The role of the police and other law enforcement has loomed large in the Occupy movement ever since, if not before, NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna was caught on video pepper-spraying two already-detained, non-resisting women.
The subsequent months have seen a shift encapsulated in the shift in Occupy chants aimed at law enforcement: From “You are the 99%” to “Fuck the police.” This has reached a particularly urgent level in the last week with the shootings of Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo in Anaheim, which have triggered protests met by another wave of police repression, which in turn has led to solidarity actions from occupiers in Chicago, New York and elsewhere across the United States.
There are those who see a focus on the police, prisons and criminal justice system as at best a distraction, or a cause too radical for the wider population who it is assumed will be alienated whether the rhetoric takes the form of “fuck the police” or “end mass incarceration now.” At worst, some supporters of or even participants in Occupy may disagree with the assertion that there is anything wrong the police or criminal justice system at an ingrained, structural level: There are those who are keen to always stress the “law-abiding” and peaceful nature of protest, who see the police as necessary public workers marred by a few bad apples, and trust the criminal justice system enough to call for its use to enact a supposedly progressive agenda (see: hate crime laws).
Jen Waller and Tom Hintze have a different perspective. Two activists who have been involved with Occupy Wall Street since October, they’re now driving across the United States “doing legal solidarity trainings and working to raise awareness and build solidarity around issues of state targeting and social control” (they’re also blogging about their experiences as they go).
The project, called Less Wall More Street, seeks to help people make the connections between the repression of Occupy, the ongoing general repression of activists beyond that, and the equally long-standing pervasive repression of entire communities, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, for whom the recent Anaheim shootings are just the latest instance of police violence.
After attending their two events in Chicago (which included discussion of the similarities between the cases of the NATO5 and Cleveland 5), I caught up with Hintze and Waller via Skype when they had reached Minneapolis. At the time of writing, their journey has taken them as far as Waller’s hometown of Oakland, from where they’ve beentweeting about Occupy Oakland’s Anaheim solidarity demonstrations.
Occupied Chicago Tribune: What have you learned so far and observed about the state of the Occupy movement, and activism and dissent in general in other cities?
Tom Hintze: Here in Minnesota, I get the sense that there’s a lot of people who are doing a lot of great work but at the same time, there’s the repression side of things. As we’ve traveled we’ve definitely felt in certain places something very palpable: almost paranoia, but definitely various degrees of fearful environments. That’s been something we didn’t have as much of a frame of reference for in New York. We’ve been telling our friends in New York, as we prepare for whatever comes next: There’s a lot of really serious repression going on.
Jen Waller: Minneapolis has been awesome. We probably spoke to over 70 people at our event yesterday. There are all these young people here that are doing Occupy Homes stuff, and they’re super excited and inspired. They loved that we came and did this training, and they really wanted to put us in touch with friends that they have around the country because a lot of them have traveled.
It seems like Occupy’s gone in two different directions here in Minneapolis, but very amicably. The Occupy Our Homes people went in that direction and the rest of Occupy is doing stuff focused more on repression and the NDAA. That’s such an interesting balance to have.
All these really energetic young people on the one side are occupying homes and getting charged weeks later with rioting. Ten of them have been charged with rioting now, which is obviously an attempt to scare them all out of doing this anymore, but they don’t seem like they’re getting scared out of it at all. [Editor's note: 14 protesters arrested on May 30, as well as another arrested during a 4:00am raid on a foreclosed home, now face charges of third degree riot at the time of writing.]They seem like they’re super-determined to keep people from losing their homes, regardless of those rioting charges, and they’re bringing more people in so that the same people don’t have to get arrested over and over again.
To me that’s an example of how an anti-repression focus and then also an offensive side can co-exist in an Occupy, and I’d really like to see that happen more in New York, to have half the people, who are really, really into it still, on the offensive, and then half the people, who maybe are a little more tired, or have been arrested a million times and really can’t do that anymore, or just who want to go back a little bit to normal life, plus people who are already invested in this stuff, to start focusing on the defense, and to start actually focusing their time and energy on fighting repression. We should think about following that model more.
OCT: Occupy attracted a number of people who were new to activism and this brought some new approaches, certain new ways of thinking, that made the movement what it is. On the other hand I wonder if you would agree that there was initially a certain level of naivety in terms of how people viewed the police, and in terms of people’s lack of awareness of security culture?
Jen: Yeah, absolutely. In the early days in Zuccotti Park I remember having conversations with people who literally would invite the police into the park to hang out near their camp. As someone who had an analysis of the police before this, I kind of scolded those people: “What the hell are you doing? Even if you think this is okay, you’re endangering everyone in this park!”
There was one specific white woman who was really down with the police, who really believed they were okay. I remember talking to her just a month later when we slept in a tent together in the park, and her perspective had completely changed, because she’d made friends with this black guy involved with Occupy and had watched him get arrested multiple times when they were marching next to each other and doing the exact same thing. He got arrested and she didn’t. That’s the on-the-ground experience of watching racial profiling and watching unwarranted brutality.
