The Empire Strikes Back in Futility: Reflections on the Occupy Movement and the Repression it has Sparked

by Paul Street

(Originally posted on ZNet, November 22, 2011; the notes can be found there)

Occupy Wall Street isn’t about real estate, and its signal achievement was not assembling shivering sleepers in a park. The high ground that the protestors seized is not an archipelago of parks in America, but the national agenda. The movement has planted economic inequality on the nation’s consciousness, and it will be difficult for any mayor or police force to dislodge it.

                                                           – Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, November 20, 2011

An Iron Law

The wealthy masters’ governmental agents and servants reserve the right to brutally attack popular protest when and where Democrats claim nominal authority no less than where and when Republicans hold top elected offices.[[1]]. An iron unstated law holds across the much-bemoaned “polarization” of the American one-and-a-half party system. It is fine, this law holds, to call for more freedom and democracy in officially designated enemy and non-allied states like the former Soviet Union, China, Venezuela, and Iran (today). But Americans who question the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire at home had better prepare to be smacked down when they manage to receive popular support. If authorities deem that standard methods of derision, denunciation, and media disappearance (invisibility) are insufficient for defeating domestic dissent, those who would bring democracy to the “homeland” (a revealing term, to say the least) from the bottom up had better keep an eye out for the night-riders of the 21st century police state. They may come face-to-face (well, face-to-Darth Vader visor) with the high-tech billy clubs of American government’s well-fed right hand, which grows stronger despite (and in accord with) the neoliberal starvation of “the left hand of the state” (Pierre Bourdieu) – the parts of the public sector that help and support ordinary people..

Military Policing in Democratic-Run Homeland Cities and on Liberal Campuses

The hold of the iron law has been demonstrated in the recent armed-force repression of the Occupy Movement in a number of predominantly Democratic-run cities and at the outwardly liberal University of California. The assault that has received the most national attention took place in Manhattan’s Zucotti Park, birthplace and epicenter of the national and global movement against economic inequality since Occupy Wall Street protestors first claimed the space on September 17, 2011. It was an ugly affair. An eyewitness account from the Naked Capitalism blog last Tuesday suggests a totalitarian state operating under the orders of the .001 percent financial chieftain-turned-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (an Independent who nominally presides over a predominantly Democratic-run city) – the twelfth richest person in the United States, with a net worth of $19.5 billion:

“The area around Zuccotti Park was subject last night to a 9/11-level lockdown over peaceful, lawful protests by a small number of people…Martial law level restrictions were in place. Subways were shut down. Local residents were not allowed to leave their buildings. People were allowed into the area only if they showed ID with an address in the ‘hood. Media access was limited to those with official press credentials, which is almost certainly a small minority of those who wanted to cover the crackdown (the Times’ Media Decoder blog says that journalists are describing the tactics as a media blackout). ..reading the various news stories, it appears they were kept well away from the actual confrontation (for instance, the reported tear gassing of the Occupiers in what had been the kitchen, as well as separate accounts of the use of pepper spray and batons). News helicopters were forced to land. As of 10 AM, reader Wentworth reported that police helicopters were out in force buzzing lower Manhattan.” [[2]].

On the West coast, around the same time and also in the dead of late nigh, police from Oakland and surrounding jurisdictions drove occupiers out of Oakland’s downtown with tear gas, “non-lethal ammunition” (bean bags and rubber bullets) and flash-boom concussion grenades. The City of Oakland’s civil rights attorney Dan Siegel resigned his position with the city after the decision was made to launch a second raid on Occupy Oakland by his one time friend from the University of California at Berkeley, Oakland’s “progressive” Democratic Mayor Jean Quan. The first raid ordered by Quan put a military veteran in intensive care and was described in chilling terms by a security guard who observed a massive, Nazi-like police rush on 100 or so hundred peaceful occupiers last October 25th:

