The Fizzling of Occupy St. Louis (or: Encampment Removal- Doing It Right)

Great news for the St. Louis PD; bad news for the movement:

The first thing they did was the one that baffled me the most, at first: they gave the protesters nearly 36 hours notice, as opposed to the 20 to 60 minutes' notice other cities gave. It has taken me almost a week, and the mistakes of several other cities, to see why that was a good idea, because here's how they did it. Early afternoon on Thursday, they gave the protesters 24 hours' notice: as of 3pm on Friday, the no structures in the plaza rule was going to be enforced, and as of 10pm, the curfew was going to be enforced. So, unsurprisingly, Occupy St. Louis put out a huge call for as many people as possible to come to the plaza by noon, to be trained in peaceful civil disobedience; local civil liberties lawyers showed up to brief them. Needless to say, the cops did not oblige them by showing up at 3pm. Heck, I knew they weren't going to show up at 3pm; no way were they going to snarl downtown traffic during rush hour; I told my friend not to expect them any earlier than 7pm at the very earliest.

So, when no cops showed up anywhere near 3pm, the protesters had their biggest rally to date (as I suspect the cops were thinking, "getting it out of their system"), and then started to drift away. Rally organizers advised people to be back before 10pm, to block the enforcement of curfew. Sure enough, by 10pm, they had 350 people down there. And scant minutes later, people were jazzed up and ready to go, because outlying scouts reported that the police were gathering, en masse, with multiple cars, multiple buses, an ambulance, and a firetruck, only a couple of blocks away!

And sometime around an hour, hour and a half later, the cops just disappeared, dispersed, without ever having gotten within two blocks of the plaza. So the confused protesters declared victory, let most of the troops go home, and fewer than a hundred of them bedded down for the night in their tents. An hour later, somewhere around 150 cops showed up. I'm sure people in those tents tweeted and text messaged and phoned for reinforcements. But between the late hour, and the fact that people were exhausted after having been out there all day, and that it was the third call-up of the day? Nobody showed.

Ah, but the cops did more than just show up after two head-fakes and with sufficient numbers … they did right exactly what the Obama administration told everybody else to do wrong. They didn't show up in riot gear and helmets, they showed up in shirt sleeves with their faces showing. They not only didn't show up with SWAT gear, they showed up with no unusual weapons at all, and what weapons they had all securely holstered. They politely woke everybody up. They politely helped everybody who was willing to remove their property from the park to do so. They then asked, out of the 75 to 100 people down there, how many people were volunteering for being-arrested duty? Given 33 hours to think about it, and 10 hours to sweat it over, only 27 volunteered. As the police already knew, those people's legal advisers had advised them not to even passively resist, so those 27 people lined up to be peacefully arrested, and were escorted away by a handful of cops. The rest were advised to please continue to protest, over there on the sidewalk … and what happened next was the most absolutely brilliant piece of crowd control policing I have heard of in my entire lifetime.

All of the cops who weren't busy transporting and processing the voluntary arrestees lined up, blocking the stairs down into the plaza. They stood shoulder to shoulder. They kept calm and silent. They positioned the weapons on their belts out of sight. They crossed their hands low in front of them, in exactly the least provocative posture known to man. And they peacefully, silently, respectfullyoccupied the plaza, using exactly the same non-violent resistance techniques that the protesters themselves had been trained in. Downtown bicycle patrol cops had spent weeks coming to the Occupy St. Louis general assembly and working group meetings, paying respectful attention and engaging people in polite conversation, listening intently; who knew that they weren't surveilling protesters, as some of us paranoidly assumed, they were seeing what the protesters had to teach them about tactics! A few of the protesters stayed for a couple of hours, to maintain the stand-off; the police uncomplainingly and politely continued their occupation of the plaza, flawlessly turning Occupy St. Louis's tactics back against them.

By dawn, the protesters were licked. They weren't just licked Friday night, they're almost certainly licked permanently, too. When the park re-opened Saturday morning, a few protesters gathered, caught unprepared with no signs or other gear, quietly discussing what to do. One of them went right to the center of the plaza and set up a tent. A couple of officers came by, engaged him in quiet conversation, and once everybody was calm, they pointed out to him that nobody else was joining him. He took the tent down.

Source: The Infamous Brad

A great protest should be a singular, powerful, shocking act that brings an obvious truth to the public eye. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther Kind, and other civil rights protesters didn't create the movement, they lent powerful words and images (in highly-planned, well-thought-out acts) to an idea already held by millions of Americans, articulable in a single sentence: "No one should be denied rights because of the color of their skin." 

Occupy Wall Street has some good ideas. They have some great ideas. They have some ideas, like taking financial regulation out of the hands of bank lobbyists, that are shared with the majority of Americans. But they don't have that single, universal truth they need to endure as a lasting movement. I hope we see them back in a month or a year or more, their ideas refined and reduced, with a message that speaks so clearly it cannot be ignored.

The OWS saga brought forth a tangential truth, though, one that I hope will spark its own, more powerful movement: citizens are not terrorists. No matter how annoying or unsanitary their encampments, no matter how misguided or disolute their message, they are free to share it, and you may not beat them, tase them, pepper spray them, or use anything but the minimum amount of force required to protect the public's right to their space. It's got all the elements of a good, viral, protest cause: logical (they're here to protect and serve, supposedly), universal (we've now seen police beat people of every age, gender, and color), and outrageous. The police are not the military, the 1st Amendment is not a terrorist creed, and we as a country cannot stand for beating the defenseless.