An eighty-four-year-old woman is looking straight into a camera. Her eyes are wide, her mouth is agape, and she is drenched in a filmy white fluid: it flattens her white billowing hair, it glazes her flushed cheeks, it runs off her chin onto her scarf. This is Dorli Rainey, minutes after being doused with pepper spray by police at an Occupy Seattle protest on Tuesday. Joshua Trujillo shot the picture for seattlepi.com. Trujillo also took pictures of the police doing the dousing—hosing the protesters down with what look like fire extinguishers full of the noxious, blinding, stinging pepper spray. And he took pictures of a woman, who called herself Jennifer and said she was two months pregnant, being carried to safety by a fellow protester after the pepper spray disabled her, then being treated by medics at the edge of the action. Trujillo’s pictures of these women—the octogenarian and the expecting mother—were all over the Occupy Wall Street Twitter streams: @OccupyWallSt, @occupyoakland, @occupyarrests, and the like. And they were just the latest images of the shocking and apparently gratuitous violence visited by our police on nonviolent protesters in one American city after another over the past several months.
Among the most effective chants of the O.W.S. protesters has been a simple message: “The whole world is watching.” The chant is powerful because it is true. This is the age of the smartphone and the live-feed. And so, in New York on Monday night—or rather, at one o’clock on Tuesday morning—when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly deployed thousands of cops to clear O.W.S. out of Zuccotti Park, they did so under the deepest cover of darkness, and they forbade the press from seeing what they were doing.
The N.Y.P.D. descended on the park with deafening military-grade LRAD noise canons and several stadiums’ worth of blinding Klieg lights, and while they worked, they drove journalists steadily back further and further from their area of operations. (Even the airspace over southern Manhattan was closed during the raid to prevent news helicopters from filming, making a mockery of claims, by the mayor and the police, that they were keeping reporters at bay for their own safety.) A number of journalists who attempted to stand their ground, identifying themselves to the police and insisting on their long-established legal right to work, were treated like protesters—roughed up, shoved, put in choke holds, pepper-sprayed, and otherwise manhandled, and at least seven reporters (including four who’d sought refuge in a church, and one from the New York Post, which has been calling for such a police operation against O.W.S. for weeks) were among the nearly two hundred and fifty people arrested during the crackdown. So was a City Councilman, Ydanis Rodriguez, who was taken into custody blocks from the park, and bloodied in the process.
The paramilitary-style eviction of O.W.S. from Zuccotti Park was not our Guernica; it wasn’t our Tiananmen Square, nor even our Tahrir Square—as Nicholas Kristof of the Times, and many other commentators not so firmly in the media mainstream, have suggested. Thankfully, the Occupy encampments across America, and the state power arrayed against them, did not represent anything like the forces of revolution or of oppression that we’ve seen in those foreign uprisings. That is precisely what makes the police violence that has become such a common spectacle so troubling: protest is an essential American democratic tradition, and you don’t have to support the protesters (or oppose the dismantling of their camps) to condemn its forcible stifling.
Of course there have been piecemeal incidents of violent criminality (vandalism and assault) by protesters; and, in confrontations with police, some have fought back. But the conduct of the overwhelming majority of Occupy activists has been highly disciplined in its adherence to the rigors of nonviolent civil disobedience. So why have we had to watch police—who are our employees, operating in our name—slamming and dragging unresisting men on the street, kneeling heavily on people’s heads while binding their wrists too tightly in flexicuffs, and pepper-spraying already captive women in New York; billy-clubbing peaceable demonstrators and dragging them brutally around by their hair when they offer their wrists to be arrested in Berkeley; and tear-gassing and flash-banging them at Occupy Oakland? (The Oakland police assault left an Iraq war veteran among the protesters critically injured.)
The Occupy movement has become a worldwide phenomenon, but it began in New York, and is deeply rooted here; and, sadly, the ham-fisted practice of responding to it with excesses of police force are now also identified with New York. In particular, it was the white-shirted brass of the N.Y.P.D.—to whom the people of the city have extended extraordinary trust and sympathy and power in the decade since the September 11th attacks—who led the charge, punching, kicking, and batoning protesters with gusto in their early confrontations. At times, in September and October, it seemed as if the police violence was intended to provoke the protesters to respond in kind, and it was remarkable how few took the bait. At other times, it seemed as if the police must secretly be on the side of the protesters, because whenever cops would have at them public sympathy for O.W.S. flourished, the encampments grew, and the leaderless movement’s broad complaints—above all, America’s gross and growing economic inequality—got established more firmly as defining themes of our national debate.
Since O.W.S. took over Zuccotti Park in mid-September, there have been well over a thousand arrests of protesters. But only one police officer has been disciplined for the chronic misconduct (a mild world for thuggery) that we’ve seen in confrontation after confrontation: Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, who was caught on video blasting pepper-spray into the faces of captive women in September. From the start, many of the protesters have attempted to appeal to the cops as fellow members of the ninety-nine per cent, urging them to serve the public that employs them rather than the Bloomberg oligarchy that O.W.S. portrays (all too often convincingly) as a protection racket for the one-per-centers. But the overkill of this week’s crackdown left many protesters chanting “Fuck the police”—and it should be noted that on the level of verbal violence, too, police often struck first, charging into the park, yelling at everyone to “Move the fuck out.”
The protesters’ indignation was shared by top city officials. Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, declared that he had never before seen such an attack on the press in New York; and John Liu, the City Comptroller, said, “It is simply outrageous that this action was taken with a show of force that resembles what the military would call shock and awe.” In an angry letter to Bloomberg and Kelly, Gabe Pressman, the president of the New York Press Club (who supported the Mayor’s decision to clear the park), wrote: “The brash manner in which officers ordered reporters off the streets and then made them back off until the actions of the police were almost invisible is outrageous.” Pressman demanded an investigation, and assurances that gross abuses of police power against the press would not happen again.
There have been no such assurances, and an investigation of the city’s violent response to O.W.S.—and not only to the press—is long overdue. The aim should not be to stigmatize the police but to insure that they serve to defend rather than attack the right to peaceable protest. That means that it cannot be enough to investigate individual acts by individual officers, as if they were merely bad apples. What is needed is an independent inquiry with sufficient power to hold the mayor and the police commissioner accountable as the chief officers in a chain of command over which they clearly preside with fierce control.
It has been widely remarked—not only by pundits but also by O.W.S. activists—that the extremity of Bloomberg’s action has been a great boost to the movement. The writer Michele Goldberg describes coming upon an evicted O.W.S. man named Jake early Tuesday morning, who said of Zuccotti Park: “There were people smoking crack, people with puppies begging for money, we looked like shit. Now what do we look like? Peaceful protesters getting our asses kicked. This is the best thing that could have happened. There are thousands of people watching us at five a.m.”
There will be many thousands more watching Thursday, when O.W.S. plans to stage a mass action, and attempts to shut down the New York Stock Exchange, take over bridges, occupy subway stations, and who knows what else. Public sentiment could easily turn again. (At least one significant poll finds that the movement’s national popularity has been in overall decline of late.) But even if Bloomberg’s extreme action was good for O.W.S., it was not the best thing for the city. In a democracy, a mayor who believes he can shut down the press at will is not defending public safety; and a mayor who believes the police can be unleashed to manhandle the citizenry without answering for it cannot claim to be on the side of law or order.
Photograph: John Minchillo/AP
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