“In a nation ruled by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile-and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: not necessarily to win, but mainly to keep from losing completely.”
~~ Hunter S. Thompson, “The Great Shark Hunt” (1979)
On Tuesday the 29th of November the Los Angeles Police Department swept in and overran the Occupy LA camp in front of city hall. There were between 1400 and 1800 officers involved, depending on the sources you go by. Close to three-hundred people were arrested. A number of the people who were arrested were held in Van Nuys, which is about ten minutes from where I live, so I drove up to meet some of the Occupy people who were waiting for their comrades to be released. I hadn’t been to a “General Assembly” or a camp – up until last night all I knew of the Occupy people was what I saw through live video streams, and Twitter and blog posts.
I’ll get into the raid and it’s aftermath shortly, but first let me say that none of the people I met last night even came close to resembling someone who a police officer would consider “dangerous.” In fact, I was the most menacing looking person standing on the curb there in Van Nuys. Everyone I met was bright, well-mannered, articulate and passionate about what they were doing. No one – man or woman – was more than 5-foot-ten; except me. The women were under five-foot-four. Despite what had just happened, they were all composed, polite, and enthusiastic. These were not the bomb-wielding anarchists like I remember from the 60’s and 70’s. These were not militants at all. These weren’t hippies or hipsters or any of that. They’re basically really normal people who got fed up with the bullshit and decided to do something about it. For a police officer to mistake them for anything else – much less treat them as anything else – is unacceptable.
When I arrived in Van Nuys the Occupiers awaiting their friend’s release were out by the curb, standing around and talking. It turns out that they had been waiting in the plaza just prior, but the police had given them an “order to disperse.” Now … picture what this scene must have looked like. The Van Nuys PD is elevated above the plaza, the garage is underneath. The only way into the station for the public is to go up a flight of stairs and enter from the front. So if there was a disturbance out in the plaza, the police have the high ground and an easily controlled entry point to defend. Not that there would be a disturbance. They were concerned about roughly ten people – mostly women – all of whom were too tired to fight about much of anything. There was no reason not to let the Occupiers to at least sit on the benches in the plaza and wait. It was after 11pm at night, they weren’t hurting anything.
On Tuesday night the LAPD PIO (Public Information Officer) informed Occupy LA that the camp would “not be raided today.” That wasn’t a lie. They raided shortly after midnight that morning. No one was fooled by that. Local TV helicopters showed LAPD en masse at Dodger Stadium. What they didn’t show – unless you watched very closely – was that LAPD was dropping troopers off a couple blocks from the park, at underground parking facilities. They were then infiltrating to adjoining blocks by causeways and underground tunnels. When they moved in, it was fast and militarily precise. When viewed from overhead you could have just as easily been watching an ancient Roman army, marching in Phalanx. There was no skirmish line as other cities had used. This was Sparta. Given the number of people who would need to be controlled, the size of the city, and the potential for an actual riot (as opposed to the non-riot the Occupy people were being arrested for being in), I must admit that LAPD put in a plan which was well designed and well-executed and probably saved a lot more people from getting hurt.
LAPD did order almost all the media out of the area before the raid. And, of course, the media complied like the sheep that they have become. There was basically no one to document what went on as people were being arrested. Some footage came out which showed a freelance photographer being shoved down a flight of stairs and then gang-arrested by six officers. The TV station which shot the footage did their best to get it pulled from YouTube and everywhere else.
Twenty years ago, CNN reporters were huddled in hotels in Baghdad as cruise missiles buzzed overheard. Those reporters had balls. They would have never stood for being denied access to a massive violation of civil rights on our own shores. The State control over media access is an affront – to the public, to the Constitution, and to the brave people who reported the news under fire for many decades.
After the Big Show settled down and arrests were in progress, news started to leak out about action happening away from City Hall. People who had peacefully left the camp or who were just onlookers were being herded and arrested blocks away. Some people who LAPD actually escorted out of camp when they chose to leave, ensuring them safety from arrest, were in fact put into nice little groups in the next block – where they could be conveniently arrested. Legal observers (wearing clearly visible neon-green hats) were arrested. Photographers were arrested. Medics were arrested.
The away-from-the-scene arrests and other breaks with procedure are a black mark on law enforcement. Not only for being pointless and unjust, but also for showing anyone watching that their police were not to be trusted. That the rules could be changed at any time and that a policeman’s word is not to be believed.
Now, let me segue for a second here. I have had occasion to interact with police here in Southern California on a few occasions. In Glendale, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys, and Beverly Hills. Granted, I wasn’t in any trouble, so I wasn’t being treated as a “criminal”. But the officers I’d met were not scumbags. One was a fellow ex-pat Bostonian, who comes from a family of policemen. These aren’t all bad guys. And they’re stuck – they’re the ones forced to do the dirty work. They have mortgages and families like everyone else. Like the people they’re arresting. That said, the “we were only following orders” defense for what some LAPD officers and sheriffs did doesn’t wash. It doesn’t wash for them, nor does it absolve their superiors of their responsibility for everything done under their command.
The sight of hundreds of police officers marching in formation through LA was chilling. If I showed someone the pictures and didn’t tell them what it was or where it was, odds are they wouldn’t guess it was downtown LA the week after Thanksgiving. The use of “asymmetrical response” is a fine military tactic – in Iraq it was called “Shock and Awe.” But when it’s used on a peaceful civilian populace it puts things on a path to some very ugly things. All it takes is one death during an arrest or while in custody – just one – and the whole Occupy movement moves to another level, and the main stream media can no longer ignore it.
