A spoiled relationship, Occupy Wall Street and the NYPD

This a guest post by Eric Zerkel, a graduate of Florida State University who lives in New York where he studies journalism at New York University.  You can follow him on twitter: @EricZerkel


Not too long ago, I was an undergrad Political Science major at Florida State University, with a particularly keen interest in human rights. During that time I soaked in as much as I could on the vast and complex intricacies of the international human rights framework. But, more importantly, I had the opportunity to work on an academic human rights project called the Ill Treatment and Torture Data Collection Project or I.T.T. for short.

I’ll save you the details, but my job was to essentially sift through thousands of pages of documents detailing human rights violation allegations from the N.G.O. Amnesty International’s reports, and highlight the intricacies of each in a very, I’ll repeat, VERY, systematic and detailed manner.

So that meant I spent a LOT of time pouring over the alleged atrocities states committed while repressing minority groups, protestors, political dissidents, and the like. It was a particularly dour job, knowing that while I was sitting behind a computer screen for hours on end scouring the internet, individuals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – for example – were putting guns and knives in children’s hands, forcing them to kill, cook, and then eat pieces of their own family members as a sick and sadistic form of psychological torture.

Yet, in spite of all of this, I never imagined I would experience even the most basic aspects of the world I experienced in those reports.  I was a small town Floridian boy after all, and despite its status as a swing state, the areas of Florida I called my stomping ground weren’t exactly an agar gel culturing protests and repressive police action.

Then I moved to New York City to study journalism at NYU. Then Occupy Wall Street happened. And suddenly the two worlds collided.

I first showed up on the scene at Zuccotti a week after the protest began as a part of a school assignment to report on any story of my choosing. I was interacting with protestors before media cared, when papers were running stories largely mocking the protest. Long before protestors established a media center to deal with the hoards of my colleagues, Occupiers would approach me, pleadingly inquiring if I were a reporter for the New York Times or some other major publication. No such luck. 

I followed the movement from September until now, enamored with the global spectacle it had morphed into from its humble tarp and sleeping bag roots. I followed along with early marches such as the Global Day of Action and the fallout of eviction on November 15th – what a birthday that was – as well as more recent events such as the anti-police brutality march on March 24th, and May Day. I did so as both a student journalist and a reporting intern for the New York Daily News, receiving a vastly different response from both protestors and police with respect to my formal media title. Post eviction I worked within Occupy’s working groups, going to various meeting places to observe the behind closed doors actions of Occupy’s immigrant worker justice working group. I’ve spoken to thousands of Occupiers, and witnessed nearly all of the Occupy saga unfold. 

So the recent release of a rather thorough report  by The Global Justice Clinic (NYU School of Law) and the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice (Fordham Law School) [PDF here] detailing the systematic repression of the New York City contingent of Occupy Wall Street hits close to home. I’ve read through the document, and the depth and thoroughness of this report brings back mental images from protests and marches past. I’ve witnessed or experienced nearly all of the stories as presented within. 

There is this direct conflict between a journalist trying to document a police action, and a police officer attempting to restore order. While covering the protests I had been threatened and pushed multiple times, mostly to stay out of the way and onto the sidewalk. I was an uncredentialed press member, even when I worked for the Daily News, so I never had whatever marginal benefit a badge could provide. Most of the time when I was being pushed or yelled at I would exclaim, “I’m a journalist! I’m a journalist! I’m just doing my job.” Sometimes police officers would oblige with a more apologetic response, “Sorry, just stay off the street please.” or “Please just stand clear of the barricades.” Other times my pleas would fall on deaf ears.  “I don’t give a damn who you are, keep the hell back!” followed by another quick shove.

When I was covering the protests for school I would usually follow orders to the T. My father, after all, is a police officer, so I’m quite understanding of the police side of the equation. I also figured there was no point in getting arrested for a school project. However, when I started covering the protests for the Daily News, I knew I had to compete with other media outlets, so I jockeyed my way into position to get the best photographs and interview the best witnesses. As a result I felt the full force of police violence. On March 24th, while covering the anti-police brutality protests for the Daily News I received the worst of it. 

I was hit multiple times in the legs with a baton, knocked onto the ground by a police scooter, and pushed to the ground by officers in riot control gear, all while attempting to take pictures of various arrests. The blanket police rationale? Because I stepped off the sidewalk and onto the street.

In my experience, the NYPD’s response to the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon has been extremely exceptional in terms of violence, especially in their treatment of the press. I’ve been at numerous crime scenes – from murders to hit-and-runs – and the NYPD has always been becoming and helpful, even in the face of their duties to protect the sanctity of an open investigation. 