“It was terrifying to see …there were just so many policeman… the numbers were incredible….they lined up almost like in a phalanx, on the street, and then they moved in….There were helicopters flying about and with high beams on the camps…the beams were moving across every which way…there were young people in these camps and children, infants in a lot of the tents and this was just, seemed like this was completely out of whack with the situation….they shot the tear gas into the middle of the camp, and at the time, there were dumpsters lined up in front, at the entrance, on the corner because the occupiers were trying to conform to the new regulations that the city of Oakland had given to them….the police moved those dumpsters to the side and then they moved to the next stage of taking the barricades and kicking them down. And then they moved in and the first thing they hit was the information tent, and they just started just tearing everything down… this was a military type operation, the way they moved in. It harkened back to old footage I had seen of Nazi Germany where you know you had the Nazis, the SS going in and picking up innocent people. It had that tenor. …the helicopters, and the lights, and the loud speaker, all those were all intended to create panic and terror for the people inside….It was something like out of a Star Wars movie except instead of being in white they were all in black. …they were all in riot gear…with the visors, they looked like automatons, they just moved in, in a line…They had these vehicles that looked like armored boxes, black, special riot vehicles….the thing that stays in my minds eye is in the middle ground with the lights from the helicopters, the police moving in and just stomping on these tents, and moving in one layer, after another, moving in deeper and deeper.”[[3]]

Liberal Democrat-ordered repression reared its ugly head not far from downtown Oakland, in Berkeley, California eleven days later. University of California at Berkeley students were inspired by the notion of occupying public space in defense of the commons against the rich and powerful. On the evening of November 9, 2011, they begin to build a campsite in front of Sproul Hall, the place where students touched off the Free Speech Movement nearly half a century ago. Sproul’s steps are named after Mario Savio, the eloquent graduate student who famously pronounced that “There is a time…when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

The odious machine went into bloody action the next day, beating students in the full light of day. [[4]]. University of California poetry professor Robert Hass, a former Poet Laureate of the United States, described further events on the famous liberal campus:

“a line of Alemeda County deputy sheriffs in Darth Vader riot gear formed a cordon in front of me….The deputy sheriffs, all white men, except for a young woman, perhaps Filipino….had black truncheons in their gloved hands that reporters later called batons….Earlier that day a colleague had written to say that that the campus police had moved in …and that students had been ‘beaten viciously.’ I didn’t believe it. In broad daylight? And without provocation? So when we heard that the police had returned, my wife, Brenda Hillman, and I hurried to the campus. I wanted to see what was going on and how the police behaved, and how the students behaved….”

“Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long California Indian summer….My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoving my wife in the chest and knocked her down….My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over trying to help her up, and at the moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer to the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me – it must be a generational reaction – was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they hit them on their spines…none of the police invited us to disperse or gave any warning….A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm.” [[5]]

The night before I read Hass’s account from Berkeley, I saw CNN footage of a campus police officer spraying bright orange pepper spray at close range into the faces of students sitting with linked arms on the grounds of the University of California at Davis. [[6]] (Public outrage over the disturbing and widely viewed scene led the university to suspend the officer.)

Violent police raids and clearances have also recently been conducted at the orders of Democratic mayors against peaceful Occupy protestors in a number of other cities, including St. Louis (Friday, November 12), Denver (Saturday, November 13th), Portland, OR (Sunday, November 14th), Salt Lake City, UT (Saturday, November 12th), Albany, NY (Saturday, November 13th), and Dallas, TX (Thursday, November 17th). A police action against Occupy Seattle included the pepper-spraying of an 84-year-old woman.

In Chicago, the new top dog is Barack Obama’s former chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel, a hippie-bashing corporatist who repeatedly told the President to “ignore the progressives” he so passionately loathed during his time in the White House. Never one to coddle radicals or liberals, Mayor “Rhambo” has utilized his baton-wielding agents of order to pre-empt Occupiers from establishing a single campsite in the corporate Democratic city state that is global Chicago.[[7]].


