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Wednesday, May 2, 2012, 4:43 pm

Police Adapt Tactics, Use ‘Snatch and Grab’ Arrests During May Day

By Rebecca Burns

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While the verdict is still out on whether yesterday's "general strike" represented a significant departure from previous mass rallies and actions held by Occupy groups, one clear development emerged from May Day: police are changing their tactics.

Targeted arrests, through which police attempt to head off large-scale civil disobedience by snatching individual activists out of the crowd, were documented yesterday in Oakland, New York and Seattle. Unlike the now-familiar Occupy scene of demonstrators being arrested en masse in dramatic, late-night evictions, May Day protesters in many locales were arrested individually throughout the day, in some cases for crossing over onto sidewalks or, according to local media on the scene in Oakland, seemingly at random.  As Gawker reported Monday, the NYPD, with involvement from the FBI, raided at least three New York activists’ homes that day to interrogate them about their May Day plans:

Today "there was definitely an upswing in law enforcement activity that seemed to fit the pattern of targeting what police might view as political residences," said Gideon Oliver, the president of the New York Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, which offers legal to support to Occupy Wall Street. "They were asking what are your May Day plans, do you know who the leaders are—these are classic political surveillance questions."

Oliver said the National Lawyer's Guild is aware of at least five instances of NYPD paying activists visits, including one where the FBI was involved in questioning. (He wouldn't elaborate.)

While the number of arrests of Occupy demonstrators has dwindled in most cities during the winter, organizers have complained of continued monitoring by police. Last November, four organizers were arrested blocks away from a planned action at the New York Stock Exchange—before they even arrived at the demonstration—and interrogated about Occupy Wall Street and upcoming actions. And documents leaked by Wikileaks this February revealed that the Department of Homeland Security has been spying on Occupy Wall Street, looking particularly for threats to “critical infrastructure.”

Prior to the May Day protests, as Susie Cagle reported for AlterNet, Oakland authorities promised a new approach to policing the day’s mass demonstrations:

The decentralized protests may be met with decentralized enforcement from police, who have vowed to change tactics … “A key element of our strategy change is to intervene early," said Oakland Police Chief of Staff Sergeant Chris Bolton. Oakland police also say they may use "small teams" to go into crowds and make targeted arrests as opposed to surrounding and arresting marches and protests en masse as they have in the past. These sorts of “snatch squads,” as protesters are calling them, might succeed in heading off actions like the black bloc anti-capitalist march of November’s general strike, where protesters smashed and graffitied bank windows and a Whole Foods around the downtown Oakland area. "The Constitutional tests of time, place, and manner -- among other factors -- will determine our tactics and approaches," said Bolton.

Police brutality has drawn national attention in Oakland, where former U.S. Marine Scott Olsen was shot in the head with a beanbag round last November. Since this incident and the large-scale confrontations that ensued from Occupy Oakland’s “Move-in Day” action on January 28, the Oakland Police Department has been under increased scrutiny from court monitors overseeing its activity as part of a 2003 U.S. District Court settlement involving past brutality against demonstrators. In a report released the day before May Day, the federal monitors criticized the department’s failure to implement reforms and "overwhelming military-type response” to Occupy demonstrations.

Though police promised a shift in their approach due in part to this criticism, the "new tactics" deployed in Oakland yesterday were still by any definition military-style: Tear gas was used to disperse demonstrators, and the Alameda County Sherrifs’ Department deployed a tank to control the crowd. But the San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that 23 arrests were made yesterday, a far cry from the more than 300 arrested en masse in January. As the SFist noted in reference to the 26 arrests made in San Francisco in connection to an attempted building takeover, “Since when are there more Occupy arrests in San Francisco on a day of planned action than there are in Oakland?”

In addition to increased scrutiny from the public and oversight bodies, police in Oakland and elsewhere likely have a tactical reason for using preemptive crackdowns to avoid further mass arrests. Thus far, scenes of kettling and police brutality at Occupy demonstrations have served to bring greater numbers out into the streets. Analytics of the Occupy Wall Street website by organizers have confirmed what they call the “riot porn hypothesis:” that public attention, in the form of traffic to the website and Twitter feed, spikes after images of police brutality circulate.

In New York, where such images from the Brooklyn Bridge drew thousands last fall, May Day ended with 97 arrests, according to the most recent count from the Gothamist. Molly Knefel, co-host of Radio Dispatch, reported seeing unprovoked arrests of individuals and police grabbing participants in a “Bike Bloc” actions off of their bicycles in order to arrest them.

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times associate editor. Her writing on labor, housing and education has also appeared in Al Jazeera America, Jacobin, Truthout and AlterNet. She can be reached at rebecca[at] Follow her on Twitter @rejburns

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