Paramilitarization of the United States’ Police Forces
The peaceful Occupy Wall Street Movement, which is fighting against corporate greed and the gross income inequality in this country, has run into an unexpected and unwanted opponent: the police forces. These aren’t the police forces of the 1960’s and 1970’s when the cops would go into crowds with billy clubs to disperse the crowds. Police forces in the post September 11th era look much different. Many if not most police forces have specialize units of riot cops and SWAT teams armed with mace, pepper spray, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades. And, in many cases these specialized police units have been trained in the military or by military officers. There have been two “Ground Zeros” that have witnessed diverse tactics designed to break up the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York City–where the Occupy Movement was born–and the Bay Area in California.
From the beginning, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstrations in New York have had confrontations with the New York Police Department (NYPD). During some of the first marches by OWS, the NYPD utilized orange nets to keep people on the sidewalks and out of the streets. As the demonstrators showed their determination to stay in Zuccotti Park, the patience of police captains and top authorities grew thinner each day. In their second weekend of occupation (the last weekend of September) OWS had their first confrontation with the NYPD and their orange nets that signaled a shift in police tactics. This time police officers used the nets to kettle protesters in particular areas. After they were kettled or boxed in, the now infamous NYPD “white shirts” (lieutenants, captains, and higher ranks) proceeded to forcefully arrest demonstrators. As the police kettled protesters, OWS activists filmed their actions from every angle. While this was occurring, one Deputy Inspector, Anthony Bologna (that’s right, Tony Baloney…you can’t make this stuff up), decided to mace a handful of female protesters. The actions of the NYPD strengthened the movement, but their second major confrontation propelled the OWS movement to cities across the country.
On October 1, 2011, the Brooklyn Bridge became the setting for the largest confrontation with the police yet. Approximately 2500 demonstrators spent the day marching in Lower Manhattan. When the marchers were returning to Zuccotti Park, they were marching with a police escort by the Brooklyn Bridge. According to many participants in the Brooklyn Bridget march, a number of police broke away from the escort in an attempt to have all the protesters follow them. The police proceeded to allow a few hundred demonstrators onto the walking path of the bridge, but quickly broke out the orange nets to close off the walkway. The NYPD then lead an escort of police officers onto the Brooklyn Bridge, and 700 protesters followed the officers. Once there were hundreds of people on the bridge, the NYPD used the orange nets to kettle the protester. NYPD’s tactics led to 700 arrests.
The latest confrontation with the demonstrators in New York City came with a national collaboration of 18 cities to clear out Occupy strongholds across the country. During the week of November 13, 2011, all of the occupations that were raided, including the original OWS encampment in Zuccotti Park, were raided with tactical precision. All of the evictions occurred early in the morning hours, when most of the demonstrators were sleeping. In most cases, police officers arrived in riot gear; and, in some cases, protestors were maced, beaten with clubs or arrested. During the middle of that week, Oakland’s Mayor, Jean Quan, released in an interview that suggesting there was coordination with all of the mayors, and that there may have been coordination with national agencies, too. In what promises to be a significant piece of reporting in the unfolding story of police tactics against OWS, Minneapolis Top News Examiner reporter Rick Ellis, quoted an unnamed Justice Department official who said local police agencies “had received tactical and planning advice from national agencies” including the FBI and Homeland Security. In New York City, NYPD was training for their eviction in an undisclosed location, and they did have training help from the FBI. The NYPD showed the movement the tactical precision the department has gained in the post 9/11 era, including significant resources, military training, and training from federal agencies. However, it was the Oakland Police and the Bay Area police departments that unveiled the advance weaponry available to police departments in this post 9/11 era.
On October 25, Oakland Mayor, Jean Quan, ordered the forceful eviction of the encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by Occupy Oakland. Oakland riot police, dressed as “storm-troopers” and equipped with rubber bullets, pepper spray and flash bang grenades, arrived to the plaza in the middle of the night to evict the camp. The encampment was transformed into a war zone as police launched flash bang grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray. Mass arrests followed. The following day thousands of protesters regrouped and marched on city hall. That evening, the protesters were, once again, met by the riot police, but this time they were ketteled in the street. To break up the marchers, the Oakland PD blocked off streets and then released concussion grenades, tear gas grenades, and they reportedly deployed their LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device). LRADs were developed by the military to send out highly concentrated, pain inducing, high frequency soundwaves. During this police attack, a Occupy Oakland protester and US Marine, Scott Olsen, was seriously injured when a tear gas canister exploded close to his head. Olsen suffered a fractured skull, swollen brain, and nearly lost his eye . To add insult to injury, as medics from Occupy Oakland rushed to Scott Olsen’s aid as he lay injured on the ground, a riot cop decided it was necessary to launch a concussion grenade into the small group. The grenade exploded right in the middle of the group. Acts of violence towards protesters did not stop here.
