Occupy Austin’s Identity is not in Doubt

Now that Occupy Austin has been forcibly removed from City Hall from 10 pm to 6 am, some in the mainstream media see the local occupy group as a movement with an identity crisis. The local ABC affiliate said as much as it showed film of two individuals at City Hall in the middle of the day, when most occupiers are at work. Yes, contrary to what some individuals think, most of the people who participate in OA do have jobs. So while the 24/7 presence has been removed, Occupy Austin continues and there really is no identity crisis. The night after the eviction more than 100 people were at City Hall holding a General Assembly where outrage at the city’s actions were equaled by discussion of future action. GAs have been held on a regular basis, almost nightly, but if there are no arrests, the mainstream media are not interested – they only seem interested when people are being dragged off to jail or when there’s nobody around.

Even as City Hall was occupied, others worked behind the scenes in committees dealing with such issues of importance to the 99 percent as

  • helping homeowners stay in their homes, urging people to move their money out of the megabanks, an effort that has resulted in more than 1.5 million dollars moved to local community banks and credit unions in the Austin area, and urging the City of Austin to move its money out of Bank of America
  • Helping East Austin residents have  a say in the planned transformation of two East Austin public school campuses into charter schools
  • Marching in solidarity with victims of official brutality in Austin, around the country and the world
  • Helping to plant 600 trees to re-forest parkland near Barton Creek
  • promoting an end to corporate personhood
  • working to end homelessness

While the mainstream media may see an identity crisis in the fact that two people were at City Hall in the middle of the afternoon, Occupy Austin was winning an award for outstanding community activism, and will receive a new media laptop, a sorely needed item now since Occupy Austin’s laptop was destroyed in the police raid last week. As part of the award, Lt. Dan Choi, whose activism and repeated arrests in front of the White House was instrumental in the repeal of the despicable Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,  will visit OA in May.

This is definitely not the portrait of  ”protesters now struggling to find their identity.” It is, however, the picture of a mainstream media steeped in a predictable paradigm – preferring to highlight the sensational while ignoring substance.

Occupy Austin – You Cannot Evict an Idea

The eviction of Occupy Austin from City Hall plaza on Friday night was painful to endure, painful to witness (even from afar on live stream), and many people who participated and/or supported the movement are naturally distraught over the February 3rd police raid that ended the downtown encampment. Occupy Austin had dedicated that day to a protest of the recent signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, which in addition to further codifying the indefinite military detention of terrorism suspects without charge or trial, further erodes our free speech rights by branding more and more activities as aiding terrorists. OA held a silent protest in front of the state Capitol in the afternoon, as well as a march and candlelight vigil on Friday evening, right before they received notice that they must vacate City Hall plaza by 10:30 pm or risk arrest. Right on schedule, the city has illustrated how fragile our free speech rights are. During the silent protest people lined up with tape over their mouths, and only a few hours later free speech and assembly was under attack.


Protesting NDAA

It seems fitting that on the same day that free speech was stifled in Austin, Bradley Manning was referred for a court-martial for allegedly providing classified documents to Wikileaks,  including videos of US soldiers murdering civilians, and other documents that are extremely unflattering to the US State Department. But some of the leaked information helped launch the Arab Spring, now heralded by our government. Manning spent almost two years in prison without a court hearing and hence without being charged with any crime, and is a shining example of what could await other American citizens should a future President decide that such detention is acceptable. Manning has now been charged with among other things “aiding the enemy”, and faces life in prison for essentially blowing the whistle on some of our more egregious activities around the world.

As Occupy Austin regroups, it’s instructive to look at the reasons the city has given for evicting the group. These include the cost of the police presence and the fact that many of those 24/7 occupiers are homeless. There has been a large police presence, and those officers have mostly been standing around or leaning on their vehicles. A few times they have carried out the wishes of city officials by informing occupiers of new city rules and of the risk of arrests should occupiers not follow those rules. And on several occasions they have executed those orders, arresting people and charging them with criminal trespass.  The police presence was never requested by Occupy Austin, rather, the city itself is responsible for the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars spent. And yes, there is a homeless population there, and many of them are part of the movement. I thank all of the people who have camped out night after night whether they are homeless or not, because they have kept the physical occupation of the space going for so long. It’s probably worth remembering that any one of us could become homeless in the current economic climate, and so this us versus the homeless distinction is not at all productive.