One story, more than any other, sticks out in sheer contrast to the police treatment of the Occupy protests. I was covering the New York Giants’ superbowl parade, and ran across a rather riled up pack of inebriated fans. You can see the story here. After an initial police confrontation, the fans went on a rampage, running down the street, jumping on cars, climbing light posts…etc. Culminating in the destruction of a police cruiser. While the riotous fans jumped with glee atop the car, smashing its windows in, I was right in front of the vehicle, snapping photos with my camera. The NYPD then filed in, gently redirecting fans out of the area, as another group climbed up to meet the hooligans mid-destruction. The police, recognizing I was press, let me stay, snapping pictures a mere foot or two away from the arrests of the perps. I was not hit with batons, or threatened with violence. Similarly, neither were any of the rest of the mob. They all dispersed peacefully, as New York’s finest took care of the small contingent of fans committing the crime. 

Afterwards, I circled around the block to snap some photos of the damage done to the vehicle. Officers had already blocked off the street, not allowing anyone to come near the vehicle, but one of the officers saw me and motioned me towards the scene of the crime. 

“Weren’t you the guy taking pictures right there in the front?” the officer said. I told him yes. 

“How do I look?” he said with a smile. “Let me see.” So I stood there with him and a couple other officers, flipping through the photos, while he jestingly criticized my lackluster lens, and his buddies knocked his “take down technique.” 

“Aww you can’t even see my face,” he said, in reference to an arrest shot. 

“No, but I believe that’s your knee,” I said, pointing at the officer’s knee firmly pinning the suspect’s neck against the concrete. He just cracked a broken smile, and then we went our separate ways. I still can’t believe the difference in treatment I received then, and while covering the Occupy protests. The 4th wall between police justice and press coverage had been broken. No longer was I just another guy on the street in the way, I had access, privilege, to report and document what others could not see. 

So with that story in mind, I’d like to take a moment to run through some of the specific aspects of the report, pairing concrete examples with some of the thematic police tactics described within, while sharing some broader observations based on my experiences with the Occupy Movement. Then, I’ll finish with a broader take on the relationship between OWS and the NYPD. 

First though, here is a list of general abuses I have witnessed first hand that are listed, as presented, within the report. (Pg. vi)

  • Aggressive, unnecessary and excessive police force against peaceful protesters, bystanders, legal observers, and journalists (In a March 24th march against police brutality, I witnessed multiple violent arrests. In one planned action two protestors laid down in the middle of the street as a form of peaceful protest. Here is apicture I took just after it happened.  Following this, the two were violently dragged shook, restrained with flex cuffs, and dragged by their hands and feet to on waiting police vehicles. Bystanders, and media members attempting to document the process, including myself, were pushed backwards by the police, some protestors were actually pushed into the street. One such protestor was a 16 year old minor, who was violently thrown to the ground, twisted about, stepped on and pressed to the ground, restrained by flex cuffs and dragged by her appendages. I took this photo of the incident right before media members and protestors were again pushed back, this time against the wall of a corner bodega. )
  • Obstruction of press freedoms and independent legal monitoring (As the report states, the independent legal monitors that accompanied OWS were often arrested, just as the Occupiers were. While covering the marches and protests on November 15th, I witnessed various press members get arrested for attempting to take photos of police tackling and arresting protestors in Tribeca’s Duarte Square Park. Media members were held to the same standard as the protestors, which often meant that they were pushed, hit with batons, restrained..etc. for covering protests. Even though media members had badges, and independent legal monitors wore hats and other paraphernalia that identified them as such, NYPD officers showed little to no discretion in levying violent action.) 
  • Pervasive surveillance of peaceful political activity
  • Violent late-night raids on peaceful encampments
  • Unjustified closure of public space, dispersal of peaceful assemblies, and kettling (corralling and trapping) of protesters
  • Arbitrary and selective rule enforcement and baseless arrests

In particular, the study outlines 4 strategies developed by police forces in the U.S. in direct response to mass protests.

1.     Escalated Force

2.     Negotiated Management

3.     Command and Control

4.     Strategic Incapacitation 

As the study so aptly states: 

These approaches are not mutually exclusive; police may employ tactics from multiple approaches during any particular event. There are similarities between the four strategies, but they differ in terms of the degree of force used against protestersthe level of communication and cooperation sought between police and protesters, and the police response to individuals engaging in civil disobedience. -Pg. 26

That statement is pretty important given the near unanimous recollection I had when presented with the specific properties of each strategy. Varying degrees of these strategies are employed by the NYPD to deal with OWS, and from my experience, the application of these are dependent upon whether or not the protest is permit approved and sanctioned, or a spur-of-the-moment reactionary to a previous police action. Similarly, if a permit approved protest deviated from its scheduled confines, police reacted in a much different manner than if the protest went as planned.

