Rule of Law vs. The Forces of Order


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UNAFRAID: Despite 700+ arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 1, crowds surged in the following days. PHOTO: Adrian Kinloch

Occupy Wall Street, with its defiant style of non-violent protest, has consistently clashed with the NYPD’s obsession with order maintenance, resulting in hundreds of mostly unnecessary arrests and a significant infringement on the basic rights of free speech and assembly.

Prior to the massive protests at the WTO in Seattle, protest policing in the U.S. was a largely casual affair punctuated with isolated outbursts of police misconduct. After Seattle, police departments embarked on a major rethinking of how to handle increasingly large and militant protests and, most importantly, how to handle the growing use of large coordinated direct actions. Without too much concern for First Amendment rights, police departments have tended to take one of two approaches and sometimes a bit of both.

The first is the strategic repression of direct action movements in particular. Beginning with the Miami police’s aggressive response to the FTAA protests in 2003, many departments resorted to using surveillance, agents provocateurs and negative publicity before an event, followed by massive deployments, “less lethal” weaponry and restriction on protest permits, including the creation of isolated “protest pits.”

Similar problems emerged in 2004, during the Republican National Convention in New York City. Permits were denied to use Central Park and other traditional protest locations; barricades were used extensively at peaceful, permitted demonstrations; and over a thousand people were preemptively arrested, with all the charges eventually dropped by the Manhattan DA.

The other approach has been to attempt to micromanage demonstrations in such a way that dissent becomes a tightly controlled and dispiriting experience. This is accomplished through the use of large numbers of officers, extensive restrictions on access to demonstrations through choke points, penning in and subdividing crowds with barricades, heavily restricting march permits, and making multiple arrests, sometimes using excessive force for minor violations.

This latter strategy is especially common in New York City, which has an almost limitless supply of police officers (upwards of 30,000) to use for controlling crowds. During the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, we have seen a gross overreaction to peaceful demonstrators engaging in minor violations of the law, such as using a megaphone, writing on the sidewalk with chalk, marching in the street (and across the Brooklyn Bridge), standing in line at a bank to close an account, and occupying a public park past closing hours.

The effect of this has been a low-level criminalization of dissent that serves only a limited legitimate public safety function. The important thing to keep in mind here is that while some protests have been illegal and disruptive, they have been consistently nonviolent in character. This raises the question of whether the tight and expensive control of these demonstrations is an unwarranted interference in people’s right to free expression that exceeds any legal objective.


This article was published in our third print issue on October 11, 2011.

This post is also available in: Spanish, Greek, Portuguese (Brazil), Turkish


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  • Romo

    Right to the point

  • Mikael Kallavuo

    Non-violent Self-defense Monitoring

    Why thousands of people can not better defend their non-violent mass meetings? Sometimes a small number – perhaps only four or five people – can “capture” a large demonstration. They can break a few windows or throw fuel bottle, which in turn can lead to extreme police retaliation.

    Violent clashes happens quite fast and afterwards it takes time to study, how violence was born and did the police use excessive force. Still there are nowadays a lot of good evidence material, many eyewitness with self-phone videos. With them it is possible show precisely the cause-effect relationships to violence.

    The cooperation monitoring can be quite easy to organize, if it will be done in advance.

    Shortly before the mass meeting the organizers could make a monitoring team and separate the areas of observation. The monitors can move in pairs. They could have a identical badge or patch, that to eyewitness could quickly report to them.

    Once established, such a monitoring system is likely to prevent violence. If there have been violence the organizers can very fast send to media a precise summary, with testimony and proofs.

    Mikael Kallavuo, Helsinki

  • Ingridswen

    AT FIRST THEY IGNORE YOU, THEN THEY RIDICULE YOU, THEN THEY FIGHT YOU, AND THEN YOU WIN. I’M WITH OCCUPAY WALL STREET, HAVE BEEN DREAMING ABOUT SUCH MOVEMENT FOR A WHILE NOW. THANK YOU, GUYS. Just one thing; do not bring communism into America as I’ve seen some of you protesters pushing this agenda in the Liberty Sq. I won’t work. Why? Ah, the human nature.

    • boop

      i strongly believe that socialism in the proper places and focus on the proper things will be a positive step for this country. We already have a socialized educational system, post office, the creation of infrastructure etc – we need to stop giving so much money to foreign nations, tax the rich, and put our money in our people! Teachers should be much better paid and schools should be much better funded than they are! I think that good educations are the foundations of a good society.

  • Ingrid Swen

    Also, don’t be duped by the “rule of law” which is to pacify, contain and control you. It’s a shame how politicians throw this in our face, “the rule of law”. Rules are made to be broken. Times in America are unusual and the rule of law must work for all of us and not be a baton in the hands of those who exercise their power over us. Times in America call for breaking rules now. All this “safety” and “saving lives” and other “bs” do not apply now. The city is concerned with “hygiene” at the park? Please, these are special times. Fuck “hygiene”.

  • hannah

    Justice Kennedy’s definition of the rule of law:
    I suggest that the rule of law has three parts. The first is that the law is binding on the government and all of its officials. This may seem a rather self-evident matter, but it’s a proposition that most government officials in most countries do not fully understand. If an administrative agency and an administrator in that agency is charged with giving you a permit, the permit is not given to you as a matter of grace; it’s given to you because you are entitled to it and because it is his or her duty to give it to you. Very few countries in the world understand this. The rule of law binds the government and all of its officials. This is an essential lesson that must be taught, if the corruption and the greed and the graft President Greco referred to are eliminated.

