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Just over a year ago, an almost simultaneous set of police raids shut down protest encampments associated with the “Occupy” movement across the United States. At the time speculation raged about behind-the-scenes coordination, but very little substantial evidence had come forward to back up the accusations. Then, just before Christmas, as if as a gift, we suddenly got a glimpse inside the workings of this insidious machine.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, an American civil rights group, released documents they just obtained through the Freedom of Information Act detailing the official response to Occupy Wall Street. These documents, which they’ve provided online, detail hostile and coordinated efforts to portray the movement as a “criminal and terrorist threat” beginning a month before the encampment itself. In a linked effort by the FBI, Homeland Security, police forces, regional “fusion centres” and private security, sometimes united into a single entity: the Domestic Security Alliance Council. The activities of this shadowy alliance included surveillance, meeting with financial industry and school officials and even planning the evictions. One (heavily redacted) page even describes a plot to kill protest leaders with snipers, “if deemed necessary”, though it gives few other details.
As the Guardian’s Naomi Wolfe states, this has reached Orwellian levels. The amount of tracking, surveillance and straight-up brutality involved evokes memories of the Red Scares, Palmer Raids and COINTELPRO. Given how heavily censored these releases are, everyone’s simply using the term “tip of the iceberg”, leaving open the question of how far this conspiracy (yes, conspiracy) actually went.
It’s hard to say whether these evictions were the definite cause of the movement’s eventual decline, but they certainly marked an important turning point. The loss of a physical presence in urban cores was a crushing blow, and not one which could be replaced though a presence online or in the media. What followed was months of decline marked by (now legendary) levels of interpersonal squabbling. Only time and further disclosures will tell if these squabbes, too, were engineered from above (like so many in the COINTELPRO era).
What does this mean for activists, organizers, and anybody who might someday become one?
First, it shows clearly that the government response to political mobilizations is primarily ideological. Occupy was labeled “criminal” and “terrorist” long before any actions took place, to say nothing of actual “crime” or “violence”. Contrast this with any number of white supremacist, pro-life or anti-immigrant groups who not only advocate violence but also actually kill people and bomb things on a regular basis, and the focus becomes pretty clear. Brutal violence against marginalized groups doesn’t threaten the establishment (if done right, it re-enforces it). Legal, nonviolent protest directed against dominant groups, on the other hand, does.
We will never be polite, well-behaved or “nonviolent” enough to avoid these risks. Attempting to be only sets a rising standard of absolutely perfect behavior from demonstrators which ultimately makes it easier to justify attacks on peaceful crowds. No matter how we present it, any serious public discussion of liberation is going to threaten those in power, especially if it “gets popular”. Blaming the victims only pits us against each other and prevents an objective discussion of practical safety precautions.
Second, it makes an important cautionary point about surveillance and security. Long before things “turn ugly” (if they ever do), police and their allies are on the scene. They may claim to be there “for our safety”, to direct traffic to deal with “troublemakers”, but those are only secondary goals. Their primary goal is to film, record and write down every bit of data they can find about those involved, especially the “leaders”, often with the help of naive participants. The information they gather never goes away, and it almost always comes back to haunt people no matter how “peaceful” the campaign. The only way to reduce these risks is to make basic precautions a part of all activism, not just the actions we consider “risky”.
The third and (arguably) most important point is one about “paranoia”. If these documents show anything, it’s that there’s nothing irrational about being wary or cautious of undercover agents and big government conspiracies. I’ve involved with protests for over a decade now, and in that time I’ve seen things I would never have believed existed outside Communist China. “Snatch squads”, agent provocateurs, snipers, beatings and worse. These aren’t just anecdotes, either – they’re verified. Every time protesters are put on trial the state is forced to hand over stacks of “court disclosure” to their legal teams, usually confirming our worst fears and then some. Given that my own name has turned up in trail documents after protests I never so much as passed on a flier for, I always smile a bit on the inside when people tell me I’m being “paranoid”.
Take it from someone who’s had a (very tiny) glimpse – there are few, if any, limits to how far these people will go to keep their wealth and power. If people want to talk about paranoia and “conspiracy theories”, how about we start with a look at the conspiracy charges which are so regularly used against protesters? What’s so interesting in these cases isn’t just what the state does, but the justifications it gives. Always, there’s a presumed threat that protesters are right on the verge of an IRA-style insurrection. There’s always a hidden “arms cache” behind the peaceful blockade, rioters hidden in the march and mad bombers working away in the shadows. For all the threats though, and excepting certain entrapment plots, it’s been a decade or two since any attack of the sort in Canada or America, at least from the likes of Occupy.
These fictitious threats aren’t just symptoms of a hostile and militaristic bureaucracy, they’re an important part of how it works. From self-styled “terrorism experts” to the CIA and top Pentagon brass, far too many are now being paid directly in relation to how dire a terrorist threat they dream up. In many ways (as we saw with the Iraq’s “WMDs”), it becomes like theatre. On the domestic front, these efforts serve not only to promote big budgets for police and other security forces, but also to demonize protesters, the poor, immigrants, natives, people of colour or others while demonstrating a “need” for those who oppress them. Like the divorce lawyer who won’t stop egging you on, it’s a sales pitch and we’d be wise to recognize it as such.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just a tale of bureaucrats and cops wasting money on commando gear. Real people are involved, and the consequences for them, their families and communities can be devastating. I’ve seen people followed home by private security consultants, snipers on rooftops, agent provocateurs, even the occasional Kafka-esque arrests and incarceration…and that’s just in Hamilton.
Take it from someone who’s spent a lot of time supporting a lot of friends in a lot of courtrooms – this shit gets real. Nothing makes you look guilty like being the focus of an investigation, no matter how little they find. Binders of pictures and days of recordings show you’re clearly a person of interest. If they cannot find the protesters responsible for a crime, they will arrest the first bunch within arm’s reach. If there are no “leaders”, they will appoint some. If nobody commits any “crime” or “violence”, some will be invented, inferred, or blown entirely out of proportion (like chalking). If you’re poor, you’ll find yourself in criminal court. If you’re wealthier, they’ll launch a lawsuit large enough threaten your home. You’ll probably win at trial, but not before a hellish year or two of bail conditions, legal fees and sleepless nights. I cannot count how many times I’ve seen this happen. Don’t just let it happen to you.
Looking back on my time in early local Occupy assemblies, I was often “that guy” who wouldn’t stop bringing this stuff up. In retrospect, I wish I’d tried harder. I’m sorry to say, if you were publicly associated with Occupy in any way, you’re likely now lists which may never see the light of day. If Occupy suffered more than most, it wasn’t because people were too radical or hostile with police, but too friendly. Everywhere there was a prevailing attitude that “the cops are on our side” and “you only have something to fear if you’re doing something wrong”. Some were even accused of being terrorists or infiltrators for suggesting otherwise. Many seasoned veterans just walked away. This wasn’t just a local issue, it came up almost everywhere, but perhaps not often enough.
In this case, the state didn’t just “take a side”, it launched a counter-insurgency campaign. From the outset, it saw the danger – and open, public critique of the economy backed by a mass, in-the-streets movement. In that instant, things like “free speech” and “public discourse” ceased to matter – it was war, and they couldn’t afford to wait and see how things played out.
The worst possible lesson to take from all this would be to stay home. If we do that, they win by default. Worse yet, we prove that these tactics work, ensuring they’ll be used again the next time people take to the streets. This kind of response from authorities shows we’re doing something right. Nobody suggested that changing the world would be safe or easy, but neither, obviously, is the alternative.