Tom: I think that’s contributing to the repression we’re facing now. Frankly a lot of activists who used to like the police don’t like the police now, and law enforcement generally everywhere is pretty pissed about that, because people aren’t as susceptible to bullshit that they were trying to pull in the fall.
Also, I think a lot of people started to use security culture who had never used security culture before, so that became a really tricky thing. One of the things that Jen and I have seen in Cleveland is that it may have been used against the Cleveland 5. The FBI infiltrator may have used security culture against the five to isolate them and to keep them from reaching out to their community. So as we progress, we really need to develop a much better collective understanding of why security culture is important, and what it’s for. It’s not for isolating people or pushing people away, it’s for keeping other people safe in certain circumstances, and it doesn’t have to be used all the time. I think one of the strengths of Occupy was that so many actions in the beginning were planned above board.
OCT: At the beginning of the Occupy movement you had the idea that more or less anyone can come and join the movement, and there was a lot of livestreaming going on, almost everything seemed to be being livestreamed. Now there are good arguments for taking each of those things away, but my question is: At what point have you changed so much that it’s not Occupy anymore?
Tom: That’s a good question. This was one of the things that we feared in the fall in New York, that losing outdoor space would mean this bizarre dependency on indoor space which would cause fear of outsiders and increased security consciousness. That’s one of the reasons why we were trying so hard into the winter to reclaim outdoor space, we really felt like that was the most important way to keep our movement vital and growing. It’s still the same movement, I don’t think we’ve passed that point yet, but I think that we really need to re-evaluate the spaces that we can be in and our relationship to that space. Occupy started with a really great understanding of “We’re going to try to reclaim the commons,” among a whole host of other things that we were protesting. That had a whole set of practices that came with it, like livestreaming, like being incredibly inclusive, like the performative democracy that was in our General Assemblies. Now, because we’re so uncertain of the spaces that we inhabit, I think we’re losing a lot of the things that go with it.
OCT: Something that was there from the start but keeps coming up again is a debate about how activists protect their spaces and their communities. How do you respond to people who are violent within your space or your community, how do you ensure safe spaces especially for people who don’t have a lot of safe spaces otherwise, and how do you do that without replicating the structures of the police and the state? How can movements protect themselves when we even lack the vocabulary to say that in terms other than “police themselves”?
Jen: The question of inclusion and exclusion from a repression perspective is interesting because you have people that are just generally disruptive, you have people that are abusive, you have people that are just jerks – and then a lot of the time there’s a tendency to say “that person’s a cop.” We saw that a ton back in Zuccotti when the GAs were going on. There were a few people who everyone said were definitely cops because of the fact that they wouldn’t let anything happen, they just had to ruin everything all the time, in some way or another, every day.
Now not to say it doesn’t matter – because obviously it matters if there’s a cop – but if they’re not actually building a case or anything and they’re just there to be jerks and to disrupt things, it kind of doesn’t matter if it’s a cop or not. When you’re talking about people like that, the movement needs to make a decision, a definitive decision, by consensus: “Are we letting this person stay, or not?” If you decide to kick that person out, then they’re out. But if you let that person stay, then you have to take care of that person. You can’t just let them hang around and keep your distance from them, it doesn’t work like that. They’re in your movement. Whether we like it or not, it’s a family, and law enforcement certainly sees it that way.
Tom: There’s all sorts of interesting ideas for alternative justice, but at the same time from the place where I’m working, it’s not so important to think through those ideas, it’s more important to oppose the ideas of abusive policing that are tearing us apart right now and tearing communities apart.
OCT: In your training you do a roleplay exercise in which an activist is traveling home from the end of a long day at work, and meets an undercover who tries to entrap them by offering drugs. Given this idea that anti-repression is something activists need to bear in mind even when they’re not doing activism, do you think that there’s ever a situation in which it’s appropriate for activists to call the police? For example, if they’re the victim of crime in their life outside of activism?
Jen: It would be great if there was something else that people could do, if we supported each other to the point that we actually could deal with a serious emergency situation. And there are certain emergency situations that I do think are dealt with better by everyday folks than by the cops. But until there are better alternatives, if calling the police is their only recourse for certain situations, then that needs to be up to the individual. Someone was just talking to us last night about how a few years ago someone got shot outside their house, and they had to call the cops, because what else were they going to do?
That was my position in Zuccotti Park too: If you get raped in this park, we don’t have any way of dealing with that, so until we do have a good way of dealing with that, yeah, if you want to go to the cops, go to the cops. That’s unfortunate, but I don’t see anyone coming up with a better solution than filing a police report, doing a rape kit. The way that law enforcement deals with sexual assault is revolting, it’s awful, but we haven’t really come up with anything better. We do what we can, but it’s up to the survivor.
OCT: There’s been a lot of media at Occupy actions not just in the sense of TV, radio and press but people using their phones and devices to capture audio and video and images, including images of police violence. There seem to be two points of view on this: One is that all of the media coverage of police violence actually helps repression by scaring people off and also by distracting from the message; but there’s also a point of view that it helps expose the role of the police and opens people’s eyes to the capacity for violence there. How do you feel about that on balance?