    The second part of the rule of law is there for you on the little slip. It is, in a sense, I think, the most troubling for me. I am not sure that it’s complete. It says that the rule of law must respect the dignity, equality and human rights of every person. And then there’s a second sentence and the second sentence says that the people have a right to have a voice in the laws that govern them. So, there’s a process element, but it isn’t just process. Because the right to participate in government is nothing less than the right to shape your own destiny. And the framers of our Constitution made it very clear that each generation has a share, has a chance to determine its own destiny, to determine its own direction.
    /…/
    My third suggestion (and it can only be a suggestion–it would be presumptuous to say I can define the rule of law), my third suggestion for you to think about surprised me when I wrote it. And it was this: that every person has the right to know what the laws are and to enforce them without fear of retaliation or retribution. This is almost a process-sounding precept, but it’s again substantive, as well. It’s part of your identity, it’s part of your self-definition to know the laws that protect you, to know the laws that are respected by your neighbors and friends and family. This is part of who you are. And you’re entitled to know this. And you’re entitled to enforce them.

  • desde España
  • Lou

    Why does your right to assemble have to infringe on my ability to use a bridge, street, or sidewalk to get home?

    • Johndoe

      lou lou lou. that is so you will wake up and say “wow, a lot of people are angry…..i wonder why?” and then, you will be moved by curiosity and duty as an informed citizen, to try to find out.
      consider: If a protest happens in the forest and no one is disrupted, was it really a protest.

      If the koch brothers were funding this it could just be done on a sound stage with perfect lighting and then put all over cnnbcbs and fox and you wouldn’t be disrupted, you would just be dis-informed.

      You see revolutions are sometimes going to be slightly inconvenient. but don’t worry im sure you can TiVo your favorite sit com while your sitting in traffic that was caused by mercenaries shooting unarmed people that are trying to standup for your future.

      • Lou

        Seems that you believe that you and OWS are more important than me. That it is OK for you to trample on my liberties to achieve your objectives. It’s actually a quite childish action, regardless of how you phrase it. More akin to a temper tantrum than any type of honorable action.

        In regards to funding, you can’t seriously believe that OWS is not funded, can you? We can’t have a serious conversation if you are going to make ridiculous statements that any thinking person would easily dismiss.

        I don’t think that you realize, that the majority of us do not want “Revolution”. We want to fix the best system the world has ever seen and make it better. That is why you only draw a few thousand people to a protest in one of the biggest metropolitan areas. Twice as many people will be at the hockey game tonight. You guys made your point, it’s about time you all went home.

        • Anonymous

          Wrong, the majority of Americans clearly supports. There are thousands in the streets and on live streams all over this country and globally, you’re simply not paying attention. What I find most dangerous is those, willing to sell out their neighbor’s freedoms, thinking they won’t be the next or that they are exempt. You are not. You don’t stand up now, you will be next. Let me guess, you support the Teapublican Governors stripping women, workers and the unemployed of their rights because it doesn’t affect you. That kind of thinking is dangerous, wake up.

          • Lou

            Lol… Wrong? Oh I’m sorry, the almighty BlytheC has spoken… If you say it, it must be true. Everyone loves OWS you are right. Actually, I am paying attention. That’s why I can see what is really going on instead of blindly following my little pack of people who tell me how special and important I am. Ummm women, workers, and the unemployed. Hmm. So are you saying that women can’t work? I don’t understand why you would put women in a separate category. I thought we were supposed to be working towards equality here. You must be sexist! Shame! Shame! Shame! I don’t think we need your filth around here. You are a dangerous person. See how ridiculous that is…..that’s how OWS sounds to normal people. Why do you all speak in generalizations instead of specifics? What freedoms are being taken away? You’ve been given permits when you’ve requested them and you still choose to think that you are above the law and can do whatever you want whenever you want. See Atlanta. See Oakland. Then when the cops show up to restore order, clean up the poopy party, or whatever reason they need to come for, you start crying that you’re rights are being violated. Nonsense.

          • Anonymous

            You want to see a poopy party look at the Teabaggers/depend wearing TWO hour (lol) rallies. Again, those willing to sell other’s rights down the road are dangerous. Thank goodness for the OWS crowd fighting against the tyranny so many are willing to mindlessly swallow.

          • Thomas

            Oh how quick you are to jump to the conclusion that bytheC is sexist.
            Perhaps you could take the time to consider the fact that women are listed separately from workers because there is a different set of rights being taken from women than workers. Or that women could even fall in two categories. Maybe you are sexist for assuming all women must fit into one category!

  • Lizzyb

    NYC ‘s demonstrators have a NYC-based legal working group called the Center for Constitutional Rights to help protect and guide them. It was founded by William Kunstler in 1966 as a helping hand to the Civil Rights movement.

    Every Occupied state needs a legal working group. HELP! Any advice on where to start? It needs to be done asap, as in last month. Much appreciated.
    J. Topper in metro-Denver

  • R Nicholsoncs

    So, fellas! This is the country you are living in! Fight for you rights and happiness of all the people! Everyone on this Planet deserves happiness, love and decent living!

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