New York: The Police and the Protesters

Christian Bobst
An Occupy Wall Street protester at Zuccotti Park before it was raided by police, New York City, November 13, 2011


“The police can see the defeat in our eyes. They know they’ve beaten us,” an Occupy Wall Street organizer told me a few days after the 2012 May Day demonstration that marked the movement’s fizzled attempt to stage a spring resurgence. “They used to look at us as adversaries. There was a certain respect. Now we’re objects of contempt, an excuse for them to get paid overtime. A safe, live-action game.”

This account of Occupy’s self-image was telling. In the space of seven months a galvanizing national protest movement had dwindled to the status of a policing problem before disappearing almost entirely from public view. Part of the blame can be attributed to Occupy itself; its inviolable purity of principle (“We don’t talk to people with power, because to do so would be to acknowledge the legitimacy of their power”) eventually became its own form of corruption.

More established left-leaning organizations that sought to support Occupy Wall Street were regarded by many in the movement with suspicion, if not outright paranoia. In April, Adbusters, the anticonsumerist magazine that put out the original call to occupy a space near Wall Street in the summer of 2011, sent out an e-mail blast identifying, The Nation magazine, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as the most dangerous threats to OWS’s survival. This “cabal of old world thinkers” of “the old left,” as Adbusters put it, with its “insidious campaign of donor money,” was on a mission to defang OWS and turn it into a handmaiden for President Obama’s reelection campaign.1

Norman Siegel, a former executive director of the NYCLU, negotiated with police for Occupy on the rare occasions that organizers allowed him to do so. Siegel told me of his “frustration” with Occupy’s intransigence and naiveté, “though I love their message.” He has a great deal of experience navigating New York’s complicated legal and institutional shoals, and has been adept at making “mutually beneficial” accommodations with the police on behalf of protesters who take to the streets without an official permit. “An understanding can be struck,” Siegel said, so that the meaning of the protest isn’t drowned out by clashes with police, a battle that can’t be won. It’s a delicate process but not an impossible one. “Cops want to know what to expect, and when you offer them the courtesy of a heads up, they give you more latitude, more space.” In December 2006, for example, Siegel helped arrange an unofficial march for 18,000 people protesting the police shooting of an unarmed black man, Sean Bell. “The police ended up giving us all of Fifth Avenue,” which, in turn, amplified media attention, increasing the demonstration’s impact.

When cooperation is withdrawn, so is “discretionary…

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