People who were arrested where cuffed and put on busses. They were left there sometimes for hours. The zip-tie cuffs caused many people’s hands to turn blue and some lost sensation in their hands altogether after hours in restraints. The detainees were denied water and bathroom privileges until they arrived at the various facilities where they would be processed. Which may seem “ok” – they got arrested, so they should expect it – except for a few things. One is, as I mentioned before these were not violent criminals. Most (all but half a dozen, I believe) had never been arrested before. There was an 80-year old woman amongst them. There is simply no excuse for the officers not recognizing that this was a unique situation and showing some compassion. They were at no risk, and could have actually done the city and the department a favor by showing even a little kindness.
The detainees were forced to urinate and defecate in their seats on the bus. People needing medical attention were denied it. People needing their medications were denied them. I read where in one instance the officers in charge of the bus put on Christmas music at full volume in order to drown out the cries of the detainees. In another, the officers reportedly stopped off at Starbucks en-route for an extended coffee break while people suffered on the bus.
From what I know of LAPD, this is not procedure. They are usually pretty efficient about getting people processed. The volume of people being arrested can in no way rationalize what happened on the busses. In fact, some of the people upon their release mentioned how the officers who received them for processing from the busses were ashamed of what they saw. Someone needs to be held accountable for this.
Next, the bail for each person was set at $5000. That’s the fine for failing to disperse from an unlawful assembly that is classified as a riot (or at least that’s how I’ve seen it explained). It was only a riot because of the 1500 officers who invaded the space. The people arrested were not rioting. Most in the inner circle were sitting peacefully, awaiting a civilized arrest. And many of those arrested were following police orders and leaving the scene – how can you be “rioting” when you’re doing what an officer tells you? Clearly the bail was set high for punitive reasons. But that does not change the fact that LAPD chose to effectively change the law to suit their purposes – on a grand scale.
Why the ACLU isn’t descending on the Mayor’s office is as much a mystery as why the main stream media is white-washing the whole incident. Actually, it’s not a mystery at all. It is an embarrassment.
As people were eventually released, many were sent home without their money or cell phones. This is a clear violation of procedure. Whatever belongings you are booked with must be returned to you unless it is evidence in a crime. And since most were not charged, only held for a day or two with high bail, there was no crime. Again, this is clear case of LAPD rewriting the rule books for punitive purposes. They wanted to “send a message.”
The funny thing is, the message is having the opposite effect of what the police desire. The Occupy people are rightfully angry at those officers who abused their authority, but still open to the ones who behaved humanely. This may change over time, but for now what LAPD’s actions have done is cast them in a negative light. They may have salvaged some of their reputation in terms of training as the operation was executed with great precision, but their reputation with the people they are sworn to serve took a huge hit.
For those who think me a bleeding-heart, guess again. I do agree that it’s not the job of the police to make you comfortable once you’re arrested. I have the utmost respect for the police as it’s not a job I would want, nor could I do it. The stress of not knowing which nut job may walk up to my cruiser and shoot me – just because – would be more than I’d want to live with. Most – not all – of the officers I’ve met actually want to help people and make a difference. They dislike being on crowd-control – they’d rather be out “chasing bad guys.” But at some point you’re a human being as well – able to distinguish right from wrong, and “someone who got arrested” from a real “criminal.”
And for those officers who can’t make that distinction, who got a kick out of making the detainees suffer on the busses, watched their hands turn blue, watched them get sick – as well as the others around the country who have been documented behaving badly – I have a somewhat barbaric suggestion: If these officers are so hot for action, so keen to get into a fight that they’d assault civilians, then maybe these officers should do a tour or two in Afghanistan and let the actual soldiers who have been over there for multiple tours come home. This would give both groups the change of scenery they deserve.
After watching the Occupy people online, and meeting some of them now, I feel pretty confident that this isn’t going away any time soon. Even though most of the camps have been taken down, that was only the first phase. America is a reactionary culture. We are content to live peacefully … until something pisses us off. And the things that are happening in response to Occupy are starting to piss people off. The accelerated destruction of civil rights and the blatant disregard for the Constitution are getting people’s attention. Likewise the vast schism between what citizen journalists document in real time to what people see on the local news casts is making people question what the “news” really is. Americans don’t like being lied to – and the more it’s shown that the media has been lying the less people will trust it – and the harder it will become to control public opinion and public outrage.
Occupy has a tough winter ahead of them. The next three months will be their “Valley Forge” moment. But come the spring and good weather, things are likely to get kind of interesting in this country. For the better. For a change. So to speak.
For any readers who may be thinking: “so what?”, please remember when the first article of the Bill of Rights says:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Even if you don’t agree with Occupy – even if you think they are a nuisance – the fact is that they are simply exercising the rights guaranteed them by the Constitution. Public parks are just that: public. Compared to the acts of civil disobedience from the sixties and seventies that I grew up watching, setting up tents in a park and singing “Kumbaya” for a few months is nothing.
But if we turn a blind eye to this, what rights will be taken away next?
And for those who are saying: “what good will inconveniencing the elite a little do?”, please think back to December 16, 1773. What did the Boston Tea Party accomplish, in terms of day-to-day impact? It inconvenienced the Brit’s. That’s all. But it got their attention and Britain’s harsh response ultimately led to the formation of the First Colonial Congress.
You never know what small, juvenile stunt will be the trigger point in America.