The Police and the 99 Percent

After a week of light media coverage, slow-motion video of Deputy Police Inspector Captain Anthony Bologna pepper-spraying four women trapped in a net cage on University Place brought the Occupy Wall Street protest to the nation’s attention. The next week, police arrested over 500 protesters on Brooklyn Bridge, even as news broke that J. P. Morgan Chase had recently donated an “unprecedented” $4.6 million to the NYPD in order “to strengthen security in the Big Apple.” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly wrote to J. P. Morgan’s Chairman, Jamie Dimon, expressing his “profound gratitude.”

Such events have failed to surprise the residents of Zuccotti Park. Indeed, there are two things that any good American protester knows about the police: they’re bought and they’re brutal. It is not just those in the street who see a familiar narrative unfolding. In the pages of the New York Times, for instance, the curmudgeon-of-the-moment Ginia Bellafante warns that police over-reaction will only fuel the “ideologically vague and strategically baffling effort” that is the Occupation. She points to violence at Columbia University in 1968 and Tompkins Square Park twenty years later to support her claim.

Despite the air of tragic heroism behind such precedents, the Occupation—a useful umbrella term for the actions ongoing in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., and many other cities—should not be too eager to escalate confrontation with the police. The tedious transformation of substantive political protest into protest against police abuse of protesters at times can be ideologically appropriate and tactically useful. But unlike student, neighborhood, and even civil rights protests, whose participants generally present themselves as a conscientious minority oppressed by larger forces—particularly police power—the Occupiers’ central claim is that they are the “99 percent,” the moral majority of the nation.

A quick look around Zuccotti Park will confirm that 99 percent of the nation is not yet in attendance. Nor would organizers—proponents of direct, rather than representative, democracy—wish to claim that they “represent” 99 percent of the country. The true, utopian endgame of the Occupiers, however, is to become what they say they are—99 percent, or at least a sizeable chunk, of the American people. Such an ambitious recipe calls for two ingredients that more targeted protests don’t—longevity and diversity. The police who currently ring the park could provide both. As the protest grows, sympathetic police might shift tactics and communication strategies in order to prolong the protest; at the limit, police might even become participants, taking a large step toward confirming the radical 99 percent claim. Even in the earliest days of the Occupation, protesters imagined such a triumph when they chanted “We are the 99 percent,” and then, turning to the police, chanted “You are the 99 percent.”

The Occupation has met with a chorus of criticism for failing to state specific policy goals. But as Nathan Schneider, the only journalist allowed by organizers to attend the protest’s planning meetings, recently explained, this lack of demands is a feature, not a bug, of the Occupation: “largely because government institutions are already so shot through with corporate money,” organizers decided “that making specific demands would be pointless until the movement grew stronger politically. Instead, to begin with, they opted to make their demand the occupation itself—and the direct democracy taking place there . . . .” The Occupation self-consciously seeks to construct the means—a radicalization of the political environment—and not the ends of left-wing policy. In order to do so, it must last and it must contain multitudes. The police-protest relationship will be crucial to the success of this project for at least two reasons.

First, the threat of assault and, especially, arrest at the hands of police will continue to limit participation in the Occupation. As Yves Smith put it somewhat bluntly in the wake of eighty arrests near Union Square, “No one who is a wage slave (which is the overwhelming majority of the population) can afford to have an arrest record, even a misdemeanor, in this age of short job tenures and rising use of background checks.” Not only does police power keep a broader slice of society out of the movement, it can also grind down even those who are willing to face the risks of participation, forestalling a critical mass.

A police force sufficiently sympathetic with protesters, however, could engage in tacit under-enforcement of the urban space. Such intentionally poor police-work would make protest a more hospitable practice for the average employee and professional dissident alike. Although a police strike is incredibly unlikely, encouraging individual officers to trade in subtle sabotage would be a useful protest activity. The Occupation will not be able to increase beyond a certain size without police cooperation.

Second, the absence of the police themselves from the Occupation chips away at the 99 percent claim that is central to the movement’s populism. Here, the first problem—of police power—produces something of a vicious circle. To the extent that police power limits the protesters mainly to the young and the nomadic, individual police will find few protesters with whom they can identify. Recent announcements of labor support for the Occupation—including the large healthcare workers union, Local 1199 SEIU, and the Local 100 Transit Workers Union—do suggest that more middle-class participation is on the way. Here again, however, police behavior toward these newcomers will be an important influence on their long-term commitment to the movement.

New York police are themselves no strangers to organizing urban unrest. In 2001, the police stormed across the Brooklyn Bridge when Rudolph Giuliani refused to raise their pay. Ten years earlier, 10,000 officers had followed the same route to protest David Dinkins’s appointment of a police monitor. But in these instances, police understood their own self-interest to be at stake.

In the end, police sympathy for the movement will only follow the broadening of the social and economic base of the Occupation, such that individual police personnel see their own concerns reflected in the Occupiers’ words and deeds. As with other aspects of the protesters’ strategy, means and ends remain essentially indistinguishable. In order to develop a strong relationship with police, the Occupation will have to develop strong relationships with lots of other people. There is something boring and obvious in this sociological calculus. But it is the only hope of the Occupation.

