Containing Outrage: How Police Power Tames the Occupy Movement
Throughout Europe, this is the season of protest. There are massive, angry demonstrations—tens of thousands in the streets of a dozen capitals laying siege to finance ministries and parliaments, shutting down roads and rail, and seizing public spaces. One independent study estimates that a million Spaniards have participated the movement known as Los Indignados—“The Outraged.”
Americans have reasons to be outraged too. But American protests have been muted by comparison. The Occupy Wall Street protest that began in mid-September has inspired similar demonstrations throughout the country, and the movement as a whole may have helped to sharpen public opinion about the financial crisis and its consequences. But it has also shown how hostile American politics has become to the very idea of mass, angry protest. After decades of increasingly sophisticated policing and changing notions about the boundaries of legitimate protest, public demonstration in the United States today is not only tamer than in Europe, but perhaps also tamer than at any time in the nation’s history.
In New York, Boston, and many other major cities, Occupy protesters are playing a delicate game with local police departments. Protesters want to expand their territory if they can, but above all to avoid the loss of the tiny plots on which they are camped. Certain that local authorities are looking for any reason to remove them, occupiers must keep their camps clean, maintain peace with their neighbors, and avoid confrontations that could erode public support and give a pretext for arrests.
Police departments face their own challenges. A prolonged encampment does create significant concerns about health, safety, and inconvenience to neighbors. In some cities, elected officials are also aware that protesters have significant public support, and in a media-saturated environment, abuses of police power quickly generate sympathy for protesters. The New York Police Department learned as much when Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed penned-in protesters in September. And the Oakland Police Department had the same lesson after using tear gas and flash grenades in a botched effort to remove protesters, which resulted in the critical wounding of an Iraq War veteran.
But while the game is difficult for both sides, it is hardly an equal contest. If local authorities want to shut down a protest, they can do so decisively. Occupy Boston protesters realized this when they attempted to expand their camp onto an adjacent patch of grass, part of the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway, on October 10. Within hours hundreds of police officers, some in riot gear, had cleared the new site and arrested about a hundred protesters.