Thursday, September 20, 2012

To PVC, or not to PVC, is not the question.

I could not have been in Washington Square Park for five minutes when I was surrounded by police. On Saturday I attended the Occupy Town Square, arriving late in the afternoon. The Park was filled with people: occupiers, people there for the folk festival, and the general public. When I arrived I approached a friend who was lending a hand bracing the OTS banner on a breezy day. Our conversation was interrupted when a Parks Department official came up and told my friend that pvc (plastic) tubes were not allowed and “asked” him how long it would take to switch the pvc for cardboard tubes. I put ask in quotes here because it didn't actually sound like a question at all, but more like a threat. The three Parks Department officials were accompanied by a rapidly growing circle of NYPD officers who said nothing during the initial exchange, but moved in rapidly to surround the banner and the few people that were near it, myself included. As the circle of officers grew tighter, it was apparent that they were not looking to patiently wait for the pvc tubes to be replaced, but were simply using the non-issue as a means to escalate the situation - likely to provide a rationale for suppressing the entire event. Needless to say, it is rather alarming to be in the park talking with a friend and then to find oneself suddenly surrounded by police officers. It is especially alarming when the police seem to be silently enacting some preplanned strategy that does not involve actually communicating to you what it is that you have done to warrant this treatment. I took the opportunity to step outside of the circle when it presented itself, realizing that I might be subject to arrest just for standing where I was.

Having been a banner wrangler in the past I was familiar with the claims being made about the pvc tubes. The tubes themselves are not illegal. According to the NYPD, “the carrying of signs or objects at a demonstration is protected First Amendment activity. However, where it can be shown that the object carried, i.e. a wooden pole with a sign attached or a bat, (italics mine - a bat?!) has the potential for being used as a weapon, the police may prohibit the carrying of the object during the demonstration. Persons who insist on carrying objects that are potential weapons should be directed to put the object down and leave the area of the demonstration. If they refuse to do so and continue to congregate with others in the demonstration, they may be arrested for Disorderly Conduct, Penal Law Section 240.20.” Clearly, the OTS banner is NOT a weapon, nor is it a structure that would violate the Parks Department’s prohibition on “unlawful camping.” Reading through the current rules and regulations concerning the regulated uses of the NYC parks, it would seem that our constitutional right “peaceably to assemble” now requires the permission of the parks Commissioner when we chose to exercise it in our city parks.

Once away from the circle, I decided to mic check to the crowd as I was particularly struck by the absurdity of the situation, and hoped that shedding some light on it while it was occurring might raise the awareness of folks in the park. Some occupiers seemed upset when I was vocal about the situation, perhaps recognizing that this engineered conflict was a distraction and not wanting us to focus on it. My concern was that people, particularly those outside of OWS, should know why the police action was being taken - that it was not really about plastic tubes, but about the suppression of OWS.

Back in February of 2002, I was stopped by NYPD on the sidewalk when leaving a demonstration focused on the World Economic Forum that was happening in NYC that year. I was blocks away from the demonstration when I saw two officers that had been deployed to protect a nearby Starbucks. One of the officers demanded that I surrender the cardboard tube that my sign was stapled to. I asked them what would happen if I did not, and they told me that I would be detained until their superior arrived, and that he would decide what to do with me. I removed the tube (one of hundreds I had purchased months earlier) from my sign staple by staple as the officers looked on, and surrendered it to them. I lifted my sign high above my head as I walked down the block. I recall thinking about the police busily confiscating all of the x-mas wrapping paper that must have flooded that entire area of the city just a few weeks back, and how absurdly selective this confiscation of my property was.

