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On the importance of learning from past movements
October 23, 2012 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Gideon Oliver spoke to me of the devastating effect this kind of surveillance has had on activists. “People fear that detectives are following them around. They panic. It’s a movement-dismantling tactic.” Most Occupy protesters are new to activism and are emotionally unprepared to deal with this kind of intimidation. Nor, so far as I have seen, are they inclined to seek the advice of older activists who were under surveillance in the 1960s and 1970s, before the protections of the original Handschu Decree, which prohibited political spying, were put in place. Those activists nevertheless found ways to continue their political work.
From an article on the NYPD's Intel Division.

The linked article references the Handschu Decree - here is a longer background on police surveillance of activists.

Spying on First Amendment Activity - State-by-State

On the other coast, there's the Seattle grand jury proceedings which appeared to have targeted anarchists for their political beliefs.

Back in the day, it was the FBI's COINTELPRO (more here). When COINTELPRO was discovered and publicized, it created a large enough stir that future political surveillance by law enforcement in the US generally gets compared to it. "Return of COINTELPRO" previously on the blue: 1, 2, 3.

Information about how activists resisted surveillance in the 1960s and 1970s is (perhaps not surprisingly) not so easy to find with a quick online search.
posted by eviemath (34 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Every generation imagines they invented getting surveiled by the national security state.
posted by notyou at 10:38 AM on October 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


The speed with which Occupy was crushed, and the nasty, immediate infighting in left circles RE: Assange has made this a depressing year.

The US left is so weak, so disorganized, so ineffective in its messaging, and so easily pitted against itself that the massive surveillance apparatus being pointed at it is overkill - the analog FUD / police brutality / false charges tactics of 40 years ago still work perfectly.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:50 AM on October 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


I was a supporter of the Occupy Oakland encampment, it was only a few blocks from my apartment. I started going just to check it out, but then began being there rather regularly for GAs and to take photos. In January Occupy Oakland was openly planning to reclaim a rundown building in the area and use it as a community center. The actual building they were looking to use was a secret.

In the week leading up the the proposed "reoccupation date", there was a larger police presence in the Plaza where the camp former stood. A few days before the date, I got off the BART, and noticed there was a female officer who was standing near the exit turnstyle, watching everyone walk by. It seemed unusual. As I passed through, she began to follow me out of the BART station, out onto the street. She followed me the couple blocks from BART to my apartment gate, where I turned around, looked her in the eye, and walked into my apartment lobby.

Other people on Twitter who 'hung around' the camp often also reported being followed in those days leading to the building takeover.

On both a strategic and "the injustice!" level, it's really really dumb to follow me. I was just a photographer, not an organizer and never held a bullhorn. Yet the Oakland Police Department chose to follow me. I've also had unmarked OPD cars wave to me, in an overtly "we're watching you" manner.

It certainly felt like they wanted me to feel like I was being watched. Or maybe I was just imagining it.

I don't think these tactics are limited to NYPD in any way. Also note Occupy Austin being infiltrated by police.
posted by ejfox at 11:04 AM on October 23, 2012 [14 favorites]


Yo, the speed with which Occupy was crushed and the disorganization of the Left is a direct consequence of the huge number of movement-dismantling activities that law-enforcement agencies are up to. They have more resources and money and time than we do, and they know how to put wrenches into the works of democratic processes.

A great number of folks who were disruptive and problematic at many of the general assemblies turned out to be police plants, for example.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:05 AM on October 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


It certainly felt like they wanted me to feel like I was being watched. Or maybe I was just imagining it.

I seriously seriously doubt you were imagining it. This is textbook.
posted by anonymisc at 11:09 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, by many avenues it can take 5-15 years to get your greencard. That's a big chunk of your life, and you need the process to go smoothly, so you're very vulnerable during this time (also because you don't have many rights), meaning that police political intimidation is ten times more effective against a lot of people.
posted by anonymisc at 11:16 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


TBH I suspect both Wikileaks and Occupy would have self sabotaged perfectly well from within left to their own devices.
posted by Artw at 11:18 AM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Too bad we'll never know, isn't it?
posted by Ickster at 11:21 AM on October 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


I suspect both Wikileaks and Occupy would have self sabotaged perfectly well from within left to their own devices.