As the report explains, Escalated Force is often characterized by:

  • limited concern for the protesters’ speech and assembly rights (YES. This is a bit more controversial and subjective than others, but based on the violence I witnessed, the priority appears to be order and control rather than speech and assembly rights.)
  • limited tolerance for community disruption (YES. This is best evidenced by the stringent enforcement of sidewalk laws, and intertwines with arbitrary selective rule enforcement. If protestors – and similarly press – take a step onto the street they are verbally warned, though sometimes not, for disrupting the flow of traffic, a community disruption. Also, this became a contentious issue when residents around Zuccotti park started making noise complaints due to drumming, which led to music curfews, and the confiscation of musical instruments.)
  • limited communication between police and demonstrators (YES. This is also a bit contentious. Some officers are more willing than others to explain the rationale behind their decisions. Largely though, communication is limited to orders to cease and desist shouted en masse, rather than interjected on an individual-to-individual basis. But a major conflict in communication arises as a result of the leaderless nature of the Occupy movement, which I’ll get into later once I talk about negotiated management.)
  • extensive use of arrests to manage demonstrators (YES. This is easily observable in the massive Brooklyn Bridge arrests, as well as the 80 or so arrested during the infamous corralling and pepper spraying of women on September 25th. Once Police lose control of a situation, if protestors run onto the streets, or attempt to circumvent barricades, Police begin arresting everyone on sight until protestors return to the sidewalks or designated protest zones.)
  • extensive use of force to control demonstrators (YES. Though the force seems significantly curtailed compared to the fire hoses, and German Shepherds of the Civil Rights movement outlined in the report. Batons and Police Scooters are commonplace though.) 
  • and surveillance of protesters, including infiltration and the use of informants. ( NO. I cannot speak directly to this, especially the infiltration bit, but leaked NYPD pre-protest memos seem to suggest an advanced knowledge of protests above and beyond what permits dictate.) 

The next strategy is Negotiated Management, which the report says: 

…features active cooperation between police and protesters, with the aim of negotiating to eliminate conflicts that could potentially lead to the use of force. The approach views communication as necessary to protect First Amendment rights and minimize conflict.

Basically police get all buddy-buddy with protestors, building up a bravado with them which allows a deeper form of communication and control.  Honestly, this was largely non-existent. But the communication between the two groups is an integral point. Largely, the communication I witnessed was done on a very singular level. Despite a massive police presence with scooter brigades, horses, squad cars, and officers on foot usually there are one or two people on loud speakers shouting commands at protestors to disperse.

Which leads me to my next point. I think a factor of failed communication between groups largely results from the leaderless nature of the OWS movement. With no leader to communicate with, Police often get frustrated and unruly. Every individual within OWS is responsible for their own actions, and while large groups of protestors comply with the NYPD’s rules, the contingent that refuses compliance often cannot be distinguished in any way from the compliant group. There is no Malcolm X vs Dr. King here to direct statements to.

The third, more complex and applicable strategy of policing is that of Command and Control, which

is distinguished from negotiated management because it sets clear and strict guidelines on acceptable behavior with very little negotiation with demonstration organizers. (pg 29) 

Here are some of the qualities of Command and Control, and some specific examples I have witnessed of these qualities in action:

