The Government’s Worst Protest Shutdowns: From Occupy to ACT UP
Just as Occupy Wall Street’s last criminal defendant – Cecily McMillan — saw sentencing last month, an American non-profit released a series of documents obtained from the FBI that revealed the government strategy for handling protestors; monitoring, targeting, and arresting protestors and groups. In summary, the resulting revelations are pretty incriminating for law enforcement, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. They come across looking pretty bad — which, in the history of protests, has often been the case. First, let’s take a look at what exactly the documents reveal, and then see how they compare to a history of American protest response.
1. Occupy Wall Street
The Occupy Wall Street protests could be referred to also as a collection of movements and ideologies. The main commonality spreading outwards from Wall Street in New York City to 100 cities in the U.S. and 1,500 cities globally — according to the organization — is an objection to the “corrosive power of the major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.” It pits the 1 percent richest group of people against the 99 percent — all the rest. In summary, a fight against the very rich and the enormous gap in pay. Still, while those are the overarching goals, the range of ideas and ideologies is pretty endless.
When the protests were in full swing, the backlash of authorities against protesters resulted in sometimes hostile arrests, canister missiles, protestor and police injury, and disagreement about how protestors and group break-ups were dealt with. The recent documents bring up two main points of concern. The first is that the documents show, according to the non-profit group, The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, that authorities approached the protests as a criminal and or terrorist threat rather than peaceful protests; the movement was led by a nonviolent organization. The second has to do with who the FBI, DHS, and local authorities worked with in controlling and targeting the protests. In a rather ironic discovery, probes into the documents show that banks were involved in efforts to deal with protests. The FBI met with the Bank Security Group in Biloxi, Mississippi alongside a number of private banks and financial institutions met with the FBI and Bank Fraud Working Group in November of 2011, according to the PCJF. A number of joint terrorism task forces were drawn in, too.
Also included in the documents are references to spying efforts on campuses where students were involved with the protests. “The PCJF has obtained heavily redacted documents” — heavily redacted indeed — “showing that FBI offices and agents around the country were in high gear conducting surveillance against the movement even as early as August 2011, a month prior to the establishment of the OWS encampment in Zuccotti Park and other Occupy actions around the country,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, the executive director of the PCJF — according to The Guardian.
One memo sent from the FBI’s New York field office discussed a meeting with New York Stock Exchange officials in order to talk about “the planned Anarchist protest titled ‘Occupy Wall Street,” scheduled for September 17, 2011. The memo was sent in August of 2011 and said that, “The protest appears on Anarchist Web sites and social network pages on the Internet,” according to The New York Times.
An FBI spokesperson has since warned readers from “drawing conclusions from redacted” documents. “While the FBI is obligated to thoroughly investigate any serious allegations involving threats of violence, we do not open investigations based solely on First Amendment activity. In fact, the Department of Justice and the FBI’s own internal guidelines on domestic operations strictly forbid that,” said spokesperson Paul Bresson to The New York Times. Hilliard and the PCJF claim that more documents are being withheld that could shed more light on what actions the authorities took and with what justification. “This production, which we believe is just the tip of the iceberg, is a window into the nationwide scope of the FBI’s surveillance, monitoring, and reporting on peaceful protestors organizing with the Occupy movement.”