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More than a year after tens of thousands of people aligned themselves with Occupy Wall Street to protest economic and social inequality and corporate influence on government, the public still does not have a complete picture of what role, if any, the federal government played in dismantling the nationwide encampments.
Unfortunately, about 250 pages of redacted documents released last week by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), in response to Truthout’s 17-month-old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, does not contain any smoking guns that would put to rest that lingering question.
The newly released documents serve as a reminder that the federal government became concerned – even fearful at times – as the Occupy protests grew in numbers. One document describes the 15,000 protesters in New York City and more than 700 protesters arrested for blocking traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge.
The documents are largely made up of emails sent by the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service (FPS) agents from regional offices throughout the country about Occupy’s plans and pending protests. Included in the batch of records are also threat assessments about certain Occupy groups. The threat assessments were based on news reports, the mining of social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, and chat rooms FPS agents monitored in which Occupy organizers discussed their goals.
The emails show that FPS agents throughout the country were largely concerned about whether the protests, which peaked in October 2011, would spill over onto federal property and, if so, what steps FPS agents should take to remove the protesters, who might have included “anarchists” in Northern California, New York City and Chicago, who may have caused “significant property damage.”
Some emails also capture agents’ observations of the Occupy protests as they turned violent. In one email, dated October 25, 2011, an FPS agent is observing an Occupy Oakland protest and writes, “I am watching the arrests on TV. Looks like a potential for gas.”
It was first thought that it was a gas canister fired by Oakland Police that critically injured Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, 24, who was hit in the head by a device that fractured his skull. Olsen’s attorneys later claimed that it was a beanbag projectile and that the injury was not an accident. Oakland was the scene of the most violent response by police to the Occupy protests.
Another email, sent on October 25, 2011, by an FPS agent, whose name was redacted, describes “hundreds of OPD [Oakland Police Department] in riot gear at Frank Ogawa Plaza arresting protestors.”
The FPS seemed most concerned that they were not blamed for the violence that hit the streets during the worst of the protests in Oakland, especially in light of video of the violence and severe reaction by police at that October event.
An October 26, 2011, email sent to FPS agents that month by an FPS official, whose name also was redacted, said, “[redacted] would like to know the following about the OWS incidents last night [in Oakland]: Is FPS involved in any complaints about police brutality.”
“My initial response was no, that the marches last night were about the incident in Oakland but we need to make sure,” the same FPS official wrote.
Additional questions in the email posed to FPS agents were, “Was there media coverage of the events last night which may show FPS involvement? Was tear gas deployed? OC [pepper] spray? By whom? [redacted] would like to view the CCTV [closed circuit television] footage from any incidents last night which occurred near our facilities and may have involved our personnel. I’ve been instructed to cruise youtube for the same thing.”
A follow-up email by an FPS agent in response to those questions said FPS was not involved in any of the brutality that unfolded.
Please be advised of the following:
1. FPS was not involved in any known complaints of police brutality.
2. There was some media present last night; however, CCTV footage also showed that some members of the crowd were holding lights in a manner that they could have been attached to cameras.
3. Tear gas was not deployed by any member of the Service. No use of force or known contact or hands on involvement by any member of the Service with the OWS protesters.
4. We can send you the CCTV footage but is too big a file to be emailed. We reviewed the footage. There was no hands on activity observed by any members of the Service during this incident.
The forceful response to the Northern California protest was captured in one email, in which a police officer wrote, “I have every uniform in Oakland, SF (San Francisco), and SJ (San Jose) working tomorrow’s protest. I anticipate it being larger than today’s and will probably draw from the Occupy SF group.”
Some emails also revolve around the escalating protests in New York City in October 2011, where New York Police Department (NYPD) officers were also accused of brutality. However, the emails blame the protesters for violence.
In an October 14, 2011, email under the subject line “Post Conf Call Wrap Up,” an FPS agent wrote, “NYPD is reporting protesters have been attempting to bait officers into confrontation. Given the highly-charged emotional environment . . . I think the potential exists for an otherwise routine protest to get out of hand quickly if we are not properly prepared.”
Later emails describe arrests of Occupy protesters by NYPD due to “assault of NYPD officers and damage to scooters. Plan accordingly for any future demos by this group.”
In Michigan, just weeks after the formation of Occupy Wall Street in September 2011, an FPS inspector sent an email to agents about Occupy Michigan asking them to “gather more intel on these posttests (sic).”
“We have the one in Lansing, MI (at state capital), coming up that is scheduled for three days,” the September 30, 2011, email states. “My concern is the US Courthouse 75 feet from that property! I am looking for info/intel that will justifies the need (sic) for an FPS presence at our facilities. Please advise when possible.”
A month later, an email that noted information about Occupy Michigan collected from “open source monitoring” about upcoming protests said, “no specific threats have been identified” and added, “Information cannot be collected or maintained solely on First Amendment protected activities or on the basis of any racial, ethnic, religious, political or other profile.”
A five-page report included in the newly released records, and officially released by DHS last week, was prepared by NPPD and titled, “Special coverage: Occupy Wall Street October 2011.” Rolling Stone first reported the existence of the five-page report last year, after reporter Michael Hastings found it in a cache of documents released by WikiLeaks.
This report belied the concerns of FPS agents involved in monitoring Occupy Michigan, as communicated in the above email.
The report said, “OWS protests have placed a considerable burden on emergency services personnel to control crowds, protect critical infrastructure, and maintain public order. Although there have been hundreds of arrests made, most have been for minor offenses, and confrontations between police and protesters have been rare. Police departments have sought to minimize these types of incidents, enhance security and heighten awareness through public-private information sharing.”
An October 2011 email written by an FPS agent showed interest in stopping the OWS encampments. The camps were subsequently taken down as OWS shifted its focus from encampments to political action.
“Several law enforcement organizations have undertaken steps to discontinue Occupy encampments within their jurisdictions or are in negotiations with demonstrators to close them down,” the email reads.
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