Unnecessary police confrontations undermine ‘Occupy Wall Street’ mission

While Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters aim to combat a broken and inequitable financial system, the world’s spotlight instead shines on their confrontations with police, thus overshadowing their mission and undermining their goals.

With headlines like, “Police Arrest More Than 700 Protestors on the Brooklyn Bridge” in the New York Times and “NYPD accused of heavy-handed tactics” in the Guardian, the goals and message of the movement are being lost amidst a torrent of ineffective tactics and misplaced anger.

In the most recent confrontation, on Saturday, September 30, protestors streamed onto the Brooklyn Bridge roadway and were then corralled and arrested for disorderly conduct and blocking vehicular traffic.

Opinions vary on how events unfolded, and on what role police played in instigating the confrontation.

From an official standpoint, fault is solely that of the protestors, whom ignored the threat of arrest upon entering the roadway. This is verified on numerous video accounts from that day, including one shot by the NYPD that shows protestors locking arms and approaching a retreating force of officers who were using a bullhorn to warn protestors not to enter the roadway and impede traffic.

On the other side of the fence, protestor accounts detail the commonly used trap-and-detain tactic, and portray themselves as the victims. Citing past protests in which police utilized the strategy, including one instance that resulted in a $13.9 million court settlement with the District of Columbia, Jason Cherkis strong evidence for this argument in a Huffington Post article titled, Occupy Wall Street Mass Arrest Resembles Infamous, Costly Police Tactic, Critics Say.

In this version of the day’s events, Cherkis points to police using video to record the warning, which protestors claim was garbled and inaudible, as well as the fact that arrest buses were arranged prior to the day’s march. Additionally, he highlights a marked disparity between the heavy presence of officers early in the march with their lack of effort to keep protestors on the bridge’s walkway. He illustrates how the bridge served as an area in which protestors could not disperse, a requirement of the trap-and-detain tactic, and how the actions of officers contradicted the reasoning behind their arrest of wide swaths of protestors: preventing a disruption of traffic.

Whether the protestors were baited or not is beside the point, however. Ultimately, protestors are holding such marches with an agenda, and their confrontations with police detract from that agenda. Thus, it’s their responsibility to ensure that these confrontations don’t occur and, if they do, it’s at no fault of their own.

Failing to secure a permit, entering a roadway, blocking the entrance to a public building, and trespassing on private property are all minor infractions, but each one provides authorities with ammunition. Every such infraction causes a confrontation with the wrong group. After all, are the police officers on the Brooklyn Bridge reaping the benefits of the inequitable financial system? Or are they underpaid, over-worked and equally frustrated with our country’s economy? They’re not the enemy; so protestors should not force them to engage. And, if they do anyway, it strengthen and gives credibility to the protestors’ cause.

To that effect, I point to demonstrations held during the Civil Rights era, as an example to follow.

When organizing the Selma to Montgomery March in 1966, John Lewis of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) understood the importance of maintaining order, of refusing to provide the authorities with a reason to stop them. With discipline and purpose, they led more than 600 marchers in organized rows of two along the side of the road. They did not impede traffic and gave no reason for police to halt their march. Thus, when police did halt them, did make mass arrests and did respond with force, there was no room for debate about who was to blame. The un-instigated actions of police served to strengthen the cause of that protest.

This was not the case with the Brooklyn Bridge incident. Where the Selma March, and the group itself, was organized and efficient, these were just the opposite. The New York Times article cited above claimed that, “None of the protestors interviewed knew if the bridge march was planned or a spontaneous decision by the crowd,” and the aforementioned Guardian article explains that, “the confluence of so many on the road was a misunderstanding.”

What’s worse, the marchers and their supporters seem to believe that such confrontations are signs of success in their movement. During solidarity sit-ins outside of police stations where the arrested marchers were being held, OSW members were dancing, drinking, and cheering every time one of their own was released. Moreover, protestors and marchers have resisted arrest upon every confrontation with police.

Videos of the Brooklyn Bridge confrontation show the crowd holding onto and pulling back on individuals who were being arrested. One marcher even grabbed a police officer’s hat and threw it high into the air. Meanwhile, police never used clubs or mace, but instead hit the arms of those in the crowd trying to prevent arrests with their hands until they go.

Contrast this with the marches, sit-ins, and protests of the Civil Rights Movement. True police violence – water cannons, clubs, guns, and dogs – was met with no resistance. Protestors allowed themselves to be taken away because their wrongful arrest was what gained their support. There was power in their non-resistance. In the OWS protests, people resist and fight back. And, in doing so, they make the police their enemy rather than the financial system they set out to combat.

This act, of creating a new enemy in the police, changes what the OSW movement is fighting. Instead of speeches, proposed changes and voices of the movement being celebrated, those arrested are made into heroes, shallow media attention is heralded, and the culture of disobedience is made prominent.

And that’s not to confuse this with instances when police unjustly used violence against protestors. In the first OWS clashes with authorities, police used force against protestors despite their doing nothing wrong. And this helped their cause. The media portrayed them as victims and the police as instigators, and they gained valuable support. The incident on the bridge did not accomplish the same. It created a back-and-forth of throwing blame, a distraction from the purpose of the movement.

Instead, protestors need to work to always stay a step ahead of police on these issues. They need to be vigilant in predicting how police will respond, and what laws or rules they might be accused of breaking. Then, they need to develop strategies to prevent these confrontations. This, and similar protests, must evolve.

It’s unfortunate that police utilize the trap-and-detain tactic, and others like it. But it is, none-the-less, a fact that protestors must accept. So, as police tactics grow in sophistication, so too must those of the protestors; so too must their marches and protests become more advanced, more efficient, and more organization. Otherwise, they allow themselves to be caught up in such skirmishes that, ultimately, will always result in a loss to their cause.