Does the Occupation understand the importance of courting the police? To be sure, many anarchists at the center of the Occupation have no love for the authorities. Even prior to the occupation of the Park, the General Assembly—the fluid organizing body that guides the protest by a modified form of consensus voting—agreed that no formal liaison with the police should be established. More recently, at a meeting on security, some participants suggested that victims of theft or assault in Zuccotti Park should not be discouraged from reporting such crime to the authorities. In response, a handsome, dark-haired man in his mid-twenties, who has taken on an increasingly central role in the daily discussions, stated unequivocally, “I hate the police.” He went on to convince his colleagues that “peacekeeping” should be an entirely internal affair—if for no other reason than that recourse to the police would provide fodder for those seeking to shut down the park as a threat to public safety. Indeed, plans are in the works to assemble a group of volunteer peacekeepers, along the lines of the sanitation, medical, and “comfort” teams who work round the clock to make this city-within-the-city a livable, even wholesome space.

It is important to acknowledge the immediate sources of such strong anti-police sentiment. In the first days of the protest, Zuccotti Park was not the buzzing, cosmopolitan crossroads that it has become. Initially, the sloping, square block was held by less than a hundred, rain-soaked activists, surrounded—and outnumbered—by a heavily armed force. Tuesday morning, the third morning of the occupation, after most of the major news organizations had left, Schneider watched as police—usually two white shirts and eight to ten line officers—broke the perimeter of the square at seemingly random intervals to grab one or more protesters, taking them to the ground and dragging them away. Schneider recalls, “it was very personal, it was very scary.” Nobody knew who was going to be seized next. That night, police in riot gear stood two rows deep on Broadway, two more lines of officers at the ready on the north and south sides of the park, creating a funnel toward Trinity Place. At the last moment, the police backed down—the dispersal order never came.

Yet the dispersal order will come one day, whether in response to some specific public safety concern—the report of an assault, a bomb threat—or in reaction to the sheer size of the Occupation. Indeed, after a large march on Wednesday, including local unions and students who walked out of NYU and the New School, the population of Zuccotti Park is swelling. Increasing numbers of passers-by and participants extend the ragged boundary of the park, as a permanent drum circle on the west end and the ranks of sign-waving protesters facing Broadway grow. On Thursday, police who were content to watch the spectacle earlier in the week stepped forward to shout “Move along, move along.” New metal fencing now hems the outer bounds of the drum-circle. There will come a time—and, judging by plans Saturday for a march on Washington Square Park, a potential second occupation site, that time may come soon—when the police will not be able to define the boundaries of the Occupation without active force.

Many protesters realize that a movement the success of which depends on duration and diversity must defer this divisive moment as long as possible—and that the police will be the key to such delay. At a recent discussion, some participants sought to change the General Assembly’s policy against formal police-protester relations. Alexis, a daily visitor to the Park, urged that “there are a lot of police officers who are sympathetic to the cause, but they can’t participate because they are on duty.” Rob, a personal relations trainer for businessmen, agreed. “They’re like us, they’ve got jobs, they’ve got kids. We’ve got to go to them and say ‘We’re going to treat you like human beings, with respect, and we want the same from you. We can’t control everybody. We can’t promise to obey all your orders. But let’s communicate.’” Specifically, Alice proposed having a group of protesters who, at least during marches, would continually communicate with the police, the better to understand what they were comfortable with, what actions they were expecting on the protesters’ part. This kind of back-and-forth might decrease the anxiety and alienation that haunt mass actions.

Another middle-aged man, Dallas, reported that when he first arrived at the park he walked around the outer-ring of police with a sign stating “We are you,” and thanked each officer for being there. “I actually vibrated, the energy was good, I got goosebumps.” Indeed, many signs seek solidarity with the police—“The Working Class Must Unite (Hey, Cops, That Includes You)”, “Dear NYPD—join us. You are also the 99 percent”—and occupiers frequently break ranks to joke with officers late into the evening.

The virtue of the Occupation is its patience. Happily, it does not understand itself to be some semi-divine intervention into the work-a-day world of American politics. The protesters’ much-maligned taste for process is generally to their advantage: process-concerns indicate not a naïve obsession with good conscience but an appreciation for the necessity of mediation, for the conversion of individuals to the movement, through repeated moments of discovery and respect.

The problem with this virtuous path is that every success along the way—every new convert to the movement—brings us closer to the moment when the city, backed by Jamie Dimon’s charity, will opt for a final crackdown. At that moment, what visions—of violence, of change—will flash through the minds of the rank and file officers charged with carrying out the order? For the armed men and women of New York City to see themselves as part of the 99 percent, a significant radicalization of the social and political atmosphere will have already had to occur. As patient as the Occupation has been so far, we must hope that this radicalization happens sooner rather than later.

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