The most recent police attacks have shared some key characteristics. They have been launched in each case on the false pretext that the occupiers present a public safety risk relating to health, fire, and/or crime. City officials “dug up…obscure and constitutionally questionable statutes, for example laws outlawing the homeless” to “justify” their efforts. “Then the police come in,” David Lindorff notes, “usually in dead of night, dressed in riot gear and heavily armed with mace weapons, batons, plastic cuffs and tear gas, or even assault rifles in some cases and so-called flash-bang stun grenades–all weapons to be used against peaceful demonstrators…” [[8]]

Shared methods and pretexts suggest coordination across jurisdictions. So does the fact that, as Jean Quan told BBC, Quan spoke to 18 other mayors on how to deal with local occupation movements in a conference call just prior to the latest attacks. Mother Jones’s Web site reported that the US Conference of Mayors organized two conference calls between various cities facing occupation movements. And the Associated Press reported that a shadowy body called the Police Executive Research Forum facilitated two additional calls to discuss raid tactics. [[9]]

What about the feds? Just because you’re paranoid, the old aphorism goes, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Siegel told a San Francisco radio station (KALW) that the original conference call took place while Quan was in Washington D.C., indicating the possibility that the mostly Democratic mayors worked with the Obama administration in synchronizing and planning repression. On his aptly named blog This Can’t Be Happening Lindorff voiced suspicions that the crackdown was ordered and orchestrated from the seat of imperial power: :

But both Siegel and [Heidi] Boghosian [executive director of the National Lawyers Guild] Boghosian say they strongly suspect federal involvement in the planning of the recent spate of police violence against occupiers. Says Siegel, “It’s only logical to assume that the ‘Fusion Centers’ are involved, especially after the Oakland occupiers shut down the port in Oakland.”

Some 72Fusion Centers, located around the US and funded by the US at a cost of half a billion dollars, are a post 9-11creation of the new Homeland Security Department. Bringing the FBI together with local law enforcement departments, they both collect and share domestic intelligence, and can serve as command centers to direct local law enforcement in helping implement national law enforcement goals. There are also many Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which directly link the FBI with urban police departments.

Says Boghosian, “What we are seeing here is the Miami model, with various levels of law enforcement, local, state and federal, all at work. It would be shocking if federal law enforcement were not seeing this occupy movement now as a national security threat.”

Mara Veheyden-Hilliard, co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild’s National Mass Defense Committee, based in Washington, agrees. “These crackdowns on the occupation movement certainly appear to be part of a national strategy to crush them,” she says. “We haven’t yet found overt evidence of federal involvement, but the fact that in rapid succession local authorities have taken action raises the specter of coordination.”[[10]] reporter Rick Ellis fed further suspicion along these lines by reporting the comment of an anonymous Justice Department source who revealed that Homeland Security and the FBI had offered assistance to local police. “According to this official,” Ellis wrote, “in several recent conference calls and briefings, local police agencies were advised to seek a legal reason to evict residents of tent cities, focusing on zoning laws and existing curfew rules. Agencies were also advised to demonstrate a massive show of police force, including large numbers in riot gear. In particular, the FBI reportedly advised on press relations, with one presentation suggesting that any moves to evict protesters be coordinated for a time when the press was the least likely to be present.”[[11]].

Did federal authorities under the Obama administration order cities to crack down on their local occupations in a concerted effort to squash a populist citizens’ movement that spread like wildfire across the country? Did they then coordinate that attack from the top down? Did the fake-progressive Wall Street-friendly president Barack Obama act on his allegiance and/or captivity to the One Percent by green-lighting the cleansing of anti-plutocracy campers in a dark intervention conducted while he was out of the country, advancing the neoliberal agenda in Asia?

I find left-wing conspiracy and “coordinate-gate” talk regarding the recent repression wave overheated. There’s little surprising or new in the recent reports on communication across local and federal agencies. Such communication is much standard operating procedure in the longstanding arsenal of capitalist repression. The stories that have come about the swapping and sharing of information, tactics, advice, and strategies between and among municipal and federal authorities reflect routine aspects of “modern law enforcement” in the post-9/11 era. As one Oakland city official recently told AlterNet’s Joshua Holland, “I don’t really understand why this is a story. We have emails, we have phones, there are various list-serves that cops and city officials – and, yes, DHS – use to talk to each other about all sorts of problems that are common to our cities. Why would anyone think we don’t talk?” [[12]]

The Examiner’s Ellis noted that “while local police agencies had received tactical and planning advice from national agencies, the ultimate decision on how each jurisdiction handles the Occupy protests ultimately rests with local law enforcement.” Officials from several of the cities that have cracked down on their Occupy movements deny that they participated in the conference calls. Occupations have been left to stand in numerous U.S. cities and, as Holland notes, “the occupation that arguably maintains the best relationship with local officials is Occupy DC, and the Washington, DC government is directly overseen by Congress.”

