Wolf then offers a classic example of trying to shoe-horn reality into a theory with no factual basis. She set out to write a column indicting Congress for a nationwide crack-down that hasn’t actually been unearthed and, in order to do so, she needs to hopelessly muddle the chain of command…
For the terrible insight to take away from news that the Department of Homeland Security coordinated a violent crackdown is that the DHS does not freelance. The DHS cannot say, on its own initiative, “we are going after these scruffy hippies”. Rather, DHS is answerable up a chain of command: first, to New York Representative Peter King, head of the House homeland security subcommittee, who naturally is influenced by his fellow congressmen and women’s wishes and interests. And the DHS answers directly, above King, to the president (who was conveniently in Australia at the time).
DHS is a cabinet-level executive branch agency. It does not “report” to Homeland Security Chair Peter King in some kind of chain-of-command – in fact, it doesn’t “report” to Congress at all except for a handful of official reports required by law. King can hold hearings and call DHS officials to testify before his committee, but he has nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the agency.
The allegation is that DHS offered local cities advise on evicting their local camps. I don’t know what she means by “freelance” in this context, but that is the kind of action, like thousands of actions DHS initiates each and every day, that wouldn’t require any sort of high-level sign-off. DHS was created in part to facilitate greater communication and intelligence-sharing between federal and local law enforcement agencies – advising local authorities is one of its defining roles.
But it’s the next paragraph that actually makes one’s head hurt…
In other words, for the DHS to be on a call with mayors, the logic of its chain of command and accountability implies that congressional overseers, with the blessing of the White House, 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.
Got that? That DHS took part in those conference calls (a claim that confuses two separate stories, as it hasn’t been alleged that DHS had anything to do with the calls organized by the US Conference of Mayors) shows that “Congressional overseers with the blessing of the White House” told DHS to “authorize” mayors to order their police to crack-down.
This is little more than gibberish – policing protesters is a local matter and no mayor in the country requires federal “authorization” of any kind, by any agency, to order their cops to evict an occupation.
Wolf wraps up with a feverish flourish…
So, when you connect the dots, properly understood, what happened this week is the first battle in a civil war; a civil war in which, for now, only one side is choosing violence. It is a battle in which members of Congress, with the collusion of the American president, sent violent, organised suppression against the people they are supposed to represent. Occupy has touched the third rail: personal congressional profits streams. Even though they are, as yet, unaware of what the implications of their movement are, those threatened by the stirrings of their dreams of reform are not.
When you don’t “connect” wholly disparate “dots,” what you get is far less dramatic. Mayors in a handful of cities, responding to local political pressures, decided to break up their local occupations — decisions that were announced to the press well in advance — and were advised as to how best to do so.
One doesn’t have to like that fact to recognize that it’s hardly shocking, and anything but a sinister assault on local communities’ autonomy.