Kill your Serious Media.
posted by DU at 11:23 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Occupy's biggest and most notable achievement Happened very Early on: supplying America with the language to question the notion that very, very rich people controlling everything Is inherently a good thing. To me that's far bigger thing that maintaining the capability to squat in parks with no clear purpose.
posted by Artw at 11:36 AM on October 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


I also hung around the Occupy Oakland camp and GAs, and several of my friends who were more involved were obviously being followed to and from meetings by local police. I heard several stories about organizers being pulled over for "traffic" stops on their way home from GAs.

About a week before the building take over action, I was riding my bike around downtown when a drunk/belligerent motorist swerved at me and yelled some threats. Immediately an unmarked car pulled up and several plainclothes officers got out and identified themselves as FBI. Maybe they were here doing something else, but at the time it seemed obvious that they were there because of OO.

If you read the more radical oriented bay area activist websites right now, it seems like they are all preparing for a grand jury like the one that's going on in the Northwest.

TBH I suspect both Wikileaks and Occupy would have self sabotaged perfectly well from within left to their own devices.

Maybe, but filling my neighborhood with tear gas and rubber bullets every week didn't help.
posted by bradbane at 11:36 AM on October 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


I suspect...Occupy would have self sabotaged perfectly well from within left to their own devices.

I spent a good bit of time around Occupy Vancouver general assemblies, and I'm afraid this is more or less what happened.

Occupy Vancouver was unusually lucky in the way it was treated by the rest of the city. The police were more or less tolerant of the rights of the people involved. The city did not attempt to shut the camp down based on trumped up health code violations. Instead, the fire department negotiated with Occupiers, and Occupiers made a good-faith effort to comply with their not entirely unreasonable demands. Violence broke out on only two occasions that I'm aware of, were not provoked by aggressive policing.* In the end, the city went through due process and obtained a court order to the effect that a long-term tent city on municipal land would not be permitted. The Art Gallery Occupation was dismantled by Occupiers peacefully and voluntarily.

However, even under these relatively favorable conditions I'm afraid Occupy Vancouver could not have succeeded better than it did. Developing a direct-democratic consensus among groups that have little history of working together (First Nations groups, lefty activists, homeless people, organized labour...) is a slow process, and it would have taken even longer to earn trust and pull in a wider range of allies. It was living together that was building bonds between people across the usual divides, but those bonds needed that hothouse environment to form. However, no one could have reasonably expected that the tent city would have a lifespan of months or years. What little time there was was largely spent just trying to keep the Occupation going.

A few days ago I heard one Occupier ("Germz") give his assessment of what went wrong at the end. As it became clear that the tent city was going to fold soon people started doing "more talking and less listening." People who didn't usually have a voice wanted to be heard while there was still time -- who can blame them? However, that also meant that the seams between groups started coming unraveled. Those ties now seem to be broken,** and it is hard to see how OV could rise from the ashes.

Police sabotage was not the cause of the dissolution of Occupy Vancouver. OV needed time and space it did not have. It did not have the right to camp on public land forever, and it did not have the resources and allies needed to secure a permanent home. Given that, it was impossible to weld that improbable coalition together in a more permanent way. However, so many impossible things went right in the weeks OV was alive that I can't help looking back and wondering if there was some way, some how...


* The possible exception is the sacred fire incident. Occupiers had started a garbage can fire as part of a First Nations religious ceremony. Eventually, the police and fire department came in force to extinguish it. Protesters had a legitimate interest in protecting the ceremony, but the fire department was not unjustified in thinking that a large fire in the middle of a flammable tent city was an unacceptable fire hazard. Immovable object met unstoppable force. It's worth noting that the violence was mutual, with similar numbers of injuries on each side.

** Little known fact: the Occupation did not end when the tents came down. A few homeless Occupiers stayed on, sleeping rough on the Art Gallery steps for a few weeks afterwards. They continued holding General Assemblies at the Art Gallery for weeks afterward, but the disciplined people who could make a GA work were burned out and sleeping in their beds at home. Chaos, confusion and unmet need. In the end, the last few holdouts were shooed away by the police, like any other homeless people sleeping in doorways. I can't help but think that these last few true believers were betrayed.

