A year and a half after the takeover of Zuccotti Park there exists a widespread conviction that Occupy Wall Street ultimately failed, and that it did so for lack of commitment, organization, and clear objectives. “The problem with the movement,” wrote New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin last fall, on the anniversary of the occupation, “was that its mission was always intentionally vague.” For this reason, Sorkin argued, OWS “will be an asterisk in the history books, if it gets a mention at all.” This response was typical of probanking commentators, but many progressives arrived at the same conclusion. “What do we have to show for [Occupy] today in our ‘normal lives’?” asked my Harper’s colleague Thomas Frank in The Baffler. (His answer: “Not much.”) Occupy began with great promise, wrote Frank, but it had become “mired in a gluey swamp of academic talk and pointless antihierarchical posturing.”
Veterans of the left had already been frustrated by the occupiers’ lack of leadership and determined unwillingness “to say clearly and succinctly why they’re there,” as Doug Henwood, publisher of the newsletter Left Business Observer, put it. So it was inevitable that these shortcomings should be blamed when the movement failed to re-establish a geographic base or regain media prominence after its eviction from Zuccotti Park by the New York City police. But it has become increasingly clear that OWS didn’t fizzle because its objectives were too muddled or its talk too abstract or its organization too chaotic. In fact, the movement was undone by a concerted government effort to undo it.
The most effective strategy of suppression was mass arrest. When the protesters organized a march across the Brooklyn Bridge two weeks after the occupation began, hundreds were arrested and bound with zip ties. In many cases, marchers were offered conditional dismissals — in essence, told they would not be held responsible for the initial charge unless they committed another offense. This naturally had a chilling effect on future protests. Who would risk a second charge and possible jail time? Targeted preemptive arrests were commonplace before major rallies. One protester was arrested on two warrants for public urination from 2007, though the real offender was a different person with the same name. An obscure and usually unenforced 1845 law criminalizing the wearing of masks at public gatherings was used to justify the arrest of occupiers in bandanas.
In a report published last summer, the Protest and Assembly Rights Project — a group of justice clinics housed at major law schools, including those of Fordham, Harvard, New York, and Stanford Universities — documented 130 examples of excessive use of force by the NYPD during the occupation and in the months afterward, actions that violated protesters’ civil rights and the terms of various international human rights treaties.
Many acts of police aggression were captured on tape. One week into the occupation, a deputy inspector named Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed a group of women with no apparent provocation. (After a video of the event went up on YouTube, Bologna became the only officer to be disciplined for misconduct relating to the protests, losing ten vacation days.) During a march near Union Square, a café worker stepped outside to record footage. Though not a participant in the demonstration, he was thrown to the ground by a police officer. The officer — whose white shirt signified that he was of high rank — then accused the man of obstruction of justice. That same day, police pulled a marcher from behind the orange netting used to “kettle” — that is, corral and cordon off — protesters, brought her to the ground, and dragged her along by the straps of her backpack. Three officers held her head down while she was arrested. Further examples are too numerous to dismiss as the actions of a few stray cops. At the very least, it’s evident the police department was not controlling its own.
The eviction of the encampment, in the early hours of November 15, 2011, involved yet further instances of excessive force. A former New York Supreme Court justice, serving as an independent legal observer of the police, witnessed an officer throw a protester to the ground and hit her in the head. When the observer asked the officer why he had done it, he pushed her up against a wall and asked if she wanted to be arrested. A New York City councilman was pushed to the ground and arrested. The use of batons and pepper spray and the dragging of protesters were well documented by witnesses. One reason these abuses didn’t get more attention was that the mayor imposed a media blackout on the eviction raid — in itself probably a violation of international human rights agreements. A local CBS affiliate claimed that the NYPD kept its news helicopter from filming police action, though only the Federal Aviation Administration has authority to close airspace. Examples of violence against reporters were also plentiful.
Before the eviction, police placed a manned watchtower at Zuccotti Park. Occupiers asserted that their apartments were under NYPD surveillance. If this sounds fanciful, consider that the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund obtained reports in December showing that both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security had monitored and investigated occupiers. In the FBI’s case, this began before the park was even taken over: the bureau had informed officials at the New York Stock Exchange of impending protests a month before they began.