A couple weeks later a University of California Berkeley college students assembled a local Occupy Movement to stand in solidarity with those who are protesting across the country. UC Berkley president, Robert J. Birgeneau, authorized local police departments, including San Francisco PD and Oakland PD to clear out the protesters. Officers in riot gear arrived at the demonstration and began to forcefully shove billy clubs into the stomachs of students who were peaceably linking arms. About a week after that incident, UC Davis became the next example. Students at the college were peacefully demonstrating, once again, and were met by local police and university police dressed in riot gear. The police dismantled the camp, but the students from UC Davis, peacefully, sat in a circle and linked arms around the police officers. Captain Pike, who has become an object for internet memes, showed the students a red canister that contained pepper spray. The officer then walked in front of the students and hosed the students multiple times with pepper spray directly in their faces.
These are just a few examples of what has happened across the country. Local state and city government officials in some areas have shown little respect for protesters, which leads to our next question. What will those on Capitol Hill do? Will they denounce the over-reaction of our GI-Joes across the country? Or will they create legislation aimed at ending the protest?
Rest in Peace, Habeas
At the end of November, the United States Senate proposed a military spending bill to extend our occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to continue our “legal” drone attack missions in seven Muslim countries, to maintain the indefinite imprisonment of enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay, and to continue everything else from the past decade that our military claims is American as apple pie.
The U.S. Senate Armed Services committee, chaired by Vermont Democrat, Carl Levin, proposed the spending measure, in the latest National Defense Authorization Act that was over 600 pages long. Clearly, like most large bills making their way through Congress, many if not most Senators did not read the bill. The bill went to the sentate floor where it passed by an overwhelming 93-7 margin. Some of the controversial provisions in the bill have been progressive talking points since the election. For instance, the president has vowed to shut the doors of Gitmo, but this bill calls for more indefinite imprisonments of foreign enemy combatants. This bill also allows the funding more unmanned drone attacks in countries such as Pakistan, Somolia, and a host of other Arab countries. The most controversial provision in this bill calls for the indefinite imprisonment of United States citizens if they are deemed a threat in the “War Against Terror.”
What does this mean? This means that if you are an American citizen and you are suspected of being a terrorist, you can be subject to indefinite military incarceration, and will be tried before a military tribunal. This provision goes against the core of the United States Constitution; it suspends the writ of Habeas Corpus, which is spelled out in Article 1, Section 9, Clause 2: “”The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” It is obvious that the provision allowing for the stripping of habeas corpus is extremely unconstitutional, just like the provisions George W. Bush used to enable warrant-less wiretapping of American citizens. But why should we be worried about this provision?
There are couple main reasons why we should be worried. The United States government has over-stepped their boundaries before. What makes this case different? Well, for starters, the nearly-unanimous support this bill has received and the timing.
First, it is no secret that the United States has been supporting violent coups and military junta’s from at least the mid 1970’s and right up to the present day. Take a look at Chile. Augusto Pinochet was responsible for a violent military coup that attacked the state owned industries and he had aspirations of privatizing these industries and opening up the country to foreign capital through lifting trade barriers. While he was met with significant opposition, he formed secret prisons to where dissenters were sent. The guards inside these prisons were extremely ruthless towards the prisoners, utilizing torture methods that make water-boarding look tame. The guards in these prisons were trained by officials from the CIA and the U.S. military. Pinochet’s massive privatization scheme benefitted a number of American corporations and, which seemed to help garnered support for Pinochet from the US government. Given the track record of the United States supporting and training such brutal regimes in techniques of torture, what makes us so sure that this stripping of habeas corpus is not a slippery slope that leads to American citizens being subjected to torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques?”
Second, the timing of this bill and the unanimous support the bill has received should worry everyone. Who are these 93 Senators protecting? The banks? With the Occupy Movement still in its infancy, the movement has enlightened many Americans about the growing income disparity and how the huge Wall Street banks were bailed out without tax dollars, made record profits off of these bailouts, and then turned down thousands of applications to rework peoples’ mortgages in the process. OWS has raised some serious ethical questions about the unrestrained capitalist system we are living in at the present moment. The timing of this bill is extremely suspicious. Do these Senators know what the future holds? Are they spineless enough to go after those who are changing the status quo? These Senators suggest that it is up to the courts to decide if he habeas corpus provision in the bill is unlawful. We, however, must never forget that these are the very same courts who have coddled to the corporations over the past decade and who just granted corporations to contribute unlimited funds to political campaigns by extending the concept of “corporate personhood” through the Supreme Courts case, Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission.
Even if the President Obama vetoes this bill, which it looks like he will, Congress may be able to override his veto. Then the United States Supreme Court will have to decide if it is Constitutional to unlawfully detain United States citizens, without a rhyme or reason, inside military prisons. In my opinion, the United States has become a police state, where local police departments have been given free range to use chemical agents on peaceful protesters, just as those protesting in the streets of Chile were met with fire hoses and bullets, and where political dissenters can be disappeared in the middle of the night and taken to a military prison. Is this what we have become?
Sean Kitchen | Kutztown University student and co-founder of Occupy Kutztown