Occupy Austin’s activities will continue this weekend despite the camping ban, with occupiers planning on convening at City Hall again this evening. More NDAA protests are scheduled for the rest of the weekend. And Occupy Austin will continue to bring attention to the plight of those losing their homes to foreclosure, to the leniency of our government towards the perpetrators of our economic distress and to the City of Austin’s continued relationship with Bank of America. The camp may be gone, but you cannot evict an idea.

Occupy Austin Tries the Banks

This past weekend, on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Occupy Austin tried, convicted, and sentenced three too-big-to-fail banks to punishments that essentially destroyed them. Occupy Austin, in a fine bit of street theater with a serious message, conducted a trial of the  CEOs of three very large corporate persons – Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Chase Manhattan – with the CEOs appearing in stocks, and the corporate persons they represented in grave danger of the “ultimate punishment”.

Standing behind a banner that reminded passers-by that more than $1.5 million had been moved out of Austin branches of megabanks since Occupy Austin began on October 6th, the trial proceeded on the sidewalk in front of City Hall.



Bank of America was sentenced to corporate death, because of its continued abuses despite numerous monetary penalties, illegal foreclosures, tax evasion, and putting all citizens at risk for financial ruin by shifting 53 trillion in derivatives from its bank holding company to its FDIC insured retail bank. Wells Fargo, for steering borrowers with good credit into subprime mortgages for the sake of lucrative fees, and investing in for profit prisons and especially immigration prisons, was sentenced to life in prison. And Chase was sentenced to “corporate dissolution” for hawking crappy mortgages to vulnerable Americans. The result of this dissolution:

You must break yourself up into local banks, which do not pressure personal bankers to sell products they know their customers do not need, in order to meet sales quotas or risk losing their livelihood. Instead, your local bankers will be paid a fair and equitable wage, and will help their customers to engage in safe and healthy banking practices.

OA also reminded the American public that our continued patronage of these institutions helped the perpetrators, but our  sentence was lenient, compared to that of the corporate person malefactors – three months of community service with Occupy Austin (helping with the occupation, participating in demonstrations, etc.), and six months with Bank Action (the amount of time it may take to move one’s money to a local credit union). Also implicated was the US government, including the Supreme Court, with its egregious Citizens United decision allowing corporate entities already too big to fail to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns in an effort to perpetuate their status quo, and the Federal Reserve, which has added to the bank bailout funds to the tune of trillions of dollars, while those  bailed-out institutions left distressed homeowners with no recourse and no real help modifying their mortgages.

Occupy Austin’s trial reminds us all that the call for real accountability has gone unheeded in Washington. The federal government seems intent on extending leniency to the banks: the Obama administration is pushing a settlement between the state Attorneys General and banks involved in illegal foreclosures, which would immunize the banks from any further liability before the investigation has even concluded. A group of AGs, including New York’s Eric Schneiderman, objected to any settlement with the banks until all of the foreclosure irregularities had been investigated and revealed:

Brokered by a 50-state panel of Attorneys General, the robosigning settlement talks ground to a halt when Schneiderman objected to the immunity provisions, seeking to reserve NY’s rights to investigate and prosecute fraud. This could best reduce the chances of future economic catastrophe, strongly dissuading criminal or reckless activity, seeking full reparations for victims instead of partial reimbursements and restore the rule of law to an industry plagued by government-industry incest and pay-for-play at the highest levels.

This settlement now appears imminent, just in time for the President’s State of the Union address, and includes $19 billion in loan write-downs for 1 million borrowers. The banks will be shielded from future liability, and will shell out what amounts to “pennies on the dollar”.

Mock trials may be the only way we can get our voices heard, and Occupy Austin’s trial, conviction, sentencing and punishment of the banks, and its symbolic destruction of corporate personhood, are a reminder that the majority of Americans want the banks held accountable in a way that will actually stop their egregious behavior.

Occupy Austin at 3 months

January 6th marked the three-month anniversary of Occupy Austin, and parties and festivities are scheduled at City Hall throughout this weekend. Here are some thoughts and observations about OA’s trajectory since October 6th.

Occupy Austin began in early October when more than 1000 people attended a rally at City Hall. People were invited to speak up and give testimonials as to why they were participating in the movement.