Tom: Honestly I think we need to develop a culture where we film police in every single interaction we have with them. I think about this a lot because we’re on the road now. What if I get pulled over by a cop? The first thing I do is I’m probably going to take out a video camera.
But there’s a lot of repression around it. There are some folks here in Minneapolis who started doing Copwatch in a new neighborhood, and one of those people was telling us last night that the last time she did it, she got pepper-sprayed twice while filming the police. And she was excited to do Copwatch again that night, but she knew she might get pepper-sprayed again.
There are pros and cons. One of the really interesting things that came out of our meeting in Chicago is that someone said the cops at the NATO protest [on Sunday, May 20] were violent when the cameras were on them and when the cameras were off they calmed down. That’s the first time I’ve heard of something like that, but it makes a whole lot of sense.
As far as citizen journalism goes, I think the more filming the cops the better. There’s a difference with corporate media, though, that we have to think more carefully about, because at least in New York, basically everything that corporate media shows up to the cops come out in force and are awful. That was definitely true on May Day at various points, at the eviction, at D17…
Jen: We’re talking about police in a political context right now, but then there’s people in everyday conflict with the police and in those circumstances people don’t know if they’re going to get fucked with or not. When I lived in East Harlem, I lived on this block that was under complete police occupation, my building was the hot building where the police would stand in the lobby all the time. Dudes would go to the corner store for a soda and just wouldn’t come back.
When there’s that kind of police repression in communities, the idea of filming every single interaction with the cops… You’re just going to the corner store, and that’s an experience that should be normalized for you and should just be easy, you’re minding your own business. You shouldn’t have to take out your video camera every time you’re walking down your street. In the Jatiek Reedstory, his friend took out his camera once Jatiek started getting beat up: They weren’t just going to walk past the cops and film them for nothing.
We need to stop sensationalizing the police violence. For a while it was super surprising watching cops beat up on white girls. It’s still happening all the time, but there was an initial shock about it and then everyone was just like “Okay, that’s a new thing that the cops do, they beat up on white girls that are protesting.”
But these things happen all the time: the Israeli army killed a white girl with a bulldozer, and no one’s saying the Israeli army shouldn’t exist anymore except the people who were saying that already. These things happen, and they’re sensationalized, and they’re not really connected to the everyday violence of forces against communities.
I don’t know how we make the connections for people who think “Oh the NYPD was really nice for letting this white woman and her two babies off the Brooklyn Bridge before they arrested everyone else” Well, the NYPD also beat up Jatiek Reed’s mom when she went looking for him and made her four year-old son wait for his aunt to pick him up for hours because his mom was in jail. The best thing that Occupy can do is say: This isn’t sensational, this isn’t out of the ordinary, this is just more in the public eye right now.
OCT: Your project is attempting to build those connections. How’s it going so far? Do you feel optimistic about building those linkages either in people’s minds or in terms of real connections between people?
Tom: The project is changing a little bit. When we first started, I really liked the idea of traveling, telling stories and picking up stories as we went. I’m starting to see this project as the first phase of something bigger: It might be a longer term goal than I initially thought it would be.
In some ways that’s because you can’t expect to pop into different cities or communities right away and say “Hey, I have the answer! You all should work with each other!” There’s a process of trust-building that has to happen first. Hopefully from this trip people will start to take legal organizing and anti-repression work more seriously, and connecting that work to anti-repression work in communities of color and poor communities.
Jen: It was never our plan to necessarily seek out meetings with community groups: Our goal has consistently been to meet with Occupy people and with allies of oppressed communities or people who want to work with oppressed communities. It’s a lot easier for us, as two white activists with Occupy, to call up people involved with Occupy. It’s not really our job to seek out people in poor communities to meet with for just one night, because those are relationships that need to be sustained and built. Also, a lot of community groups in poor communities have been fucked over by white activists in the past and so it’s not really helpful to come through for a day and be like “oh, we’re in solidarity with you” and then leave.
I see our role as starting the conversation with the Occupy folks and more privileged activists that the system and especially the justice system and policing is 100% pitted against people of color in this country. From the perspective of law enforcement, if you’re black or brown you don’t stand a fucking chance. The point is to accentuate with people just how serious and everyday it is, and how there’s just no way that there’s gonna be a large grassroots people’s movement if the people that want that movement don’t make this a huge priority.
But it has to be from a standpoint of collective liberation, not just a talking point, and that’s why we’re coming through talking about political repression in the context of mass incarceration. We want [white activists] to feel that their liberation is wrapped up in dismantling the racist law enforcement system, because it also wants to bury you. But the whole time, it’s going to be trying to bury poor communities of color. If we can change people’s minds about the prison system, or if we can make people feel a little more committed to ending mass incarceration because they realize that their own liberation is wrapped up in that too, then that would be the goal.