The Rising Price of Political Assembly
The New Police Surveillance State
I suggest this is not a NEW police surveillance state at all, but, rather, de rigeur, the same old police state we've always had, with infiltrations of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the spying and dossiers kept on Martin Luther King and other activists of the civil rights movement, the persecution of Eugene Debs, who won more than one millions votes while running for president of the United States, and was subsequently imprisoned for warning Americans of the dangers of entering into the European Civil War which subsequently came to be known as World War I.
Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS) nationwide May Day campaign was undertaken in New York and some 100-plus other cities. Its goal was twofold. First, it sought to focus attention on the major banks, the principal culprits in the still lingering fiscal crisis. Second, it sought to highlight the growing inequality deforming American society, which still resonance as an election-year issue.
The day’s gathering drew thousands across the country. Those who assembled were enraged and, for the most part, law-abiding citizen who drew the expected responses from local law enforcement agents, those duly sworn to protect the interests of the 1 percent — clubbings, roundups and arrests.
In New York at least 50 people were busted and roundups occurred in many other cities as well. The local police are increasingly being deployed to restrict if not prevent mass political actions, especially directed at the banks.
May Day has come and gone, but there are lessons to be learned. In particular, the forces of established order, especially government officials and law enforcement agents, are perfecting their policing techniques to suppress popular democracy.
Local government officials held conference calls to plan their strategic responses. Local law agents coordinated their efforts with federal authorities. One innovative tactic saw many of the world’s biggest banks take up a pro-active campaign to fight OWS. In anticipation of the May Day mobilizations, these banks not only worked with one another but with local police and private industry-security consultants to gather intelligence to thwart the OWS campaign.
OWS’s May Day rallies were an exception to the vicissitudes of daily life. They were highly organized political actions, qualitatively different from the humdrum ordinariness of everyday life. But in their exception, they point toward the workings of the new police surveillance state.
* * *
The coordinated federal, state and private security apparatus jointly responded to OWS’s May Day mobilization. This represented a new stage in the militarization of government efforts to curtail mass democratic protest.
An initial indication of this coordinated effort was revealed in November 2011 when Oakland’s Mayor Jean Quan admitted in a BBC interview, “I was recently on a conference call with 18 cities across the country,” she admitted, “who had the same situation. . . .” Further evidence of a coordinated strategy came from the US Conference of Mayors. It confirmed that during late-2011 it held two conference calls with mayors and police officials.
In addition, the Police Executive Research Forum, a national police group, revealed that police officials from nearly 40 cities participated in conference calls on how to best handle OWS.
Brian McNary, director of global risk at Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations, acknowledged the full scope of police and corporate collaboration in law-enforcement planning. His clients, international financial firms, retained him to “identify, map and track” protesters. They were tracked across all social media as well as gatherings and demonstrations. Proudly, he admits that these companies gathered data “carefully and methodically.” Their goal is to prevent business disruptions.
In anticipation of the Chicago anti-NATO demonstrations in May, banks gathered and shared information from video surveillance, robots and officers in nearby buildings. As NcNary admitted, this give “a real-time, 360-degree” view of what was happening.
Earlier this year it was further revealed that federal officials actively monitored and coordinated efforts to subvert OWS. The DHS seems to have taken the lead, involving a number of its agencies including ICE, the Coast Guard and the TSA’s Federal Air Marshals. In addition, still other federal agencies participated in OWS surveillance including the US Marshals, the Secret Service and the FBI. According to a DHS memo, its officials were “actively engaged with local law enforcement and trade partners to establish contingency plans.”
Local law enforcement officials likely employed a variety of tactics to subvert OWS. Given 21st technology, the demos were likely videotaped, individuals photographed, OWS websites monitored and the cellphone records of the ostensible OWS leadership monitored.
Under conditions of post-9/11 “war on terror” military preparedness, every demonstrator is conceived as a potential terrorist. There have been reports of police undercover agents infiltrating local OWS groups and agents provocateurs provoking isolated elements of an otherwise nonviolent movement into criminal activity. Police around the world have used versions of these tactics to quell civil discontent for centuries and continue to do as evident from the ongoing Arab Spring.
Drawing inspiration from judges in Syria and China, a New York judge ordered the social networking site, Twitter, to turn over three months worth of user data of an OWS activist, Malcolm Harris. He had been busted in last year’s Brooklyn Bridge fracas and the cops are throwing the widest net to find “evidence” of wrongdoing. The ACLU, the EEF and Public Citizen have joined Twitter in fighting the order.
