When Democrats call in the cops

November 2, 2011

The mayors who are ordering crackdowns against Occupy protests and encampments are leaders of the "party of the people," writes Khury Petersen-Smith.

THE OCCUPY movement is capturing the imagination of people who want progressive change across the U.S. and around the world--and the recent wave of violent police crackdowns in Oakland, Denver, Atlanta and other cities across the country shows that the 1 percent are taking this grassroots uprising seriously.

The popularity of Occupy has led some Democratic Party leaders to publicly sympathize with the movement.

Barack Obama spent the summer bargaining with Republicans over just how much austerity will be imposed in exchange for raising the government's debt ceiling--but now he claims to understand that "protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works."

Robby Mook, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, even used Occupy in attempt to raise money for the 2012 elections. "Protesters," he wrote in an e-mail appeal, "are assembling in New York and around the country to let billionaires, big oil and big bankers know that we're not going to let the richest 1 percent force draconian economic policies and massive cuts to crucial programs on Main Street Americans."

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan

This is ironic, because in city after city, when the Occupy movement has faced restrictions the right to free speech and violent attacks by police, the orders for repression have come almost exclusively from Robby Mook's colleagues in the Democratic Party.

THE ONE exception is where Occupy started--in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's New York City. It's fitting that the movement would take off in the shadow of the chief symbol of criminal inequality in the world, Wall Street--and in a city with a billionaire for a mayor.

In addition to being a devoted supporter of the free market, Bloomberg, of course, started out his three terms as mayor as a Republican. But he quit the party in 2007 as the GOP turned further and further toward the Religious Right, and he's certainly seen as more moderate than his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani, who is remembered for his callous policies and iron-fisted police repression.

Today, Bloomberg says that New York City should be "a beacon of tolerance." But he wasn't so tolerant that he didn't attempt to evict the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park earlier in October--with the excuse that the plaza needed "cleaning." An overnight mobilization by unionists, students and community activists forced Bloomberg to retreat. Before that, the police force Bloomberg commands shocked the world with its unbridled attacks and mass arrests against nonviolent protesters.

Aside from Bloomberg, though, the mayors ordering the crackdowns against Occupy encampments are almost entirely Democrats--and not just from the mainstream, but some of the most liberal officeholders in the party.

Boston was the second city to launch an occupation, and the second city where Occupy faced police abuse along the lines of the crackdowns in New York, with 141 people arrested on October 11. The orders for mass arrests came from long-time Democratic Mayor Tom Menino. In Chicago, some 300 Occupy supporters have been arrested trying to establish a stable encampment as other cities have--but they've been stopped by a city administration led by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who before this was Barack Obama's chief of staff.

And, of course, in Oakland--where the most savage police violence yet against Occupy protesters took place--the mayor is Jean Quan, considered one of the most liberal mayors anywhere in the country.

All these cities are in states that are Democratic strongholds, with the "party of the people" controlling the governor's mansion. But in cities in more conservative states, it's still Democrats overseeing the repression of the Occupy movement.

Such is the case in Atlanta under Mayor Kasim Reed, where 52 protesters were arrested October 26; in Nashville, Tenn., where Mayor Karl Dean's police attacked occupiers last weekend; and in Denver under Mayor Michael Hancock, where the cops also attacked the Occupy movement over the weekend.

Some of these mayors, like Boston's Menino, fit the classic image of the big-city boss overseeing a political machine. But others are seen as examples of the "new," young Democrats, who are more representative of the progressive base of the party. Many of them are people of color.

In Massachusetts, the leading figure in the Democratic Party is not Tom Menino, but Deval Patrick, the Black governor, whose 2006 campaign and slogan "Together We Can" anticipated Barack Obama's. Mayors Hancock and Reed of Denver and Atlanta, respectively, are both African Americans. Jean Quan was the first Asian American woman elected mayor of a major U.S. city.

Quan is a particularly telling case. She was a student activist at University of California Berkeley in the 1960s, and part of the struggle to establish an Asian American Studies program. She worked as a community organizer for many years in Oakland and was consistently a voice of the left when she served on the Oakland City Council.

But now, she is on the wrong side of the barricades. Many of the Oaklanders who participate in the Occupy movement's November 2 day of action voted for Jean Quan. Now, they want her to resign.

Quan's career is a reminder that if you try to change the system from within, it changes you instead, regardless of your identity or intention.

More generally, the truth is this: Democratic mayors may talk about how they sympathize with the Occupy movement. They may even try to speak in its name, as Quan has. But their office requires them to keep order and protect the interests of the 1 percent--and so they will turn to repression to try to stop the struggle from disrupting business as usual.

THE SAME truth applies further up the chain, in the White House of Barack Obama, the first African American president of the U.S.

Where was Barack Obama, who claimed to understand the "broad-based frustration" of the movement, when Occupy activists in Oakland were reclaiming Oscar Grant Plaza after enduring vicious police violence 24 hours earlier? Answer: He was across the Bay at a $5,000-a-plate fundraiser for his presidential campaign.

The fact is the Occupy movement is taking place in Obama's America. Obama bears the primary responsibility for the bailout of Wall Street to the tune of trillions of dollars, while there's no help for working people losing their homes or looking for a job or drowning in student loan debt or falling into poverty.

All this raises some big questions for our movement and everyone who wants to see change in a system marked by inequality of wealth and power. For example, if the 99 percent tried to change things by voting for Obama--and many people on our side did--only to discover that the policies we resist are being put forward by him and other Democrats, what do we do now?

The answer lies outside the two-party system. The Occupy movement is providing a space for our side to discuss--and take action on--our agenda. The determination that we have seen in a movement willing to stand up to police violence and in the general strike call from Oakland represents the direction our movement needs to go in--a growing awareness of our own power.

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