So big deal. It’s just a tube. Why is this so important to me? Well, it’s easy to recognize that the police presence, tactics, actions are intended to intimidate protestors; but I believe community intimidation to be the real focus of these overwhelmingly disproportionate displays of force. These police spectacles are staged over and over at Occupy events, an over reaction to fabricated danger that is simply not present at these events. In a self-validating cycle, it is the police presence itself that creates the appearance of a conflict that they must then police. The 1% are aware just how unpopular their policies are, and the consistent repetition of their “occupiers clash with police” mantra (delivered through their corporate media) is meant to discourage others from joining the movement. While OWS works to broaden the movement and make protest more accessible - the NYPD is tasked with forming a barrier between OWS and the community; via police lines, barricades, vehicles, etc. The implied message is “if you join these folks in protest, you may be subject to arrest.” The heavy police presence can be alarming to those of us who are not faced with it every day in our communities. For those at greater risk of arrest, deportation, etc. these patterns are all too familiar; but the choice to run the gauntlet, when NYPD has been deployed as a barrier to participation, cannot be an easy one to make. It’s a set up. The 1% want you to believe that in order to join the movement, you have to be willing to breach that barrier, to risk arrest. But this is a distraction - the police should not be the focus of Occupy, a manufactured conflict to siphon off our creative energy. The NYPD officers are by definition part of the 99%, being played as pawns to protect the king. It is up to us to stay focused and not let the one percent use us in a similar fashion.

Over the last year we have heard numerous statements by the Secretary of State and even the President himself concerning protection of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iran, Russia, etc. but they have been entirely mute when it comes to the crackdown on those same freedoms here in the United States. It was Chicago Mayor Rahm “Rahmbo” Emanuel that presided over the arrest of more than 300 Chicago occupiers during the shut down of their encampment. I called the White House to inquire when the President would be contacting his former Chief of Staff, to ask him why people were being arrested for exercising their 1st Amendment rights. Not surprisingly - they had no answer for me. Within a matter of weeks numerous occupations that had sprung up all over the US (and the world) were systematically shut down one by one, with New York, Oakland, Oregon, Denver, and Zurich forcibly cleared in a single night. When folks talk about the demise of Occupy and/or its disappearance from the headlines, it seems like such nonsense to me - like a self fulfilling prophecy. When the main stream media shows up to a demonstration hours after all the demonstrators have been forcibly removed and claims that the demo is a dud because no one showed up, do you buy what they are selling you? When a New York City Councilman is shoved by NYPD three times at the OWS one year anniversary, do you hear about it on the news? When another New York City Councilman was roughed up and arrested during the raid on Liberty Square, does Mayor Bloomberg / Commissioner Kelly apologize? With over 7000 US Occupy activist arrests, some 2,500 in NYC alone, when will our government address the issue?

The Wisconsin protests last year are a powerful example of what is possible when people stand in solidarity and can see past the political double speak of 1% politicians. The outcome of the recall effort reminds me of those “self fulfilling prophecies” hurled at Occupy. A thirty million dollar Walker war chest was countered with lukewarm support from the DNC and a hours before election day tweet of support from the President. Despite all the talk of community and grassroots organizing in the 2004 Obama campaign, it seems pretty obvious that supporting a recall made possible through popular protest was just not a priority. A victory that might embolden people to think they can actually make the “change” themselves might not be the best strategy for an incumbent in an election year, especially if you have to share that year with Occupy... One of the things that stood out to me about the Wisconsin protests was the bridge that was formed by the participation of the local police. The Madison police were there in solidarity with their union brothers and sisters, but they could speak to their fellow officers in the Capitol Police as brothers and sisters as well. So is it somehow possible to duplicate this kind of bridge in NYC, to lessen the grip of the 1% on New York’s Finest? A few weeks back I asked a friend from Wisconsin what it would take to get the local Madison police officers out here to march with OWS, today I read a joint statement from the Madison Professional Police Officers Association and Dane County Deputy Sheriffs Association: “The right to free speech and the right to peaceful assembly are two of the fundamental rights upon which our democracy is based. Since the birth of our nation, the courts have taken great pains to protect these rights vigorously, and view any infringement upon these rights with great skepticism. We believe the recent enforcement action at the Capitol clearly violates these rights in a way that should be unacceptable in a free society.”

Read the statement in its entirety here

OWS never got that apology from Bloomberg and Kelly, but there is this

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