The NYPD: A Movement's Best Friend

Tensions at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan mounted last week after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Occupy Wall Street activists would need to vacate the premises temporarily for cleaning. In response to the threat, occupiers cleaned the park themselves and said that, come morning, they would hold brooms, link arms, and peacefully refuse to leave. Bloomberg backed down, and once more, Occupy Wall Street confirmed that it could endure in the face of resistance from politicians and police.  A better question is whether the movement could have endured without the attention and momentum it's gained from confrontation.

“Seeing what happened at the Brooklyn Bridge ... that was a wake-up call," says Armando Serrano, referring to the arrest of 700 protesters on the bridge earlier this month. The number of arrests, and allegations that police lured protesters to the area where they took place, inspired a new wave of activists and catapaulted the movement to the forefront of national news.  Since then, repeated accusations of police violence against protesters, backed up by video and witnesses, have only helped fuel the movement.

"The impact of police has definitely helped the movement grow," says student activist and Occupy Wall Street volunteer organizer Biola Jeje.

David Graeber, an anthropologist who took part in six weeks of planning in the lead-up to Occupy Wall Street, says the occupation would not have reached its current size or significance without headline-grabbing confrontations with the police. 

Though many individual officers may support the movement and its aims, Graeber says that because the NYPD "represents the existing system of property and power relations," conflict is inevitable.

This dynamic is, in part, the formula for effective demonstrations. With a ripe target, civil disobedience dramatizes injustice. Occupy Wall Street planned powerful confrontations and risked arrest in order to force a sustained spotlight on the financial sector.  But while Occupy Wall Street laid this groundwork, the aggressive response of city officials and the NYPD helped create an urgent confrontation, a national story, and an enduring movement.

Picture other galvanizing moments: Health-reform opponents take over Democratic Congressman Tim Bishop's town hall with loud and unyielding speeches; Cindy Sheehan camps out outside the President's ranch following her son's death in the Iraq war; workers march into the office of their boss.  Each of these actions has something web petitions and many rallies lack: confrontation.

A similar Zuccotti Park dynamic has played out in cities across the country.  In Boston, police forcibly evicted occupiers from a secondary encampment at the Rose Kennedy Greenway, with Mayor Thomas Menino telling reporters, "Civil disobedience doesn't work for Boston," —never mind Boston's original Tea Party. Ed Knutson, a Wisconsin-based activist who volunteered with Occupy Boston following a visit to Occupy Wall Street, says he saw a police officer "dragging one of the veterans by the throat." Before the arrests, Knutson says it would be easy to look at Occupy Boston as "the place to hang out or pick up chicks."  Afterwards, "all of the sudden, it was dead serious, and I think it radicalized people somewhat."

Initially, Philadelphia officials seemed to be taking a different tack with protesters, signaling support of the movement from the start. Occupy Philly organizers told a planning meeting that Mayor Michael Nutter "wants you to know that he too is a member of the 99 percent."  Whereas Boston's Menino sounded like a central-casting autocrat, Nutter soft-pedaled his usual business-friendly brand.  The Philadelphia Police Department blasted the first amendment over its police scanner.  A mayoral spokesperson even said he'd look into helping the occupiers set up a TV screen so they could watch the Phillies' baseball game from their City Hall encampment.  Despite Nutter's veto of legislation mandating paid sick leave and an ongoing dispute with public workers, organizers said the choice of City Hall as an occupation site was driven by symbolism and logistics rather than grievances with the Mayor or Council.  "The location was more of a pragmatic choice," says Occupy Philly's "labor bottom-liner," Gwen Snyder.  "What we're really protesting is Wall Street and big banks."  Snyder adds that her "personal feeling" is that "Nutter again and again...made decisions in favor of the 1%."

But last week, five days into the occupation, city officials informed Philly's occupiers that come mid-November, they would need to vacate the premises to make way for long-planned renovations.  "It wasn't until the letter happened that people started to put crosshairs on some of the city's agenda..." says Jon Laing, a member of Occupy Philly's Media Committee.  "We felt a little betrayed."  Whereas before there was "a question whether this occupation would last," Laing says "now we're pretty resolute."