The anniversary of Occupy: reflections on state suppression

As the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street approaches, the enormous protests of 2011 and early 2012 seem almost a distant memory.  Camps across the country have been dismantled, and public demonstrations have dwindled in size and media coverage.  There are a variety of reasons for this, but the repressive responses of local and federal law enforcement have indisputably contributed.  From the beginning, the violence of police tactics on the street shocked the public.  What has been less apparent, but equally ubiquitous, is the extensive surveillance and harassment of Occupy by law enforcement.

In November of last year, the National Lawyers Guild, Michael Moore, and the Partnership for Civil Justice filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit with five federal agencies requesting information on surveillance of Occupy. This request resulted in hundreds of pages of responsive documents in which federal law enforcement discuss tactics and responses. Local law enforcement also conducted surveillance. A recent report from New York University and Fordham University stated that surveillance by the New York Police Department of Occupy Wall Street had been constant and ubiquitous, and was accompanied by interrogation and intimidation.  In fact, the NYPD may have violated legal restrictions on intelligence gathering in New York.

As if this surveillance were not enough, law enforcement has turned to the internet to gather more information.  Aden Fine of the American Civil Liberties Union notes, in reference to a legal battle in which Twitter has sough to squash a subpoena requiring it to turn over a user's information:

“ Law enforcement agencies—both the federal government and state and city entities—are becoming increasingly aggressive in their attempts to obtain information about what people are doing on the Internet.”

The judge in that case, New York v. Harris, ruled in favor of the state.  Twitter now plans to appeal that ruling.

Occupy activists in the Pacific Northwest have been the target of FBI raids on their homes and grand jury subpoenas, requiring them to appear before a federal grand jury in Seattle last month.  Grand juries decide whether an individual will be charged with a crime, but they are not subject to the same constitutional protections as those afforded in court, and they are highly secretive.  One of the activists targeted, Leah-lynn Plante, has refused to testify, which could subject her to prison time.

Many might ask why any of this matters. If an individual is simply engaging in protected First Amendment activities, or even if they are participating in non-violent civil disobedience and expect to get arrested, what do they have to worry about?  One need not look very far to answer this question.  Will Potter, who has written about the use of grand juries against environmentalists, says:

"These tactics are one hundred percent about dividing the movement and especially through instilling fear."

The radical environmental movement provides an example of the effect these tactics can have.  In the 90s, direct action for the environment became equated with terrorism.  Environmental activists became the target of secretive grand juries.  Those who refused to testify served jail time.  That movement was torn apart by surveillance, infiltration, and harassment.  This is nothing new.  COINTELPRO, the most infamous systemic infiltration, surveillance, and disruption of social movements in US history, was designed to do exactly that.

Occupy has not been unscathed by these tactics.  Intelligence has been used in prosecution of activists.  Infiltrators have created conflict between organizers.  Even worse, fear of surveillance has chilled cooperation.  Activists have refused to plan actions with individuals they have not known for years, and access to listservs and databases has been limited.  As the NYU and Fordham report notes, protestors have been directly intimidated by the police, resulting in an unwillingness to attend actions.  Although Leah-Lynn Plante has refused to testify, the scare tactic of grand juries may still be successful in eliciting incriminating statements from someone.  The overall effect is a repressive climate, that appears to have been successful at stunting the movement. The only question, as Occupy approaches the one year mark, is what does remain of the movement now- and whether the government's tactics have been successful.

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