Who Has Rights?

Let’s be clear: Legitimate acts of governance are not carried out under cover of darkness with a media blackout.
photo credit ©Bryan Smith

It’s good to live in a country with a free press and elected officials who abide by the laws of the land and rule according to the will of the people. Lots of countries around the world do not have that. Some do. Some think they do. Here in the United States, for example, we used to have a much freer press than we do now. Yesterday’s events on the ground in New York City, notably the violent destruction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in the middle of the night by the New York Police Department on orders from the mayor, followed by the overwhelming failure of the local and national news media to report on the actual issues surrounding the incident, makes it very clear that the news media in the United States are not nearly as free as most Americans assume. We as a society are in denial about the gradual erosion of our civil liberties.

Here are some inconvenient truths for you to consider:

1. The mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, ordered the violent eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters to take place in the middle of the night, carried out by police in riot gear using pepper spray (and by some reports tear gas) to disable protesters. This is a protest whose legality city officials had previously acknowledged, which is why it had been allowed to remain in operation as a campsite for the previous two months.

2. Properly credentialed members of the press attempting to cover this story were arrested and in many cases driven away with physical violence by the NYPD.

3. Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD violated a temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court of the State of New York that was in effect between 8:00 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. on Nov. 15. This injunction prohibited the mayor and police from barring protesters or their possessions from Zuccotti Park.

And here are some details that you probably didn’t see on the news last night:

1a. The eviction was not peaceful. It was planned like a military engagement. Protesters were beaten, over 200 were arrested, any possessions they did not manage to gather in the few minutes’ time they were given were seized and probably destroyed. I met one man yesterday who said his dog was taken away from him. The entire infrastructure of the occupation (kitchen, 5500-volume library [UPDATE: here’s what become of that], media tent filled with electronic equipment, comfort station stocked with donated blankets, sweaters and underwear) quickly wound up in garbage trucks. The city claims that protesters wishing to reclaim their possessions can do so in the sanitation department’s offices over the next two days. I don’t assume much will be found there in salvageable condition. NY1 interviewed one young man yesterday who said his backpack – containing his computer and a change of clothes for a job interview this morning – was forcibly taken from him by police. My guess is that he’ll never see it again. City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez was arrested, injured by a police officer, and held for 17 hours before being allowed to speak with his lawyer. He will be holding a press conference to discuss the incident today at noon. Most of those whose rights were violated are not in a position to hold press conferences.

1b. The eviction was part of a nationally coordinated effort on the part of local governments to suppress local Occupy protests at all costs. The mayor of Oakland has admitted this. Whether or not there has been additional coordination of these evictions by federal agencies is currently unclear.

2. Suppression of the Press is a serious matter, and you’d think people would be more concerned about this. News of the beating, arrest and shutting-out of reporters during the eviction was broadcast on CNN and NY1, but not linked on their websites. But there’s a brief mention of the issue in the New York Times, which I was surprised to see, since these days that paper has generally been reporting all the news Mike Bloomberg finds fit to print. The NYT said:

Reporters in the park were forced to leave. Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said it was for their safety. But many journalists said that they had been prevented from seeing the police take action in the park, and that they had been roughly handled by officers.

Last night NY1 featured a interview with reporters holding press credentials issued by the NYPD (including Lindsey Christ of NY1) who had been prevented by the NYPD from reporting on the story. The best coverage of the media blackout I’ve seen thus far is by the smaller local news site DNA.info, and also on The Tech Herald. Cameraman Luke Rudkowski captured video footage of his own expulsion from the park (starting at minute 5:00), and photojournalist Graham Rayman of the Village Voice provides a blow-by-blow account of his nighttime encounter with the NYPD at Zuccotti Park. But even though the major media are not covering the blackout, make no mistake: this is a major story. For related coverage, see Truthout’s excellent reporting on the Occupy Wall Street movement in general as well as a number of stories in the Daily Kos.

3. The Mayor broke the law all day on Nov. 15 by defying the temporary restraining order issued by the State Supreme Court. Perhaps you would like to read the injunction he chose to violate? All right, here’s a copy. (Note that the restraining order was in effect from 8:00 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. “or as soon thereafter as counsel may be heard” – which was late afternoon). So how do you feel about having an elected official ignore a court order and use physical force to enforce its non-enforcement? In my opinion, elected officials who break the law should be asked to resign. I hereby call for Mayor Bloomberg’s resignation.

So now the future of the Occupy Wall Street encampment is in the hands of the heroic volunteer lawyers who will go to court to seek redress for the violations of law and civil liberties carried out yesterday. But Mayor Bloomberg no doubt has a great deal of influence over the decisions of the local court system, and he knew what he was doing when he created a “fact on the ground” in Zuccotti Park yesterday. Even though protesters do have a legal right to occupy this property (including with tents), what use is it to have rights when armed members of the local police force are standing in front of you demanding to search your bags and person for so-called restricted items (such as sleeping bags and tents)? Zuccotti Park, which the major news media are now telling us has been “reopened,” is currently surrounded by a fence, and anyone wishing to go inside must submit to a search. Will the people of New York continue to take the erosion of their freedoms lying down? I hope they will not, and fear they might.

Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street has developed a life independent of its physical campsite, and will clearly persist even if these violations of civil liberties continue. A National Day of Action has been called for tomorrow, November 17, in coordination with Occupy movements all over the world as well as local unions. Keep an eye on the official and unofficial OWS websites for details to come later today.
Oh, and Occupy Wall Street still has a large and active Translation Working Group. We have been translating the documents of the occupation into twenty-six languages (and counting). You can read many of these documents here.
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