[Read more...]

The strength of Occupy Wall Street

As cities around the country send their police forces to dismantle Occupy encampments,  it might be interesting to revisit some of the language opponents have used to belittle the movement, because that language speaks to the strength of Occupy Wall Street and the fear it engenders in opponents in both major political parties.

First, “get a job” is the command often hurled at Occupy protesters. The current Republican frontrunner got plenty of applause for suggesting just such a thing at one of the myriad of debates/candidate forums. There’s a certain arrogance in the assumption that Occupy is peopled only by the unemployed. Many Occupy protesters already have jobs. I stood in front of City Hall in Austin Texas on a Friday morning before I went to work when an individual rolled down his car window and  instructed me to get a job and stop stealing other people’s money. The following sign seen at an Occupy demonstrations in Austin is a response to the “get a job” crowd:

There are unemployed people at Occupy encampments, and with five job seekers for every available position that makes a lot of sense. But it’s probably not wise to hurl insults at the unemployed. Just recently, a Republican pollster suggested that  candidates replace the antagonistic “get a job” language with the more conciliatory “I get it” statement. Apparently Frank Luntz realized that many Americans are out of work right now, many more than actually attend Occupy demonstrations, and that Americans support Occupy Wall Street and see capitalism as immoral:

The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem.

Another complaint about Occupy Wall Street is that the protesters don’t have any political demands, and refuse to endorse candidates.  This strikes fear into the Democratic Party which would dearly like to co-opt the movement . But why should Occupy endorse anyone?  Many of the people who participate in Occupy encampments were supporters of the current President, and they watched as the reformer they voted for reformed very little and rewarded his Wall Street contributors by choosing an economic team that had their interests at heart; he also continued some of the most egregious foreign policies of the Bush Administration.

Our political system is so dysfunctional that, as Paul Krugman notes in a recent column, there are only two ways for a Republican to win the presidential nominating process:

Think about what it takes to be a viable Republican candidate today. You have to denounce Big Government and high taxes without alienating the older voters who were the key to G.O.P. victories last year — and who, even as they declare their hatred of government, will balk at any hint of cuts to Social Security and Medicare (death panels!).

And you also have to denounce President Obama, who enacted a Republican-designed health reform and killed Osama bin Laden, as a radical socialist who is undermining American security.

So what kind of politician can meet these basic G.O.P. requirements? There are only two ways to make the cut: to be totally cynical or totally clueless.

And that’s just the Republicans. We all know what Democratic voters, or progressive voters in general, are ordered to do. Bite the bullet and vote for the lesser of two evils, the more acceptable corporate candidate, because at least that person might throw a bone to the base, repeal egregious anti-gay legislation. If that doesn’t push people to vote for the Democratic candidate, the party entreats progressives to think of the makeup of the Supreme Court! When the choice is between today’s Republican candidates and the Republican-light Democratic candidate, asking the Occupy movement, which has condemned corporate greed and the corporate takeover of our government, to vote for a candidate funded by Wall Street is ludicrous.

So while camps are dismantled and activists are arrested and the occupations move indoors to keep people from losing their homes to foreclosure, the political parties, especially the one supposedly on the left might do well to review their business-as-usual campaigning. Running for office by collecting money from corporate special interests and then doing their bidding is no longer cutting it with the American electorate, whether voters are involved with Occupy Wall Street or not.



Building a police state, one link at a time

The violent tactics used against Occupy Wall Street protesters – militarized policing , coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, excessive force used in some cities – represent a further cementing of the country’s identity as a police state. Several items in the news this week reinforce that  move.

A story in the New York Daily News notes that the New York Police Department has conducted a record number of stop and frisk operations so far this year – 514,000 mostly people of color in minority neighborhoods have been stopped, with 63000 individuals arrested or given summonses. The other 82% were “not doing anything wrong and were released.”   This type of police activity has been going on for years now in poor neighborhoods, and, as Michelle Alexander notes in her excellent book The New Jim Crow, harassment of marginalized communities and the arrests that ensue bring in federal funds for policing.  The police do not stop and frisk individuals in Midtown Manhattan, or for that matter in that den of criminality, Wall Street, but rather in  neighborhoods without political/financial clout.