  • heavy police response (YES. The NYPD sent hundreds of officers to guide and control marches. There was also a significant 24/7 police presence surrounding the park during the occupation. Wherever the occupiers went, the police followed, with no exceptions.)
  • surrounding and subdividing protesters (YES. In a march on big pharmaceuticals, protestors got separated. One group was already at the headquarters of Pfizer at 42nd and 2nd ave, the other was marching directly from Bryant Park to meet up with the other group at the Pfizer building. By the time the marching group reached the building, the small group already at the building had been quarantined off from the marchers via metal barricades directly positioned just off the sidewalk in front of the building’s entrance. Another set of barricades were then set up in real time across the street to prevent a massive presence in front of Pfizer’s headquarters. Realizing this, the large marching group tried to circumvent the police movements, circling around the block to try to flank the police presence on the other side. When this failed, protestors confronted the police barricades in front of the Pfizer building, resulting in violent clashes. Protestors then acted like they were retreating back to Bryant Park, waiting for the Police to slack, before making a run for it across the street, resulting in arrests and beatings.)
  • the use of barricades to block or divert protester access to an area (YES. See above. Also this happened when protestors attempted to march on Wall Street in response to Bloomberg’s first failed eviction attempt. The NYPD had barricaded the entire area off, protestors pushed forward, and the NYPD used the barricades as weapons pushing forward in tandem with the metal barricades, knocking protestors down, and then arresting them.)  
  • arresting protesters for minor legal violations that are otherwise typically not enforced (YES. Sidewalk laws are the major example. Another example deals with the confiscation of protestors’ flags because the flag poles were made out of hardened materials and therefore designated as weapons. I saw multiple arrests from this during marches, and before a March 24th protest against police brutality, I witnessed flag poles being confiscated. One officer told a protestor that he could only have a flag pole made out of cardboard.)
  • and/or using force against protesters engaged in minor legal violations (YES. See the sidewalks again, but when Bloomberg was trying to find a legal way to evict the protestors from Zuccotti park, he cited laws against homelessness, using the various tent structures as an impetus for clearing out the park in the middle of the night.)
  • the creation of “no protest” zones (YES, see the Pfizer example. Another occasion happened when a group of Baruch college students impromptu decided to crash a board budget cut meeting. Since the police couldn’t prepare for this one, they simply blocked the entire front of Baruch college keeping more protestors from joining in,  and creating a no protest zone, while also isolating the ones inside.)
  • Vitale suggests that this intensified version of the command and control strategy is most often used against groups that do not apply for permits or engage in forms of civil disobedience. (YES. This is such a key point. From my experience some of the worst beatings and arrests occurred when Occupiers marched without a permit. After they were evicted for example, I was there when they attempted to take control of a Tribeca park, which resulted in many arrests and beatings. Occupiers then started marching back towards Zuccotti while police were occupied with filing the arrested protestors into the back of the police bus, causing police to scramble. Police were late in joining up with the march, which spilled out onto the streets. When they showed up, police cars drove through large contingents of protestors marching down Broadway, nearly hitting them with their vehicles in an attempt to force protestors back onto the streets. When reinforcements arrived, police subdued protestors with batons, and scooters, arresting many more. This sort of hurried, violent response was commonplace when marches occurred without permit.) 

The final strategy is that of Strategic Incapacitation, a proactive approach, “that police adopt measures in advance to minimize the potential impact and size of a protest,” (Pg. 39) In my experience this strategy best exemplifies the NYPD’s approach to planned, permitted marches and protests, and is exhibited by:

  • preparing a large police force to arrive at a scheduled protest location before the event begins (YES. Often times I would show up to planned marches early, especially after the eviction, only to be met with a police presence that vastly outnumbered the presence of protestors.)
  • regulating permits for the protest in a manner designed to redirect the protest (YES. I had the benefit of working on a story behind closed doors with the immigrant worker justice group of OWS. I had unprecedented access to their meetings and decision making process. One of these decisions was a planned march and protest to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE building. One of their permits was denied however, due to the request to have a music playing device at their meet up spot. Many of the group members posited that this rejection was used to keep the protestors from converging in one area for an extended period of time.)
  • During protests, police distinguish between classes of protesters, using distinct tactics against “bad” (or “transgressive”) protesters (YES, particularly as the protests progressed and certain protestors took on advanced roles within the organization, such as leading the direct action committee.  Morphed with advanced surveillance, certain protestors began to build a reputation within and amongst police officers, so much so that I have overheard officers pointing out particular protestors and exclaiming that, “this one is trouble.”)

Take from that what you will, but I was particularly astonished with how my personal experiences on the street fit into the larger narrative of police tactics. I won’t do much more analysis than that, but on the whole, the NYPD used all of these tactics, and in instances when protests became reactionary and unplanned, violence grew exponentially. 

And while the report is thorough in detailing very real examples of police oppression, there are a couple of effects that are briefly glazed over by the report. 


Police Opression and Marginalized Group Fear

The report briefly mentions the long, complex relationship between the NYPD and minority communities saying in part: 

In New York City, protest policing concerns are extensive and exist against a backdrop of disproportionate and well-documented abusive policing practices in poor and minority communities outside of the protest context….For others who had long experienced official discrimination and abuse, especially those from minority and economically disadvantaged communities, protest experiences have simply reinforced existing negative perceptions…The abusive practices documented in this report…(are) making people afraid to attend otherwise peaceful assemblies. pp vi-vii 

This fear is an extremely real problem within the Occupy Movement. Because of a history of marginalization, minority groups within OWS, known as caucus groups, are given special privileges that allow their voices to be heard within the consensus of OWS as a whole. Last winter, I embedded myself within the Immigrant Worker Justice group,(IWJ) before the eviction of November 15 through that December. Since they made decisions on consensus, I often got to hear the very real concerns and fears of the immigrants, in particular the undocumented. 

