How to Disassemble an Occupied Park

Update at 1:24pm 1/31/12On Twitter, Jay Ulfelder pointed me towards this aptly-named study on the Interactive Diffusion of protest and police tactics. If you have access to it, well worth a read.

Right now, U.S. Park Police Police are engaged in some sort of action with OccupyDC. I’m hesitant to call it removal, because it seems less active than that, though it’s clear an unoccupied park is the ultimate goal.

What I can say is that this is seems like a far cry from the actions of early November, when New York and other cities engaged in a crackdown on their respective Occupy protesters. Those confrontations were highlighted by a strong display of force, along with mobilized and documented peaceful resistance.  From Dave Weigel, writing at Slate, we get:

The best summary of the events [via] Sarah Seltzer at Alternet. There’s a more skeletal take in the Twitter feed of @OccupyOregon.

1:20 a.m. Police are bringing in bulldozers.
1:20 a.m. Police are in riot gear.
1:20 a.m. Occupiers chanting “This is what a police state looks like.”
1:20 a.m. Brooklyn bridge is closed.
1:20 a.m. Subway stops are closed.
1:27 a.m. Unconfirmed reports that police are planning to sweep everyone.
1:43 a.m. Helicopters overhead.
2:03 a.m. Massive Police Presence at Canal and Broadway….

The action cleared the camp, but in the process it fueled an entire blogosphere worth of bad publicity.* The above-quoted blogs and on-the-scene commentary referred to this as proof of the militarization of police.  While the armor and tools available to police have a more than a passing resemblance to military hardware (and, okay, some overlap), describing the police as evolving into a military ignores how police in America have filled a void that was in other countries historically the realm of the military.  This is a long history, and it covers some of the most contentious moments in domestic politics during the 19th century. I’ll let Dan Trombly cover the finer points:

The US desire not to have an actual military or paramilitary police force, along the lines of European states, is partially responsible for the massive growth in the power of civilian law enforcement agencies and the decline of informal state militias, mercenary outfits like the Pinkerton or the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agencies. If you think security contractors are out of hand nowadays, consider the conduct of Baldwin-Felts. This was a private security firm which, after engaging in a gunfight in West Virginia, murdered a town’s police commissioner and his friend in a courthouse in front of their wives. They also took part in the aforementioned Ludlow Massacre, which included an armored car mounted with a Colt-Browning machine gun. Let’s not also forget that private associations were also able to contract bombers with tear gas and fragmentation bombs during the Battle of Blair Mountain.

As Trombly points out, greater governmental control and involvement in police action, and especially federal involvement, was a de-escalation from the private or local efforts to suppress strikes, riots, and public disturbances.  Because of this shift in control, we’ve seen the city of New York able to use vehicles and riot squads that it already had on hand, instead of calling in the military or contracting out like it would have had to do a century prior.  That’s the end-result of a century of incremental improvement in technology and equipment. The general mission remained the same: clear the space, detain those who make doing so difficult, and do it using force.

What really interests me, and what I suspect is going down with Occupy DC tonight, is an evolution in police tactics. If this is indeed that evolution, it bears a striking resemblance to the different approach used by St. Louis. After two announced but not enforced deadlines, the police finally arrived in force, knowing that the sympathetic part-time occupiers had already responded twice only to find out Occupy had cried wolf.  With the Occupiers limited to those already in the camp, the police advanced.  Writing November 16th, J. Brad Hicks described what happened next:

Ah, but the cops did more than just show up after two head-fakes and with sufficient numbers … they did right exactly what the Obama administration told everybody else to do wrong. They didn’t show up in riot gear and helmets, they showed up in shirt sleeves with their faces showing. They not only didn’t show up with SWAT gear, they showed up with no unusual weapons at all, and what weapons they had all securely holstered. They politely woke everybody up. Theypolitely helped everybody who was willing to remove their property from the park to do so. They then asked, out of the 75 to 100 people down there, how many people were volunteering for being-arrested duty? Given 33 hours to think about it, and 10 hours to sweat it over, only 27 volunteered. As the police already knew, those people’s legal advisers had advised them not to even passively resist, so those 27 people lined up to be peacefully arrested, and were escorted away by a handful of cops. The rest were advised to please continue to protest, over there on the sidewalk … and what happened next was the most absolutely brilliant piece of crowd control policing I have heard of in my entire lifetime.

All of the cops who weren’t busy transporting and processing the voluntary arrestees lined up, blocking the stairs down into the plaza. They stood shoulder to shoulder. They kept calm and silent. They positioned the weapons on their belts out of sight. They crossed their hands low in front of them, in exactly the least provocative posture known to man. And they peacefully, silently, respectfully occupied the plaza, using exactly the same non-violent resistance techniques that the protesters themselves had been trained in.

What St. Louis did, more effectively and less violently than New York, was unoccupy it’s camp by taking advantage of protester exhaustion and finite capacity to respond.  When one side plays nonviolent in the face of an aggressor, the contest becomes one of public perception.  When the nonviolent protesters found themselves outmaneuvered by nonviolent police, there was no battle of public perception to be had.  The violence and resistance of Zuccotti made for compelling media – unusual tactics, contended public space, seemingly out of proportion crackdown, and a clumsily aggressive handling of the situation made the action look brutal and the protesters come across more as heroic victims than the public menace the police needed them to be.

But without the violence, there isn’t that narrative.  Polite, unthreatening police calmly restoring a public square in shirtsleeves de-escalate the scene, and manage to make protest the one thing it shouldn’t be: boring.

I can’t say for certain that DC is following the quieter, calmer path set out by St. Louis.  But if that’s not the case, I think the protest would get more coverage than cabbies, the prospect of snow, and pythons in the Everglades: front page as of 2am 1/31/2011 front page as of 2am 1/31/2011

*posts selected less for quality than for outrage expressed


About kdatherton

Unpaid thoughts
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One Response to How to Disassemble an Occupied Park

  1. Pingback: Cats and Mice, Regimes and Oppositions « Dart-Throwing Chimp

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