In the two months since its inception in a small park in lower Manhattan, the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread from coast to coast, inspiring hundreds of like-minded encampments and demonstrations in city centers and college campuses.
But while the vast majority of demonstrators have hewed consistently to a non-violent ethos, the tactics of law enforcement have been anything but uniform. From jurisdiction to jurisdiction, official responses have varied from paramilitary style crackdowns to peaceful accommodation.
In Oakland, Calif., riot-gear clad police officers cleared demonstrators from their encampment using rubber bullets and tear gas grenades, gravely wounding an Iraq war veteran in the process. At the University of California at Davis, campus police doused the faces of seated protesters with pepper spray at close range, in an incident that quickly went viral after video of the event appeared online.
Other cities have taken a different approach. In Albany, N.Y., a planned move by the mayor — with the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo — to oust Occupy demonstrators from a city park near the capitol was quashed after the city’s police chief and district attorney aired reservations.
“So long as we have no violence that is being perpetrated against law enforcement and no damage to state property, there’s room for peaceful coexistence here,” the district attorney, P. David Soares, said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “I support the right of all parties to assemble peacefully and express their points of view.”
Such an approach has been scorned in other cities, but not without consequences. In Oakland, the violent raid, authorized by Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, was harshly criticized by Dan Siegel, the mayor’s top legal adviser. He called the raid “tragically unnecessary” in a press conference announcing his resignation.
Siegel, a civil rights attorney, followed up the press conference with a sharply-worded Twitter post.
“Support Occupy Oakland, not the 1 percent and its government facilitators,” Siegel wrote.
Norm Stamper, who resigned as Seattle’s police chief after the city’s chaotic globalization protests in 1999, which included the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators, said the behavior of officers in Oakland was symptomatic of the highly authoritarian style of policing common in U.S. cities. Stamper, an author, has become an advocate for policing reforms in the years since.
“These officers are brought up steeped in a tradition of authority and power,” Stamper said. “They are taught that they can never back down, that you meet force with force, and too many of them have been taught that passively resisting demonstrators represent force.”
Oakland’s Mayor has vowed to avoid future violent police action against demonstrators, and so far protests in the city have been met with substantially reduced force.
The city’s Occupy demonstrators, however, show no sign of backing down. In their latest provocation, they have called for a shutdown of all West Coast ports on Dec. 12.
As protests continue — and possibly grow in size and ambition — the potential for violence will remain, in Oakland and other cities, Stamper said.
“I just don’t see police changing their tactics tomorrow,” he said. “Unless and until the police recognize that there’s a better way to deal with this we’re going to see repeats.”
In New York City, where the Occupy movement began, police tactics toward the demonstrators have shifted away from accommodation and toward confrontation. Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially gave protesters permission to stay in Zuccotti Park, but then authorized the police department to clear the encampment in an unannounced early morning raid.
The raid on Zuccotti was followed by a march on the New York Stock Exchange, which was met with harsh tactics by police officers, according to protesters who participated and attorneys representing demonstrators who were arrested that day.
“Multiple friends got the shit kicked out of them,” said Katama Rose, 23, an Occupy demonstrator.
Martin Stoller, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, said that several demonstrators he represented after their arrest during the Nov. 17 marches had been injured by police officers throwing punches and swinging batons. The injuries were mostly “soft-tissue damage,” he said.
“I arraigned a couple of people they pushed around and beat up pretty good,” he said. “They were not resisting arrest.”
“There’s no necessity to use a baton on somebody who’s essentially non-violent,” he added.
Bloomberg, however, praised the officers for their handling of the demonstrators, saying that they exercised restraint. NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, meanwhile, accused the demonstrators of provoking the police.
“There is no question about it, there was a group of people bent on confronting the police,” Kelly said in a press conference. “They were taunting them.”
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
But while harsh action against non-violent demonstrators may restore order to city streets, it can have both short and long-term political consequences, warned Timothy McCarthy, a professor of history and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“I would be very cautious if I was the mayor of a city that was being occupied,” McCarthy said. “When the state engages in forceful and violent acts of repression against folks engaged in non-violent civil disobedience, the state doesn’t come out as the hero.”
“The Birmingham police are not the hero of the civil rights story,” he said.