Friday, October 14, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: People Power vs. the Police State

by Nick Turse

The NYPD has erected a ring of steel around Liberty Plaza, but Occupy Wall Street vows to resist.

"The more, the merrier,” was how the white-shirted police inspector put it as he stood on the periphery of Liberty Plaza while activist and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello played for Occupy Wall Street protesters on Thursday afternoon.

“More” was the operative word. While the NYPD commander was glad-handing a elderly protester who was asking about his thoughts on all the people in the jam-packed park, it could have been a commentary on his department’s presence. The periphery of Liberty Plaza, formally known as Zuccotti Park, resembles an armed camp with surveillance equipment, police vehicles, armed officers, and metal barricades ringing a city square filled with unarmed activists, who openly advocate non-violence. The response is as disproportionate as it is superfluous, a point driven home by the utter apathy displayed by many of the security forces on the scene…today. Tomorrow, the occupiers face the real possibility that the overwhelming police presence will spring to life in order to evict them, end the four-week people’s occupation and snuff out the new society they’re building.

The NYPD’s Numbers Game
The sheer numbers tell the story when it comes to the NYPD’s response to the Occupy Wall Street movement. On this misty morning as the park was just coming to life, there were 22 uniformed police officers, as well as two white-shirted commanders, already ringing the square. A rainbow coalition, men and women: Thompson, Brancaccio, Yusuff, Badillo, Jacob, Sanchez, Lagani, they stood looking disinterested, or texted on their smart phones or answered tourists’ questions, forming an intermittent chain of dark blue enforcers with little to enforce.

Their numbers were exceeded (and augmented) by the metal barricades that similarly ring the park, leaving openings only at the plaza’s four corners. Roughly 150 individual fences surround the park itself, counting those that are doubled up and can be used to seal the plaza entirely should the police decide to do so.

Along Liberty Street sit a phalanx of police vehicles that come and go, but mostly stay put. In front of One Liberty Plaza, the 54-story tower just north of the park (whose owners, Brookfield Properties, also own Zuccotti Park), I counted seven squad cars, two full-size police vans, one police minivan and one, to lapse into political incorrectness, “paddy wagon.” In most of these vehicles uniformed police officers sat talking on phones, texting, eating or dozing. Later in the morning, the total count had increased to 16 police vehicles, in addition to a number of unmarked cars, most of which proved to belong to police officers, too.

The police state ethos did not, however, end with the NYPD presence surrounding the park’s perimeter. Across Broadway and up Liberty Street, the security forces maintained a reserve contingent of 11 police cars, five police vans, and one paddy wagon from precincts all over the city: the 1st, 5th, 9th, 10th, 13th, 20th, 83rd, 94th (Brooklyn!), as well as the Fleet Services Division which oversees the NYPD’s inventory of cars. There was even a large NYPD Communications Division bus that sat in front of the century-old New York Chamber of Commerce building. Through the lone window not blocked by curtains I could see a sergeant, sitting and texting, while sipping from a juice bottle.

Spies Like Us
Even before the protesters began their occupation of the block-long, half-acre park of granite walls and honey-locust trees, the NYPD had a permanent presence on site. Just across the street, a fixed, black NYPD security camera provides the police with an all-seeing eye on the surrounding environs. Across the intersection from it, just above the sign for Liberty Street (and apparently with no intended irony), a large sign announces “NYPD Security Camera In Area.”

That stationary camera is, however, apparently not sufficient for the NYPD’s surveillance needs. Not 10 feet from the NYPD camera sign sits an unmarked white truck with a 15-foot, camera-topped pole sticking out of its roof. Only its license plate brands it as the property of the police department.

One block down, at the foot of the park on the corner of Liberty and Church Streets, an NYPD sky watch tower -- a Panopticon-like structure outfitted with black-tinted windows, a spotlight, sensors, and multiple cameras (originally used by hunters to shoot quarry from overhead and now also used by the Department of Homeland Security along the Mexican border) provides further overwatch.

The Beginning of the End? Or a New Beginning?
Later in the day, I took a second inventory of the police presence ringing the park. As I walked the plaza perimeter I saw that the run-of-the-mill beat cops in blue and their white-shirted superiors had been joined by members of NYPD's Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU), the outfit that films protests, suit-wearing plainclothes detectives, sore-thumb plainclothesmen (middle-aged white men, wearing out-of-fashion jeans and white sneakers who just happen to loiter on the edges of protests) and even a uniformed member of the Disorder Control Unit -- the special cadre tasked with suppressing riots. In all, the NYPD’s numbers had increased to 42 police on the immediate periphery of the park (not counting who knows how many undercover officers), but just about all the policing any of them actually did was hassle reporters and daytrippers, telling them to keep moving and stand in the park, not on the sidewalk if they wanted to gawk, talk or text -- precisely what most of the cops were doing at one point or another themselves.

On Wednesday night, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Zuccotti Park would be closed for cleaning at 7am Friday and scrubbed down in a four-step process, one quadrant at a time. “After it’s cleaned, they’ll be able to come back,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said of the protesters later. “But they won’t be able to bring back the gear. The sleeping bags, that sort of thing, will not be able to be brought back into the park.”

During an emergency General Assembly at Liberty Plaza to deal with the city’s plans, one activist had an answer for Bloomberg and Kelly. "We see this as a pretext to shut the occupation down,” he told the crowd. "They will not foreclose our home! This is an occupation, not a permitted picnic. We won't allow them to come in!"

At dawn, the apathy of napping, texting police officers may be replaced by an aggressive attempt by the city to take back the park. They have the numbers and the equipment and more is certainly on the way. The protesters are, however, confident and defiant -- vowing to link arms and non-violently resist the police. 

More than one Occupy Wall Street protester said today that a police crackdown would strengthen the movement, and in its short history, heavy-handed police tactics have galvanized the most support for the new society taking shape in Liberty Plaza. “Get up, get down, there’s revolution in this town,” protesters chanted as sirens wailed during their emergency assembly.

Tomorrow may be the most salient test yet of the young movement’s people power in the face of police state tactics. The NYPD has overwhelming force, but right now, the Occupy Wall Street still holds the park and is still building, they shouted in unison today, “The society that we envision for the world!” 

Nick Turse is the associate editor of and a senior editor at AlterNet. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso). You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook

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