On the same day the stop and frisk story appeared, the mayor of Wall Street boasted about having his own army and his own state department, a statement that garnered the kind of Internet exposure one might expect from such foolishness. Bloomberg was able to utter that garbage, even in the context of a comparison between himself and the federal government, with seemingly little concern that he might experience a backlash, and that says a lot about the public at large’s acceptance of the new normal police state.

Meanwhile a phalanx of 1400 police officers in riot gear evicted Occupy Los Angeles, arresting 300 protesters in what Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called “a peaceful and orderly conclusion to that encampment at City Hall.”  Peaceful?  With 1400 troops? Then the mayor told people not to worry, as his administration would set up a “free speech area”  - another manifestation of the police state, where the First Amendment is subject to restraint in both the size of the allotted space and its location, hidden from those who should hear the speech the most, and forcing those engaged in free speech to receive permission, something that dilutes the strength of the movement, as journalist Allison Kilkenny notes here. Thankfully, the Occupy movement has rejected the idea of asking permission.

On the national level, the United States Senate has voted to further blur the line between civilian and military policing. approving a military authorization bill that contains provisions allowing the military to detain suspected members of Al Qaeda accused of plotting against the United States, including individuals arrested in the United States. Since our experience with supposed terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Air Base and CIA secret prisons includes individuals given up for monetary gain or other suspect reasons like vendettas, what’s to keep that from happening here in the US. Additionally,

A related provision would create a federal statute saying the government has the legal authority to keep people suspected of terrorism in military custody, indefinitely and without trial. It contains no exception for American citizens.

17 Democrats voted to keep these egregious measures in the defense bill, with Senator Carl Levin using the Supreme Court’s 2004 Hamdi case as a justification for this atrocity. But even that case noted that the detainee should be afforded a court appearance in front of a judge:

The controlling opinion, by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, said that Mr. Hamdi’s detention was permissible if designation as an enemy combatant proved to be correct, but that his inability so far to appear before a judge, challenge the government’s evidence, and tell his side of the story had deprived him of his constitutional right to due process.

O’connor noted that “a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens.” Nor is it a blank check for a craven Congressional body still trying to keep the country in a state of fear. In this case the President has indicated that he would veto this bill. But Mr. Obama has continued some of the worst tactics of the Bush Administration, something noted by both the Nation:

But relentlessly attacked by Republicans for his plan to try detainees in civilian courts, Obama is now attempting to resolve the Guantánamo cases by legalizing the very procedures and abuses of power that earned the Bush administration fierce condemnation.

and the Washington Times, where a former Bush Administration official gave Obama some qualified support:

Overall, Mr. Hayden said, there is more continuity than divergence between the Bush and Obama administrations’ approaches to the war on terror.

“You’ve got state secrets, targeted killings, indefinite detention, renditions, the opposition to extending the right of habeas corpus to prisoners at Bagram [in Afghanistan],” Mr. Hayden said, listing the continuities. “And although it is slightly different, Obama has been as aggressive as President Bush in defending prerogatives about who he has to inform in Congress for executive covert action.”

So while the President may balk at the notion of indefinitely detaining Americans without charges, he has for the most part continued the policies of his predecessor. Ten years after the terrorist attacks  elected officials from the President of the United States to the mayors of some of the largest cities continue to use fear as a tactic for keeping Americans under control.  But here’s a reminder to politicians –  fear can be a two-way street. Words may not kill or maim as riot police projectiles do, but they can derail a politician’s career. As noted in Allison Kilkenny’s blog:

By the way, that “instilling fear” thing has already worked, and has GOP pollster Frank Luntz shaking in his boots. He recently advised the Republican Governor’s Association to avoid mentioning Capitalism.

“The public…still prefers Capitalism to Socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem,” he said.

Loud, unrestrained speech is a frightening thing for those in power. Let’s make sure it continues so that the excesses of our current police state can be reversed.

Here’s Why We Occupy Wall Street

If ever there were a need for Occupy Wall Street, it was well on display this week.  Just in case anyone still has questions here are some answers from the annals of Wall Street impunity.

Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former CEO of AIG, is suing the federal government, alleging that the 2008 takeover of AIG was an unconstitutional “taking” of property. AIG is the giant insurance company that sold credit default swaps to investors around the world on mortgage-backed securities packed with subprime loans without having enough assets to cover those insurance policies.  At the time of the financial debacle of 2008, AIG was bailed out to the tune of 85 billion dollars and the government took an 80% stake in the company. Greenberg, the CEO of Starr International Group, one of the largest AIG shareholders at the time of AIG’s collapse, has filed suit on the grounds that the takeover was discriminatory and that the government should have simply completely bailed out his former company as it had bailed out the other institutional investors who had purchased AIG’s insurance policies. The gist of this lawsuit:

“The government is not empowered to trample shareholder and property rights even in the midst of a financial emergency,” Starr alleges in the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C.

This is the same Hank Greenberg who was forced out as CEO of AIG in 2006 under a cloud of suspicion after a  criminal fraud investigation by then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer revealed that AIG had been falsifying its account balances through the use of sham transactions in much the same manner that Enron had done. No criminal charges were ever filed but civil charges were still pending by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Those were settled in 2009, with Greenberg escaping the label of fraudster yet again. As the Wall Street Journal article noted:

The SEC’s settlement with Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former CEO of AIG, signals the end is near for the accounting fraud investigations that toppled him from office in 2005 under the threat of indictment by former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The settlement even allows Greenberg to claim with a straight face that he wasn’t accused of securities fraud, even if he was in the neighborhood of it. Greenberg did pay $15 million as disgorgement and a penalty, no small amount, but hardly debilitating.

Now Mr. Greenberg, insensed that the government didn’t bail out AIG more completely, is suing the federal government because the 85 billion in taxpayer dollars was not enough to compensate his Star International Group for their losses in the AIG meltdown. Socialism for the wealthy, capitalism for the rest of us.

Meanwhile, on the lending end of things, while banks like Washington Mutual and Countrywide Financial  doled out subprime and other crap loans for the sake of huge bonuses and fees, some of the more ethical individuals working at those mortgage mills tried to blow the whistle but were silenced at every turn by senior executives with big paydays on their minds. The following testimony from James Vanasek, Washington Mutual’s Chief Risk Officer from 2004 through 2006,  is just one example from a 2010 Senate hearing on the role of high-risk home loans in the financial crisis of 2008 and beyond:

In many ways and on many occasions I attempted to limit what was happening. Just a few examples may suffice. I stood in front of thousands of senior Washington Mutual managers and executives at an annual management retreat in 2004 and countered the senior executive speaker ahead of me on the program who was rallying the troops with the company’s advertising tag line “The Power of Yes.” The implication of this statement was that Washington Mutual would find some way to make a loan. The tag line symbolized the management attitude about mortgage lending more clearly than anything that I can tell you. Because I believed this sent the wrong message to the loan originators, I felt compelled to counter the prior speaker by saying to the thousands present that the “Power of Yes” absolutely needed to be balanced with “The Wisdom of No.” This was a highly unusual thing for a member of the management team to do, especially in such a forum. In fact it was so far out of the norm for meetings of this type that many considered my statement exceedingly risky from a career perspective.

Whistleblowers from Wells Fargo to Countrywide to Ameriquest to CitiFinancial were forced out of their jobs for objecting to the fraudulent behavior in the home loan industry, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity. Much like Mr. Greenberg, those responsible for the reprehensible lending behavior were never convicted of a crime. The closest the country came to the criminal prosecution of a subprime lender was the case of Angelo Mozillo of Countrywide which was dropped by the Justice Department when they concluded that he had not engaged in criminal activity despite being well aware that the loans his company was peddling were “toxic.”

This is why we protest, and will continue to do so, until the Wall Street criminals can no longer purchase our government into enabling their greedy, destructive behavior.

Occupy Austin’s Free Speech Rights

While we have witnessed some excessively violent and uncalled for attacks on Occupy encampments around the country, not every attempt to dismantle an occupation comes in the form of pepper spray and police beatings. Two protesters from Occupy Austin filed a lawsuit yesterday in federal court challenging the City of Austin’s practice of banning protesters from City Hall if they are labeled “unreasonably disruptive” and arrested, a move that subjects them to further arrest for criminal trespass should they subsequently step foot on City Hall property. More than 90 individuals have been banned from City Hall in this manner since the mass arrests of October 30th, when protesters refused to dismantle a food table. The bans have diluted the activist base at Occupy Austin but people continue to assemble daily. undeterred. Rules about the food table, as well as other newly-promulgated regulations represent a death by a thousand administrative cuts strategy to end Occupy Austin altogether despite official protestations to the contrary.