There’s been nothing mysterious or hidden about the fact that city officials have “lost patience” with the Occupy Movement in various cities. Oakland’s initial and more terrifying raid occurred more than two weeks prior to last Monday’s assault, which took place with prior public understanding that another city attack was coming. Michael Bloomberg has made no secret of his desire to remove OWS. He had signaled that an eviction was likely for some time.

As Holland adds, the raids have taken different forms in different cities and there’s nothing remotely novel about city officials’ standard practices smearing of the protestors as dastardly threats to decency and order:

“That they justify crackdowns with exaggerated tales of protesters’ perfidy – violence, and in the case of the occupations, health and safety violations – is not news at all. Police justified violent attacks on the civil rights movement by claiming that it was run by Communists. Protesters against the Vietnam War were demonized as treasonous freaks and accused of spitting on returning vets – a story that many who were involved in that movement say never happened.”

“And while recent raids have shared certain characteristics, their executions have varied. On Monday, Oakland officials leaked the exact time of the raid beforehand, and it was covered by a ton of media. New York officials had kept plans to raid Zuccotti Park a closely guarded secret and tried to block media coverage. Perhaps they got the same advice, but their planning was obviously different.”[[13]]

Standard State Capitalist Operating Procedure

The absence any of spectacular, nefarious top-down conspiracy to launch and manage uniform lightning repression across America’s cities from Washington and the rooting of the repression that has occurred in the routine government practice should not make the recent wave of police brutality against domestic democracy protestors any less offensive or scandalous. It suggests that this repression is systemic, structural, and institutionally and culturally embedded in the reigning hierarchies and doctrines of American Empire & Inequality, Inc. Welcome to the dark side of American state capitalism, which has quietly developed the planet’s most extreme incarceration rate (a curious accomplishment for the self-declared homeland and headquarters of global freedom) over the last three-plus decades.

Of course they attacked. This is what a regressive corporate state and Superpower does when it is confronted by a genuinely grassroots popular struggle that: targets the obscene wealth and power of the wealthy Few; aims at and prefigures the radical democratization of society from the bottom up; imagines a world turned upside down beyond the arrogant and illegitimate authority of ruling classes; seeks a real peoples’ politics beyond the quadrennial citizen-marginalizing candidate-centered election spectacles that big money and big media masters stage for a managed electorate every four years, telling the rabble (the majority of ex-citizens) that “that’s politics – the only politics that matters.” Most threatening of all is the fact that Occupy’s courageous opposition to the extreme concentration of wealth and power in the U.S. has won it support from millions of ordinary Americans who embrace what the movement signifies – democratic contempt for the tyranny of the opulent minority – even while most Americans are not about to camp out on cold fall and winter evenings in grimy city parks.

That support is unsurprising. The profits-mad plutocracy has damaged and ruined countless lives only to qualify for seemingly endless taxpayer largesse. Ordinary Americans have seen the arrogant Few who caused the current epic crisis bailed out and otherwise backed up again and again by the corporate Nanny State, the supposed peoples’ government – the same government that is unwilling to provide adequate assistance for everyday people who are running out of ammunition in the war on destitution, including 25 million unemployed, 49 million living below the nation’s terribly insufficient poverty measure, the 1 in 15 Americans who now live at less than half that poverty measure [[14]] and the 1 in 3 Americans who now (as the U.S Census Bureau reported at the prompting of the New York Times this weekend [[15]]) live either in official poverty or “near poverty” (at less than 150 percent of the poverty level). While the economic super-elite rakes in ransom from the political system it annexed, a vast number of Americans who played by the rules to no avail are expected to suffer in deferential silence. They are supposed to listen quietly to shame-based lectures on personal responsibility from the proto-fascistic likes of Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich. They are supposed to be grateful for false assurances of benevolent, “feel your pain” concern and for fake-populist statements against the filthy rich from the dismal dollar Democrat Barack Obama, who has done little for struggling millions even while he has rendered record-setting taxpayer service to the Wall Street masters who granted record-setting campaign finance support to his 2008 campaign. For many Americans, enough is enough.

