The Government’s Worst Protest Shutdowns: From Occupy to ACT UP

occupy wall street

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.”

2. ACT UP

ACT UP was an organization begun to increase awareness of HIV and AIDS when the illness lacked awareness and was largely associated with the gay community — and therefore largely ignored, or at least unrecognized for the enormous global health risk that it was (and still is.) Occupy Wall Street had “the 99 percent” and ACT UP had “Silence = Death,” staging “die-ins” in which protestors chained themselves in front of the White House. Like so many protest organizations, ACT UP began in New York before spreading nationwide, and like so many protests, it elicited violent arrests and gassing from police on protestors, and a number of other suppressive efforts that many argue crossed lines.

On top of that, the FBI kept its eyes on ACT UP, as well other groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, evidence of which was obtained from the bureau through use of the Freedom of Information Act, according to The New York Times, back in 1995. “These are public groups that don’t advocate violence. One can only speculate on why the FBI is collecting documents on these groups when they say they weren’t able to do the same thing for militias and violent right-wing groups,” said Michael E. Deutsch, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, to The New York Times.

James K. Kallstrom, assistant director for the New York FBI office, claimed they weren’t. “There is no investigative interest” in ACT UP, Kallstrom told The New York Times, “meaning anything. There is no interest whatsoever.” Of the 199 page file, 177 pages were not released. “We are loud and angry, and we yell at people. If you embarrass the government in public, it is just a given they will spy on you,” said Ann Northrop, spokesperson for ACT UP in 1995, according to Pilly.com.

3. Vietnam

All one needs to say is “Vietnam war protests” and the shooting of protestors at Kent State springs to mind as one of the most atrocious use of forces in, relatively, recent history. Major cities including San Francisco and New York played a major part in the protests, and groups everywhere saw the same, if not more serious, backlash from law enforcement that the Occupy movement faced. It also saw FBI interference. This was the time of J. Edgar Hoover’s time as FBI director. He kept a number of policies in action that retrospectively have taken a lot of criticism — a pattern likely to continue throughout history, based on our nations current political atmosphere surrounding the intelligence community.

Betty Medsger published The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI. NPR did a piece on the novel, noting her coverage of his efforts against war protestors. The FBI at the time had been “opening files on so-called subversives — including people who simply wrote letters to the editor objecting to the war in Vietnam.”

Finally, all rolled up into one, it’s hard not to address the three biggest American civil rights protest movements America has seen. The suffrage movement saw women arrested, imprisoned, and force-fed during hunger strikes. Equal rights for African Americans led to beatings, shootings, and general violence from police and the public alike; Vietnam war protestors too saw backlash from fellow citizens. Of course, gay rights protests can’t help but bring to mind the Stonewall riots and police backlash.

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