As noted in the lawsuit, throughout the month of  October the city made it more and more difficult for the encampment to continue:

City staff imposed policies on the protetsers’ use of the plaza — thrice-weekly power washings that require relocation of every portion of the Occupy base camp, micromanagement of which portions of the plaza could be used for what activities, and others — that appeared to the protesters to have been deliberately designed to make the expressive conduct of occupation intolerable, in direct contravention of the city’s stated policy of encouraging the use of the plaza for free speech and assembly purposes.

The people thus banned from City Hall and the sidewalk adjacent to it have a new title: exiles. The exiles have assembled on a stretch of land directly across the street, in Margaret Hoffman Oak Park, which they have named Exile Island. This existence of exiled protesters has necessitated that General Assemblies be held alternately at City Hall or across the street so that those who were banned could participate. It has so galvanized the occupiers that during a march from the state Capitol to City Hall on November 17th, during which hundreds of people marched in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and against the violent militarized eviction they suffered, Austin’s exiles were placed in the middle of the crowd and brought to City Hall shielded from police view  and protected from arrest, to participate in a General Assembly. Still, one exile named James decided to express his disapproval of the banning of protesters by chaining himself to a tree on City Hall Plaza, something the Austin paper erroneously described as a protest against the now ubiquitous power-washers.

James explains his actions

Photo by Kit O'Connell

James and Police Chief Art Acevedo prior to trespassing arrests

Photo courtesy of FlashOccupyATX

James and four others were eventually arrested for that act of civil disobedience, but not until after he had discussed the reason for his actions with the police chief.

When the police arrested the two plaintiffs in this case on October 30th, neither one of them resisted, neither was “unreasonably disruptive.”  They had, however either documented the mass arrests or given statements to the media about it. Apparently none of the other individuals arrested that night were combative either.  Here’s what Police Chief Art Acevedo had to say:

“I’m proud of the fact that we were able to take them into custody without anyone getting hurt, without excessive force, tear gas or batons like other cities around the country,” he said.

But even if the police had been forced to carry forty people off the property, banning people engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience from a public space, especially one that represents the power center of a municipality, is unacceptable.


Update: From tonight’s Occupy Austin General Assembly. Some of the criminal trespass bans have been lifted, but too many remain in force.

Militarized America III

Many people were outraged by the use of pepper spray against students at the University of California Davis who were sitting on the ground on campus in an act of civil disobedience. But apparently this behavior is simply standard operating procedure. In an article announcing that two UC Davis police officers were placed on administrative leave (leave with pay), a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant asserts the following:

Charles J. Kelly, a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant who wrote the department’s use of force guidelines, said pepper spray is a “compliance tool” that can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters.

“When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them,” Kelly said. “Bodies don’t have handles on them.”

After reviewing the video, Kelly said he observed at least two cases of “active resistance” from protesters. In one instance, a woman pulls her arm back from an officer. In the second instance, a protester curls into a ball. Each of those actions could have warranted more force, including baton strikes and pressure-point techniques.

“What I’m looking at is fairly standard police procedure,” Kelly said.

I see. The officer with the pepper spray was actually protecting the protesters by spraying them into compliance as opposed to having to lift them and possibly breaking a bone. This is a truly ridiculous statement, especially since after spraying the students the cops dragged some of them away, endangering the human bodies the barrage of chemicals was supposed to protect.   Also, according to Mr. Kelly, curling into a ball is an action that can bring on baton strikes? No harm to human bodies there. Just ask Kayvan Sabeghi. What if a demonstrator has a seizure? What crowd control techniques will be brought to bear then? If this is standard operating procedure, then we must insist that police departments around the country revise those procedures.

Maybe the use of pepper spray is standard in that it has been dispensed in large quantities around the country against nonviolent protesters of all ages, creating a nice income stream for manufacturers of these chemicals. But there is nothing acceptable about this practice. If you think you absolutely must disperse peaceful demonstrators engaging in free speech activities, then find another way. Ask anyone who works in a hospital. There are ways of lifting  people without resorting to chemical weapons.