Of course the police have a duty to maintain order, and many officers were accommodating, some even friendly. But U.S. and international law allows police to use force only in proportion to any offense. It’s clear from many documented cases that police response was out of all proportion to any provocation. Taken together, the coordinated and disproportionate actions of the NYPD, the FBI, and Homeland Security represent a campaign of suppression without which OWS might well have evolved into something more formidable, even in the cold of New York City’s winter.
It’s important to remember the real cause of Occupy’s decline, because the widespread misapprehension that the movement was done in by its own fecklessness obscures two important points. First, Occupy achieved more than its critics allow. True, the movement failed to realize specific legislative victories, but it did achieve its broader purpose: to raise awareness of the injustice of inequality in this nation. “We are the 99 percent” will remain with us as a political slogan every bit as galvanizing for the moment as “Hell no, we won’t go” was for the draft protesters of the 1960s. Regarding financial regulatory reform — which Sorkin insists that OWS did not much affect — the Bank of England’s executive director for financial stability said: “Occupy’s voice has been both loud and persuasive . . . [P]olicymakers have listened and are acting.” Meanwhile, offspring of Occupy remain active in many areas — challenging foreclosures, protesting the Citizens United decision, calling for the mitigation of student debt, and providing aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy. This wide range of activities is exactly what such an “anarchic” organization is designed to do: produce localized, motivated, and independent action.
This leads me to the second truth ignored in the effort to dismiss Occupy for its lack of focus: similarly “unfocused” protests in past decades have had a profound effect on American history. “The great emancipatory gains for human freedom have not been the result of orderly, institutional procedures,” writes Yale political scientist James C. Scott in Two Cheers for Anarchism, “but of disorderly, unpredictable, spontaneous action cracking open the social order from below.” America was born of protest, and protest has remained at the heart of progressive change throughout the nation’s history. This fact gets lost, Scott writes, when “the condensation of history [and] our desire for clean narratives . . . conspire to convey a false image of historical causation.”
Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward have shown how crucial labor protests were to the passage of New Deal programs. Those on the left who disparage Occupy may forget how the incipient civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements of the 1950s and 1960s were treated at the time. Martin Luther King Jr. was the subject of constant FBI surveillance, and the early Vietnam War protesters were regarded with open disdain by mainstream America. Scott argues that all of these movements were most successful when they were “at their most disruptive, most confrontational, least organized, and least hierarchical.” This has been no less true abroad. In a 2011 report, a United Nations representative wrote that, throughout history, “protests and demonstrations have been the engines of change” in society, and that the outcries of “human rights defenders all over the world have been the high-water marks.” Social progress does not always arrive by way of the democratic ballot. The free labor market will not end gender and racial discrimination, as some right-wing economists have absurdly claimed. These changes come about when citizens take to the streets to demand them.
The lack of serious outcry against police brutality in New York and in other occupations — Berkeley, Oakland, Seattle — reflects how little most Americans appreciate the place of protest as a catalyst of social and economic reform in our own history and throughout the world. If I were a mayor or police chief who didn’t want major social change, I, too, would have tried hard to stymie OWS.
When protest is suppressed in America, what is at stake? Reactions to protests in the past — the killing of four Kent State students by Ohio National Guardsmen in 1970, for example — were more terrifying than the response to OWS, but afterward public outrage led to real reform. Police forces across the nation placed sensible restraints on their practices — a process called “negotiated management.” These moderated procedures started to become less restrained once again after the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Negotiated management was replaced with a version of “command and control” tactics. Though still restrained compared with those in the 1960s, police actions were explicitly designed to suppress protests — what some scholars call “strategic incapacitation.” The new tactics involved frequent and often mass arrests, surveillance, the use of barricades and kettling, and infiltration. The NYPD used all these tactics, including undercover operatives, to manage protesters at Zuccotti Park.
Why has there been so little attention given to these abuses? It is not that the public is broadly indifferent to policing issues. The NYPD has come under justified criticism for its surveillance of Muslims and its stop-and-frisk technique. A proposed city-council bill creating an NYPD inspector general has received widespread support and the endorsement of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the New York Times editorial board. What are young Americans to make of the fact that no similar outcry arises in response to documented abuses of nonviolent protesters?
When protest in this country is met with derision or violence, and even commentators on the left blame the protesters themselves for this fact, it’s clear that the nation is failing to protect its most important freedoms. “Those who won our independence believed,” Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote in 1927, “that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty. . . . That it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression.”