Be Proud, Not Cowed: “You Can’t Evict an Idea Whose Times Has Come”

It is unsurprising that the plutocratic beast has recently unleashed some of its nakedly repressive homeland arsenal. Whether such repression really works is another question. The deployment of tear gas, flash grenades, batons, and helicopters on homeland ground suggests that the One Percent’s ecologically cancerous wealth- and power-mad profits system is losing popular legitimacy: rule through consent must therefore be supplemented to some degree by the rule of force. But the strategy is often counter-productive. OWS garnered significant increased popular support when the Bloomberg’s gendarmes attacked it on Brooklyn Bridge in early October. The “liberal” Jean Quan’s original armed assault on Occupy Oakland helped activists bring tens of thousands of workers and citizens out of the their homes and workplaces in a General Strike that significantly cutback that city’s docks last November 2nd. The provocative eviction of hundreds from Zucotti Park by the Wall Street super-baron turned NYC chief executive Michael Bloomberg in the early morning of Monday, November 14th produced an interesting outcome on Thursday, November 17th: tens of thousands took to New York City’s streets in a defiant show of popular support the cause upheld by the protestors. The New York Police Department estimated last Thursday night’s protest crowd at 32,500. Many thousands more mobilized the same day in at least 30 cities across the United States. ”Our political system should serve all of us — not just the very rich and powerful. Right now Wall Street owns Washington,” said participant Beka Economopoulos as a giant protest crowd gathered in lower Manhattan’s Foley Square. She expressed a sentiment that is widely shared across the nation. And that is part of why the OWS Web site could with some reason crow that “Following Bloomberg’s action, the slogan ‘You can’t evict an idea whose time has come’ became the new meme of the 99% movement overnight. The mobilization today proved that the movement is on the ascent and is capable of navigating obstacles.”

Robert Hass offers some interesting reflections from the other coast on the futility of repression. The night after the initial police attacks in front of Sproul Hall, Hass writes, “the students put the tens back up. Students filled the plaza again with a festive atmosphere. And lots of signs (The one from the English Department read ‘Beat Poets, not beat poets.’). A week later, at 3:30 a.m., the police officers returned in force, a hundred of them, and told the campers to leave or they would be arrested. All but two moved…On Thursday afternoon when I returned toward sundown to the steps to see how the students had responded, the air was full of balloons, helium balloons to which tents had been attached, and attached to the tents was kite string. And they hovered over the plaza, large and awkward, almost lyrical, occupying the air.”[[16] ].

It’s an apt metaphor, for Occupy has changed the air of the nation’s political discourse. In a recent thoughtful reflection, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked rhetorically if Bloomberg and “police chiefs around the country” are “secretly backing the Occupy Wall Street movement.” The authorities’ repressive actions have if anything “built popular support” for the movement they wish to crush. At the same time, Kristof notes, anger over the recent evictions and raids is something of a “sideshow.” For “Occupy Wall Street isn’t about real estate, and its signal achievement was not assembling shivering sleepers in a park. The high ground that the protestors seized is not an archipelago of parks in America, but the national agenda. The movement has planted economic inequality on the nation’s consciousness, and it will be difficult for any mayor or police force to dislodge it.”(emphasis added) [[17]]

Rather than cowering in fear before the myth of the elite’s hyper-potent, dark, and conspiratorial repressive capacities, we should congratulate occupiers and ourselves for putting some deserved and overdue fear in the hearts of system managers, sparking them to strike out in self-de-legitimizing dread. The amoral profits system’s rulers and coordinators smell a newly awakened spirit of defiance on the part of the supposedly irrelevant citizenry and it scares them. It should. There are limits to the extent to which ordinary people are willing to see their lives and world crucified on a cross of greed. The masters may live to regret their eviction orders, which can help speed the spread of the populist and egalitarian occupation contagion across a broader range of contested societal terrains at home and abroad. That contagion reflects a significant increase in grassroots workers’ and citizens’ anger, activism, and militancy- an upsurge that predated the Occupy Movement and will survive it if it collapses. This isn’t business as usual. Interesting times have arrived.

Paul Street ( is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at

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