In the face of the nation’s ongoing economic stagnation and OWS’s ability to give voice and direction to popular dissatisfaction, law enforcement officials are seeking new, more high-tech methods to contain popular outrage.
* * *
On July 9th, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) released the first set of findings from the House’s Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus. It found that, in 2011, over 1.3 million federal, state and local law enforcement data requests were made to cellphone companies for personal records.
Among the tracking information provided to law enforcement entities were: geo-locational or GPS data, 911 call responses, text message content, billing records, wiretaps, PING location data and what are known as cell tower “dumps” (i.e., a carrier provides all the phones numbers of cell users that connect with a discrete tower during a discrete period of time).
Rep. Markey findings are from nine of the nation’s leading wireless service providers: AT&T, C Spire Wireless, Cricket, MetroPCS, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, TracFone Wireless, U.S. Cellular and Verizon. Each company claimed that it fulfills law enforcement requests based on either (i) the demands of “exigent” circumstance (e.g., a 911 inquiry) or (ii) having received a valid subpoena, etc.
In a separate and equally revealing disclosure, the ACLU obtained the information from over 200 local law enforcement agencies from around the country. It found that cell-phone tracking is engaged in by an “overwhelming majority” of the 200 entities that reported. But usage varies considerably. A law enforcement entity in Raleigh, NC, reported tracking hundred of calls a year while 10 groups claimed they had never used tracking.
Most disturbing, the ACLU found that most agencies that engaged in cell-phone tracking did not obtain a warrant, subpoena or other court order.
There is a peculiar difference between what the cellphone companies “formally” report (i.e., in a legal document) and what police agencies “informally” admit (i.e., in a nonbinding questionnaire). It suggests an interesting grey area. The difference between the claims – i.e., carriers met legal requirements vs. agencies rarely use warrants – is, in all likelihood, the shared fiction that keeps the whole system of deceit functioning.
* * *
The Republican and Democratic Party conventions later this summer will probably witness the mass arrest of many American citizens assembling to exercise their 1st Amendment rights. Mass arrests accompanied the Republican conventions held in New York in 2004, when 900 people were busted, and in St. Paul in 2008 when 300 were detained, including 30 journalists.
A political convention is designated a “National Special Security Event” (NSSE), a category of state security originally established by Pres. Clinton through a classified 1998 directive. NSSEs also include the Olympics, the Super Bowl and gatherings of world leaders like the G20 or NATO summits.
An NSSE event gives federal and local law enforcement wide discretion, often leading them to treat protestors as potential terrorists, threats to national security. This attitude was visible in the NATO summit held in Chicago in May. Approximately 70 people were busted over two days, including three for “terrorism,” allegedly planning to fire bomb the Obama campaign headquarters.
Less reported upon but perhaps more illuminating, law enforcement authorities cobbled together a small army to execute the Chicago NSSE campaign. In addition to the estimated 3,100 members of the Chicago Police Dept., ground troops came from near and far. For example, the Illinois State Police contributed 700 troopers, Milwaukee supplied 100 officers, a Philadelphia contingent consisted of 68 officers and still other police personnel came Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Major-party conventions are designated NSSE campaigns. The Secret Service will oversee the Republican convention in Tampa Bay, FL, from August 27-30, 2012, as well as the Democratic Party convention takes place in Charlotte, NC, from September 3-6, 2012.
The mass mobilization opposing the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999 was the game-changer in popular protest. The forces of corporate-state order were unprepared for what took place; 157 people were arrested and nearly all released for lack of probable cause or hard evidence.
In the intervening decade, popular protest has begun to build and the forces of authority have gotten smarter. They have put in place increasingly repressive legal provisions and sophisticated, high-tech policing techniques to restrict mass political assembly. For more than a decade, 9/11 has provided the rationale for an expanded state military and security apparatus.
Today, the fears of 9/11 are waning and the political-military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan (like in Vietnam a generation earlier) are self-evident. To maintain the massive military, intelligence and policing apparatus of state power, a new enemy has to be identified. In the globalization war for resources, todays “enemy” is China and Iran; in the domestic struggle over inequality, its political activists.
Popular unrest and mass arrest marked the 2004 and 2008 Republican conventions. More troubling, arrests at OWS gathering in New York (e.g., 700 arrested in Brooklyn Bridge march) and Chicago (e.g., 175 arrested in Congress Plaza) suggest just how prepared the state is getting. The hot summer of 2012 is coming to a boil.
David Rosen writes the blog, Media Current, for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to the Brooklyn Rail; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.