By this point, the violence between protestors and police had become commonplace. I was always fascinated with the mold protestors developed to prepare for mass marches. After the pepper spray incidents, the Brooklyn Bridge, eviction, and various other clashes with police,  OWS had become masters of preparing for police violence. Before one march, protestors used the people’s mic to communicate numbers to contact ACLU lawyers should they be arrested. A couple of shirtless lads asked me if they could borrow the pen I was using to scribble down notes in my reporter’s notebook. They then proceeded to scribble numbers all over their body, before returning my pen. haha Protestors were instructed to shout out if they were being arrested, so that the throngs of their comrades could “shame” the officers with chants and rhetoric. Instructions were always given to remain peaceful, and to not invite arrest. Consequently, the protestors also knew exactly how to make the police tick, which was the aim of the March 24th march against police brutality. 

My point is, members of Occupy Wall Street began to expect the inevitability of violence. So, during one IWJ meeting, I heard for the first time the fears of violence come to fruition. A planned and permitted December 18th march for immigrant workers’ rights was met with much support. Then, some of the undocumented immigrants voiced their concerns. “I’m worried that people are going to go crazy,” one man said. “Yeah, we can’t afford to have people getting arrested and clashing with police,” said another. “We have too much at stake. If the police start beating and arresting us… I want to support the movement, but I can’t risk getting arrested.” 

Even though the committee within IWJ tasked with organizing the march stressed it would be law-abiding, many of the undocumented immigrants were not convinced. Instead, they opted to attend the December 11th Teach-In which took place in a building on Broadway, behind closed doors and away from threatened police violence. In this way, the police threat had a very real and observable impact on protest. A group of marginalized individuals, undocumented immigrants, refused to attend a rally aimed exclusively at improving their rights. 


Digital Occupy + Traditional Journalism = Indiscriminate Abuse

As the report details, NYPD officers often indiscriminately swing batons at crowds, hitting whoever is in their path. That’s exactly what happened to me when I was struck. Now, anyone who has followed the Occupy protests closely knows that social media plays a critical role in documenting both the practices of the protestors, as well as the abuses of the police. Accordingly, members of Occupy walk with the marches holding I-pad’s to live stream, DSLR cameras, video equipment and the like. In fact, Occupy media members are nearly indistinguishable from some traditional media members.  

Unless you’re sporting a microphone with a CBS flag, chances are police aren’t going to notice you’re a media member. Not to mention, when clashes between police and protestors break out, chaos usually reigns supreme. Police treat everyone the same, media or not. Coupled with the murkiness of separating oneself from Occupy media, I believe this has led to a spike in abuse towards traditional media members, and certainly sparks questions for debate, such as what truly distinguishes Occupy media from traditional media?

Generally speaking I believe NYPD abuse occurs within the Occupy protests because of a prevailing culture of acceptance. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people not affiliated with OWS who are sympathetic with the hardline no nonsense approach of Michael Blooomberg and Ray Kelly. A prevailing justification for this acceptance is that rights sometimes have to be broken to maintain order, and keep the streets of NYC safe. This same argument is found time and time again in media reports detailing the surveillance of New York City’s Muslims, and I believe is part of a larger reactionary to the tough, gritty history of New York City’s past. 

Obviously, it would be short-sided of me to say that all New Yorkers support Kelly and Bloomberg, and the violence levied against OWS. That’s simply not the truth. Public opinion is often much more complex, than a simple yes or no. However, I believe that those actually willing to mobilize against NYPD abuse are much more likely to be a part of OWS and march alongside them. Thus, creating a cycle of abuse that goes unchecked. If protests are the source of the abuse, what public, community solution to police abuse is there?

I don’t know these answers. What I do know is that I have seen a shift in the relationship between OWS and the NYPD. That first week, before mass arrests, before violence, members of OWS would reach out to members of the NYPD and ask them to join them. Police, they said, were marginalized by economic inequality just as much, if not more than the rest of the public. But as the seriousness ratcheted up, and the NYPD cracked down on OWS, the relationship soured.

Before I covered the March 24th marches, I had been on a three month hiatus from covering OWS marches. Upon my return I was shocked at just how badly the relationship between the two groups had become. OWSers were clearly angry from the eviction, and police abuse, and lashed out at officers, yelling obscenities and empty threats at the long stretch of officers that lined the sidewalks. Officers would yell back, leveling threats of violence back at the protestors. It was clear to me that the history of the months passed had promoted a culture of violence, protestors now intentionally pushing the buttons of officers, officers intentionally enforcing every law they could to take protestors off the streets. The lines between protestor and instigator, and the lines between enforcer and protector were now blurred. 


About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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