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:36 PM on October 23, 2012 [10 favorites]


Occupy's biggest and most notable achievement Happened very Early on
I would like you to explain why you capitalized "happened" and "early", because that, combined with your sort-of-not-explicit dismissal of Occupy and Wikileaks, is kind of creeping me out.

And no, they didn't, skepticism of the very wealthy has been a common thread of American thought for a while. Claiming it's okay that what happened to them did because "they got the message out" is kind of missing the point.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 12:47 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nor, so far as I have seen, are they inclined to seek the advice of older activists who were under surveillance in the 1960s and 1970s,

Every time I've asked the older activists what they think about it, I get a "you kids don't know how lucky you have it! Why, we had GRENADES thrown at us! It was scary!" Well, yeah! It's STILL scary! So many of the former activists I know are more interested in, at best, ruminating over their 20s, and, at worst, justifying the government police state BS. After hearing their war stories all my life, I expected a little more intervention, support and advice.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:56 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would like you to explain why you capitalized "happened" and "early",

Phone based typo. NoThInG oF SiGnIFiCaNcE.

And no, they didn't, skepticism of the very wealthy has been a common thread of American thought for a while.

Per-occupy I think it would have been rather shocking to see Mitt Romney's wealth and business achievements not just fail to help his presidential bid but actually be used against him. I'd say that was a significant shift in public perception and one that Occupy's rhetoric has had a big role in.

Claiming it's okay that what happened to them did because "they got the message out" is kind of missing the point.

Say what now?
posted by Artw at 1:10 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


@artw

What I'm saying is that them "providing us with the language" is kind of dwarfed by what happened to them when they tried to act on that language.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 1:18 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, yeah, as I say I think the big problem there was not FBI but that they didn't really do much of anything all that interesting or significant with their initial momentum. And as noted above the game of Protestors Vs Police is hardly new.
posted by Artw at 1:25 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


For MA folks (or anyone else who is interested), here's what your friendly neighborhood fusion center thinks of your lawful activism.

We had to sue to get those documents, by the way. The first time we asked, we were told they didn't exist.
posted by rollbiz at 1:29 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


A Radio Boston feature on the same matter was released just today.
posted by rollbiz at 1:33 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


On a tangentially related note, a car-full of young protesters were arrested at the intersection of the residential side streets that my house is on in St. Paul during the Republican National Convention. I live about 3 miles from the Excel Center where the convention took place. The police brought in about 8 vehicles (police, sheriff, and highway patrol) to do the bust and it was done like a major operation. I looked for a news report on the incident, and never saw one. I'm pretty sure this was purely intimidation to keep them from doing anything embarrassing to the powers that be.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:02 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


There was something I saw somewhere about activists being harassed in the lead up to and after the Republican convention... if I'm remembering correctly, it also had something to do with some folks in Chicago being detained afterwards? I'll see if I can dig up the links. Perhaps not the particular car-full of young folks you're referring too Mental Wimp.
posted by eviemath at 2:43 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Its a good thing that America stopped political based law enforcement once the Nation became aware of such after The Church Commission looked into what was going on during the time Nixon was in charge.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:53 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seattle has a tradition of radicals refusing to testify before grand juries:
These grand juries caused Sylvia Jane Brown, Robert Gelbhard and future members of the Seattle Liberation Front to be subpoenaed in Seattle and Portland for the investigation of one of the first (and last) captured WUO members. He was also suspected in the U.S. Capitol bombing, several attempted embassy bombings in Washington, D.C. in 1971 and participating in the break-in at the FBI office in Media, Pa., that resulted in the release of numerous secret FBI files to the print media and which outlined the broad array of illegal domestic spying activities conducted by numerous federal agencies under the rubric of Cointelpro.
The rule is that you remain in jail as long as the grand jury is empaneled or a federal court orders you freed: 18 months in the previous case.

A later indictment of radicals was known as the Seattle Seven.

