Compared with the brutal police crackdowns against the Occupy movement in New York City, Oakland and even the pacific Davis campus of the University of California, the attempted eviction of Occupy Los Angeles has been almost entirely peaceful. The question is why, and whether it can last.
Occupy LA was grappling with internal conflicts before the Mayor’s deadline brought the occupiers and their supporters to stand together Sunday night. The police chose wisely not to attempt mass arrests or brutal force. The police are now being accused by some in the business community of going soft. Meanwhile the occupiers have no end game at this point. An Occupy media spokesperson, Clark Davis, indicated the group’s problems in a Sunday morning KPFK interview when he accused one faction of being “freeloaders” and warned that the movement could lose its way.
One reason for the uneasy status quo was the leadership of the liberal Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who ordered the eviction but also no beatings, tear gas or police violence. Another was the leadership of the Los Angeles Police Department, eager to show a new approach after years of controversy. The City Council came out early in support. Organized labor and local clergy joined the Occupiers and insisted the mayor do the right thing. And the Occupiers themselves adhered to a code of non-violence in an effort to keep the focus on Wall Street.
But to believe the writer Naomi Wolf, who was arrested during one of the New York protests, the Occupy movement inevitably faced a brutal crackdown because of its threat to the status quo. Wolf has written in the UK’s Guardian that the recent crackdowns on Occupy have been a coordinated conspiracy between local officials, police, the FBI and Homeland Security. As evidence, she points to conference calls between officials and police in eighteen cities that preceded the raids. She claims that a “shocking truth” behind the crackdown is the vested interest of Congress in protecting its own insider stock dealings on Wall Street. In one passage, Wolf accuses the White House of blessing the “war on peaceful citizens.”
Wolf is not entirely off the mark. But her monolithic conspiracy model needs more investigation and cannot explain the case of Los Angeles.
There is no doubt that the conference calls were conducted, and public records act requests may yet shed light on what was said. The mayor of Los Angeles was not on those calls, and says he didn’t want to be.
While there is no evidence thus far of FBI or White House coordination of the crackdowns, what is most naïve in the Wolf analysis is her notion that coordinated crackdowns are new with the advent of Occupy Wall Street. Since the 1999 Seattle protests, the involvement of the FBI with local police has followed a repeated pattern. First, an FBI counter-terrorism task force warns local officials, media and the public that thousands of masked “anarchists” will be invading their cities to break the law, fight the police, break windows and destroy property. They then advise that all protests be literally fenced into protest cages. To sweeten the coordination, tens of thousands of federal dollars are offered to local police forces for “security” [acquisition of the latest in gas grenades, launchers, surveillance cameras, even paper shredders in one case]. Young people and their convergence centers are targeted for prior detention, with the assistance of informants and provocateurs.
The list of cities where this has occurred is a long one, starting with Seattle: Los Angeles (2000 convention), Washington DC (2000, 2002), Genoa (2001), Quebec City (2001), Oakland (2003), Miami (2003), New York (2004, 2008), Minneapolis-St. Paul (2008), Denver/Boulder (2008), to list only the most dramatic and recent. None of these are remembered in Wolf’s inflated narrative, as if the Occupy movement has been unique in provoking the ruling class to order up repression.
There was one exception to this recent pattern: Mexico’s handling of the anti-WTO protests held in Cancun in 2003. Instead of following the FBI’s script, Mexico decided to de-escalate the police response, perhaps to protect Cancun’s tourist economy, perhaps to improve their security forces’ tattered reputation. It was quite remarkable to observe. In spite provocations by the so-called Black Bloc, in spite of protestors taking over the streets, in spite of a horrific ritual suicide by a South Korean farmer, the police and army remained largely disengaged or passive. When they arrested one group for sitting in an intersection, they placed them on an air-conditioned bus, which drove them back to the protest site.
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The lesson that was driven home for me in Cancun is that the police, and those who dictate their policy, have enormous discretion over whether a confrontation turns violent. It mostly depends on what image they want to project. That is, it depends on politics.
To return to the case Los Angeles, I am not arguing in favor of the Mayor’s eviction order. There was no particular reason for the order to be imposed. Left alone, the Occupiers might have decided on their own time that it was the moment to move on. Even Adbusters, the Vancouver culture-jamming magazine that called for Occupy Wall Street, has editorialized on the need for a new phase. Or the LA occupiers might have descended into negative feuding and folded their tents. There was a serious risk in forcing them out of their encampment. Nor do I believe the mayor bowed to pressure from downtown property owners to clear the encampment. His own explanation as an elected official makes more sense: that sooner or later, an incident would occur at the encampment (a death, a rape, a fight) for which he would be held accountable politically.
But the way the LA eviction has been handled so far is a very important achievement for a city plagued by fifty years of police scandals, brutality, corruption, and court-ordered reforms. Only four years ago the LAPD’s fabled Metro Division went wild and trampled peaceful protestors and media at a huge immigrant rights rally. The LAPD still stops and frisks hundreds of thousands of inner city youth each year,a potential scandal that is so far invisible.
Under the direction of the mayor and Chief Charlie Beck, however, the LAPD officers on Sunday night were as “tactful” as could be, in the phrase one Occupy sympathizer who works at City Hall.
Once considered an “occupying army” projecting a threat against the least disturbance, for one night the LAPD allowed Occupy LA to co-opt their old brand.
The Occupy movement also showed an evolution in thinking about street tactics. A decade ago, the phrase “diversity of tactics” allowed a range of actions from strict nonviolence to “fucking shit up”, as certain anarchist factions used to say. Experience showed that such “diversity” only allowed the most violent sensational tactics to dominate the media narrative, despite being employed by a tiny handful of activists and provocateurs in some cases.
So far the clearances in LA have been peaceful. On Monday morning the mayor met with a delegation of inter-faith leaders who have been joining the occupiers for several weeks. The clergy communique from the meeting commended Chief Beck for “the restraint shown so far by the LAPD”, and made a “commitment to sustain the Occupy presence and message in LA going forward”, including a promise by the Mayor to use his “bully pulpit” as head of the National Conference of Mayors to push the major themes of the national Occupy movement: “the need to halt the avalanche of home foreclosures, the need to reverse corporate ‘personhood’, the need to fully enforce the Dodd-Frank law, and the need to gain needed federal and state tax revenue to support municipal services in LA and throughout the nation.”
The dire scenario painted by Wolf does not tell the story of Los Angeles, where for the moment a crack of hope has been opened for nonviolent conflict resolution and a transition to a new stage.