The Daily Occupation: Mayors and Police Choose Their Response

Joe Macaré

Just as the Occupy movement is different in each location in which it emerges, so it is becoming clear that the mayors and police forces of different cities are responding in different ways. Last night, Boston became the latest flashpoint for confrontations with the police, after a second camp was created at the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston, one block away from the main Occupy Boston camp at Dewey Square Park. According to Reuters, 129 people were arrested in total after occupiers refused to comply with an ultimatum issued by police to return to the original camp. Thom Hartmann calls it a violent police crackdown against the 99% movement in the middle of the night”:Comedian, cartoonist and radio host Matthew Filipowicz witnessed the raid first-hand; you can hear his report on today’s edition of his show, including a disturbing account of a woman being dragged away by police while calling for a medic. Filipowicz also conducted a moving, on-the-spot interview with Pat Scanlon of Veterans for Peace as the group formed a second line to protect Occupy Boston participants who themselves had linked arms in a human chain around the Greenway. They’re going to have to take us out before they get to these young people,” the Vietnam Veteran told Filipowicz. Occupy Boston claimed in a press release:The Boston Police Department made no distinction between protesters, medics, or legal observers, arresting legal observer Urszula Masny-Latos, who serves as the Executive Director for the National Lawyers Guild, as well as four medics attempting to care for the injured.That lack of discrimination sounds consistent with how police in various cities have dealt with protest situations, especially whenever kettling” or corralling is involved. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino justified the arrests and police actions by saying: I understand they have freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but we have a city to manage… civil disobedience will not be tolerated. I agree with them on the issues… But you can’t tie up a city.”
The irony here is that, prior to last night, Occupy Boston has enjoyed more leeway from city authorities than Occupy Wall Street itself, since tents have so far been permitted in Dewey Square Park in contrast to Liberty Plaza Park. However, despite a lack of tents, and the clashes with police in the past, Liberty Plaza itself has become an increasingly idyllic, utopian exercise in community-building, as Sady Doyle discovered on her visit. Meanwhile, Occupy Chicago has paradoxically managed to avoid serious clashes with the police while also being held to increasingly strict rules about what they can and cannot do outside the Federal Reserve Bank at LaSalle and Jackson. On Saturday, the group took part in a rally demanding US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, a rally that at least one news station then reported as an Occupy Chicago event. I was at that rally, and I can’t say I begrudge that particular media mistake: There seemed to be as many signs and chants associated with the Occupy movement as there were antiwar slogans. And both groups seem to realize that this makes sense: U.S. foreign policy benefits corporate interests and the 1%, not the 99%. A similar effect could be observed yesterday, when the group joined Stand Up! Chicago’s Take Back Chicago rally and, as Jeremy Gantz reports, helped ensure that the protests were newly infused with frustration—and, more important, a sense of solidarity.” I arrived at Monroe and Michigan, where the rally had ended, at about 6.15 p.m. to find a stand-off occuring between protesters and police: The former had managed to block Monroe outside the Modern Wing of the Art Institute, with some protesters sitting down, and the latter were attempting to clear the road. While a line of mounted police slowly followed those who were moving protesters back towards the sidewalk, I saw none of the heavy-handedness I’ve seen in videos from New York, and there was no kettling.” Several members of the Occupy Chicago group were right in the thick of the Monroe Avenue action, but managed to avoid being among any of the arrests, instead retreating to hold a jubilant General Assembly full of new faces. However, just as the police in different cities respond to protests differently, within each Occupy group there is debate on how to relate to the police. Combine this with the movement’s tendency towards decentralized communications, and you have the potential for mixed messages to occur. For example, on Monday morning, the @OccupyChicago account tweeted: EMERGENCY! Police coming to LaSalle and Jackson to remove #occupychi from the street. We need everyone here and we need cameras filming!” This, along with many other tweets between October 2 and today, has since been deleted. Ryan Williams was downtown yesterday morning, and sent this update:Around eight a.m. Monday morning, a police officer approached the group and informed them that they wouldn’t be able to leave any private property on the sidewalks, or else risk citation or having the leftover items confiscated and destroyed, according to Mark Banks, one of the group’s most persistent faces.“We’ve danced around this for the past couple of days,” Banks said of the ordinance. Most of the time, police “don’t try to enforce us about the obstructions.” But early in the morning, when the groups numbers are small, that starts to change. At least one or more officers routinely comes by between 8 and 10 a.m. and requests that the group relocate, Banks said. But occupiers remain dedicated. “If you want to throw it out, go ahead,” Banks challenged the police. “We don’t have the manpower to do what you’re asking, while at the same time exercising our first amendment right to peacefully assemble and address our grievances.” He told police: “You do what you gotta do.“When Banks left to meet with lawyers advising the group from the National Lawyers Guild, he said that an additional 30 or so protestors had shown up in response to their requests. “It looks like they backed down,” Banks said, adding that he wasn’t sure whether the armistice was temporary or permanent. At least five of those supporters came from the nearby Hyatt, where union workers have been protesting on and off for years.Politics within the Chicago Police Department mean that cops don’t talk on record to reporters, but several police informally spoke with me around the area of Occupy Chicago, and their opinions showed division within the ranks. Some police expressed full-throated support of the occupiers, calling their first amendment rights “paramount” to any grievance the city had over ordinances. Others called the occupation “a game of cat and mouse” where protestors are asked to relocate but only move inches to comply with the ordinance. While it’s clear that some police wouldn’t mind arresting protestors and putting the whole thing behind them, no arrests have been made and that could indicate that Rahm hasn’t yet made up his mind. Instead, it seems he would rather constrict them slowly, squeezing them from either side until they have no choice but to relocate or risk arrest.The following is speculation, but it seems to me that the relatively restrained approach of the CPD may be a reflection of Rahm Emanuel’s canny political instincts and communications finesse. I am far from being a fan of the Mayor, but there is no denying that he has good PR skills, and is able to win over some progressives despite his evident disdain for them, bust teachers unions without being perceived as doing so, etc. So it’s possible that Emanuel actually realizes what Boston’s Mayor does not, and what Michael Bloomberg certainly did not seem to realize (until perhaps recently): Excessive policing of protests and activism is a great way to swell the number of protesters. By the same token, Emauel’s appearance on Meet The Press contained a great example of how a politician can sound mildly sympathetic to the concerns of the Occupy movement while also basically justifying bank bailouts and not actually promising to do anything different. You have to wonder whether Bloomberg’s announcement that Occupy Wall Street can remain indefinitely” is because he’s started to realize it’s time to change tack, in terms of tone if nothing else (especially since last week’s revelation that the Mayor’s domestic partner sits on the board of Zuccotti Park’s owners)—before damage to his image becomes irreparable. [Update, October 11: I was on WBEZ’s 848 this morning talking with Alison Cuddy and Evelyn DeHais of Occupy Chicago about the Occupy movement in general and what’s unique about the Chicago version: You can hear that segment here.]
Joe Macaré is a writer, editor and development and communications professional, originally hailing from the UK and now residing in Chicago. His writing has appeared at In These Times, TruthOut, AlterNet, Dazed and Confused, The Times, Plan B and Stylus. He has appeared on WBEZ radio and Chicago Newsroom to discuss his extensive coverage of the Occupy Chicago movement.
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