Classic advice from the 60's: Common Sense Security.
posted by warbaby at 3:41 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Plot Against Occupy: How the government turned five stoner misfits into the world's most hapless terrorist cell
posted by homunculus at 5:10 PM on October 23, 2012


In other surveillance news: Feds Cite ‘State Secrets’ in Dragnet Surveillance Case — Again
posted by homunculus at 5:13 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Most Occupy protesters are new to activism and are emotionally unprepared to deal with this kind of intimidation. Nor, so far as I have seen, are they inclined to seek the advice of older activists who were under surveillance in the 1960s and 1970s..

At my local Occupation, one of the first teach-ins was on Security Culture, given by the local anarchist group that had been infiltrated by the FBI during their planning meetings for the RNC 2008 protests. They told horrible stories about the FBI mole, like he seduced underage girls and gave them drugs. Then everyone got busted on his "insider info." They got hauled up on federal charges like possession of chemical weapons, for having a can of oven cleaner that they actually used to clean their oven. They fought in court and were totally exonerated. Or at least, this is what they told us. I never knew whether or not I should believe them.

The teach-in was interesting, but set a tone of paranoia for the Occupation that was pervasive. And the anarchists absolutely got duped again, I am pretty certain I know who was the informant in our camp. One guy made clear that everyone knew that soon he would leave town to go serve his federal sentence of 18 months for selling meth. He claimed he had sobered up and changed his life. But he was a total horse's ass. He preyed on women in the camp, made serious efforts to undermine peaceful political actions, and he lead some of the riskier demonstrations, like People's Microphone flash mobs inside Walmart Stores on Black Friday after Thanksgiving (he was only able to con 2 others into going along with him). It was pretty obvious he was an infiltrator and agent provocateur. But everyone fell for his lame act. I guess the Feds offered him a reduction in sentence for being an informant.

So don't go telling me that naive Occupiers should have consulted with the experienced but naive Professional Subversives that had fallen for this schtick over and over. The FBI could send all their informants against us, and it ultimately wouldn't make any difference. There were no leaders to arrest and neutralize, and the distributed organizational structure made it difficult for provocateurs to entrap people. But more than anything, the Professional Subversives were total failures, they had their chance, and they just ended up fighting the Feds and never even got to their demonstration. It would have been futile anyway. A few dozen anarchists herded into a Free Speech Zone only reinforces the political system. Black Bloc protests outside the Zone were often false flag provocations. But they liked getting arrested, and would often brag about how many times they had been in jail, and what famous celebrity protesters went to jail with them. And none of that shit made a damn bit of difference. What I learned from past movements is that they failed. If they had succeeded in the least bit, the Occupation would not have been necessary.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:17 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Occupy Portland protester captured in iconic photo moves lawsuit to federal court
posted by homunculus at 7:33 PM on October 23, 2012


And in other pepper-sprayed occupier news: The young woman pepper-sprayed by police and her medic lover have a healthy daughter

The Daily Show reported on this at the time: Wall Street Pepper Spray Incident
posted by homunculus at 7:45 PM on October 23, 2012


We should have a Occupy Oakland MF meetup, since there seem to be a few of us on here...
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:23 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


We should have a Occupy Oakland MF meetup...

My first thought was that you should do it very quietly and in private. I am deeply disturbed that this was my first thought.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:34 PM on October 23, 2012


My first thought was that you should do it very quietly and in private. I am deeply disturbed that this was my first thought.

The FBI (or what have you) is pretty dumb. As a lot of the above postings show, the disruptive authorities tend to be pretty obvious and heavy-handed. Trolling MF to opportunistically break up the emergence of a political force / tea time would seem pretty unlikely.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:49 PM on October 23, 2012


What was alarming me was that it was a flash of irrational paranoia, which is exactly the effect that intrusive surveillance tactics are intended to produce.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:55 PM on October 23, 2012


Threads like this make me happy to be an American in exile.
posted by Goofyy at 7:45 AM on October 24, 2012


notyou: Every generation imagines they invented getting surveiled by the national security state.
Since at least the 60's, they're right.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:39 PM on October 24, 2012


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