Militarized America II

It’s clear from the images emerging from the various Occupy protests around the country last week that the incursion of military tactics and weaponry into local policing is a boon for defense contractors. More importantly, though, it is a black eye for American democracy.

First the sheer ugliness.

Eyewitness and video accounts of various incidents around the country have shown that when you put more and more weaponry into the hands of local police forces, some of the individuals on those police forces will react to their new toys by using them in totally inappropriate ways, as seen in:

  • this attack on an Iraq war vet by a line of policemen dressed as storm-troopers on the streets of Oakland, hollering “move” in unison until one of them breaks from the pack and starts beating the man with his club, a pummeling that ruptured the man’s spleen
  •  or this attack on students at the University of California Davis, sitting on the ground in an act of peaceful civil disobedience. The UC Davis video is  eight minutes long, but the entire video is well worth watching: as students shame the police for this unprovoked, unwarranted use of pepper spray,  the video shows closeups of the cops faces – they are bewildered, confused. At first they grip their weapons tightly, but as the students yell “you can go” they eventually do back down.
  • or this action against demonstrators in Seattle where pepper spray was used indiscriminately, affecting young and old alike. The Seattle mayor eventually apologized for this, if only because an 84-year-old activist was among the victims.


In New York City, a retired New York Supreme Court Judge and legal observer for Occupy Wall Street witnessed the police overreaction to a woman attempting to get information on her daughter, who was in Liberty Square the evening police in full riot gear executed an eviction order by attacking demonstrators as they slept.  The woman was concerned for the safety of her daughter, but the response from one overly armed police officer  was to push her to the ground and beat her with his club. When the retired judge objected,  the cop pushed her against the wall, despite the fact that she was wearing a clearly marked cap identifying her as a legal observer.  This activity was described on Democracy Now! which also included an interview with retired Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, who oversaw the use of military tactics on demonstrators during the 1999 WTO protests, a decision that he now regrets:

We were using military tactics. I authorized the use of chemical agents on nonviolent offenders. I thought I had good justification at that time. I did not. The police officer in me was thinking about emergency vehicles, fire trucks, aid cars being able to get through a key intersection. The police chief in me should have said, “This is wrong,” and vetoed that decision. I will regret that decision for the rest of my life. We took a military response to a situation that was fundamentally nonviolent, in which Americans were expressing their views and their values, and used tear gas on them. And that was just plain wrong.

Web sites catering to police departments may list these weapons – batons, aerosols, tasers, launchers and projectiles – as “less lethal” because they do not use real bullets, but they have caused serious harm.

This country’s militarized police forces may reflect the climate of fear that has been cultivated since the 2001 terrorist attacks, but that climate has been nurtured over the years by a defense contracting industry eager for the huge profits that a fear-based society can engender. These contractors have of course reaped the benefits of two wars of choice, but those military incursions are slowing down somewhat if they are not entirely coming to an end. While defense contractors are losing a market as Congress debates cutting the defense budget, cities faced with their own budget constraints are looking to technology to supplement police forces. As noted in a recent article in Homeland Security News Wire, a defense contracting industry e-publication:

 This issue will become more important as military technology is being adopted by law enforcement. In time of budget cuts, law enforcement turns to technology to augment capabilities with fewer resources. As defense contractors push into local markets, military technology may soon become ubiquitous in law enforcement.

Local officials along the US and Mexico border also represent a prime customer base for defense contractors. They have already been using these weapons and surveillance technology in their efforts to stop  undocumented immigrants from crossing the border, but the influx of such weaponry was boosted by reports of possible drug violence and massacres occurring in the US, a claim  so false that even a high level immigration official noted that the fear of cross-border violence was overblown.  Still border governors like Jan Brewer and Rick Perry blathering on about headless bodies and other violence on the US side of the  border has had the desired effect of creating a market for military equipment in  policing. Defense industry insiders like former Office of Drug Control Policy director  Barry McCaffrey have also added to the fear mongering.

The sale of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies may prove lucrative to defense contractors eager for more and more profits, but it has been disastrous for our democracy as more and more citizens engaged in protected First Amendment activities and civil disobedience meet up with supposed “non lethal” or “less lethal” weapons of war. It’s time for local police departments to stop using these weapons and tactics, to stop viewing peaceful demonstrators as a terroristic threat.