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Smear Campaigns Fuel Shutdowns of Occupations Across Country

An Occupy Wall Street protester is detained following an attempt to re-enter Zuccotti Park, in New York on November 15, 2011. Hundreds of police officers arrested about 200 demonstrators early Tuesday in an operation to clear the nearly two-month-old camp. (Photo: Todd Heisler / The New York Times) A new and vicious smear campaign against the Occupy movement is in full swing. The narrative of this campaign is to portray the movement as a hotbed for violent crime and danger. This false narrative, if it sticks, could prompt more city and town officials across the country to shut down occupations, as the City of New York has attempted to do just this morning, and weaken the movement. This cannot be tolerated.

A new and vicious smear campaign against the Occupy movement is in full swing. The narrative of this campaign is to portray the movement as a hotbed for violent crime and danger. This false narrative, if it sticks, could prompt more city and town officials across the country to shut down occupations, as the City of New York has attempted to do just this morning, and weaken the movement. This cannot be tolerated.

The full picture of the smear campaign became evident to me when I received a message on a social networking site from a right-wing relative of mine. His message linked to a right-wing smear site that, citing the suicide of a 35-year-old homeless man in Vermont among other things, painted the occupations as one of “sexual assault, violence, vandalism, anti-Semitism, extortion, perversion and lawlessness.”

My relative and many of his right-wing comrades, it seems, really believe that the Occupy movement is in favor of murder, violence, rape and drug dealing. This is rather astounding, but it is also the reality of how far beneath contempt the opponents of Occupy are willing to go to kill this movement. The mention of “sexual assaults” is especially slimy, given that it was a protester from Occupy Wall Street who was the victim, not the perpetrator, of an alleged rape and her fellow protesters assisted her with medical and legal help and reported the alleged rapist to authorities.

It is fascinating – as well as scary – to see the way attacks on Occupy have evolved since it first started in late September. Originally, the media coverage and the right-wing attacks attempted to portray the protesters as aimless, lazy, hippie freeloaders, who were fornicating and defecating on the streets, while banging on drums and rambling about nonsense. This caricature did not work, as the support and diversity that make up the movement and its supporters were just too obviously different from the cartoonish portrayal the movement's critics tried to paint. As Bill Maher rightly said on his HBO show “Real Time,” “Occupy is not the counterculture. It is the culture.”

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But, now, this new and far more sinister smear campaign is well underway. The corporate media, right-wing critics and city and town officials are trying to blame the protests for virtually any and all crime that has occurred on or near the encampments. The headlines in the media outlets – which are owned by corporations that make up the 1 percent in most instances – continue to amplify these narratives and push for the closing of the occupations. The vast majority of these crimes and incidents have nothing to do with the Occupy movement; in fact, many of them speak more about the major social and economic injustices the protesters are trying to end. But that has not stopped city officials from trying to use these instances to stop the occupations. The occupation in Burlington, Vermont, has already been shut down. Occupy Oakland has been shut down twice. Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of the movement, is being cleared out by police as I write this. And if the false narratives continue, other occupations – and the strength of the movement – could be in jeopardy.

This is now a crucial moment for the Occupy movement. How organizers and supporters proceed in the next few days may well shape the health and survival of the movement heading through the winter and into the spring. It is absolutely essential that Occupy organizers and supporters (including independent media) work aggressively to: 1) counter the false narrative that tries to, absurdly, link the movement to street violence, rapes and drugs deals, in order to discredit the movement; 2) better explain the relationship between the homeless and the Occupy movement, as the media has portrayed the relationship between organizers and the homeless as vitriolic and divisive, while understating the spirit of acceptance and cooperation between activists and the homeless – themselves products of our unjust economic system; and 3) most importantly, the movement must continue to maintain the occupations, even in the face of crackdowns from city officials and police. This movement is the single most exciting development in decades for the prospects for creating a more just society. It must continue.

How City Officials in Vermont Deceptively Shut Down an Occupation

The shutdown at Occupy Wall Street may garner the most attention, but the momentum for such an action began earlier in the week. The tragic suicide of Josh Pfenning, a 35-year-old homeless man in Burlington, Vermont, is perhaps the most glaring example of how media coverage and numerous right-wing attacks mislead the public about the reality of the Occupy movement. The suicide was originally reported as a “shooting” in many outlets, leaving the nature of the incident ambiguous and allowing the media and right-wing critics to falsely claim the Occupy movement is violent and dangerous. Worst of all, city officials in Burlington – notably Mayor Bob Kiss – used the suicide as an excuse to shut down the occupation in the most deceptive of ways.

Will Hurd is a Burlington native who has been an organizer of Occupy Vermont and has stayed at the encampment every night. In an interview with Truthout, he said that in the immediate aftermath of the suicide, city officials pulled a bait and switch on the members of Occupy Burlington. Just hours after the suicide, Hurd says (and YouTube video confirms) the mayor and the police chief approached Occupy members and asked them to meet for “a dialogue” at 6 PM. When the occupiers cleared out to attend this dialogue, he said, virtually the entire Burlington Police Department – in full riot gear – sprung out from hiding places in nearby buildings and shut down the occupation. “They basically tricked everyone and took the park,” Hurd said in an interview with Truthout. “And the media refuses to cover this. They seem to want to portray this façade of peace and they are ignoring the actions of the city.”

For the progressive city of Burlington – whose mayor is actually in a third party called the Progressive Party – to use such grave deception in taking the park, especially given how cooperative the occupiers have been, is an extreme injustice. A phone call to Mayor Kiss's office was not returned.

Of course, the suicide of Pfenning, is an especially sad story. He had a troubled life, dealing with homelessness, alcoholism and legal problems. But those who knew him said he was a pleasant, insightful and peaceful man, who strongly supported Occupy Burlington. His mother provided a message in the days following his death, distributed through Facebook, to declare her son's support for the movement as well as her wishes that it continue. Occupy Burlington held a vigil and remembrance following his passing.

Suicide, sadly, is a major problem for the homeless. While research on the issue has been limited to regional areas, the data does not paint a pleasant picture. In New York City, for instance, the homeless commit suicide at twice the rate of those who have housing, according to a report done by the city's Health Department. This is not surprising given the hardships of homelessness.

Yet, the city of Burlington – viewed as among the most progressive of places in all of America – decided to blame the suicide, not on the ills of society, but on the existence of tents at the park. “The presence of structure/tents creates an enhanced risk by virtue of the activity that can and is occurring inside them. This risk simply cannot be managed by the encampment facilitators or police under the current circumstances,” said a message from the Burlington Police Department. “We have communicated that we believe the tents will need to be removed to ensure the safety of those involved in the protest, the public and our law enforcement officers.”

The idea that tents are a special security risk when drugs, alcohol and weapons can be hidden in pockets, cars, and apartments, is a clear excuse to justify shutting down the occupation. While organizers were respectful that police needed access to the scene of the suicide to mount an investigation, to permanently halt the occupation was a contemptible act. Worse, it could well be followed by similar action by other city officials in other cities, especially if the Occupy movement is falsely blamed for every crime or negative incident that occurs anywhere near their locations.

Blaming the Protesters for All Urban Crime

It seems lost on critics of Occupy, the media and many city officials that in urban areas – where many of these encampments are located – crime is a regular occurrence. Drug deals, gang violence, sexual assaults, tragically, are not uncommon in American cities. But with the protests in full swing, city officials and the media are blaming Occupy for virtually any crime, tragedy or incident that occurs anywhere near the occupations.

I have spent several nights at Occupy Boston and can say that the atmosphere is peaceful, unified, collegial and positive. There are, no doubt, a few bad apples that do not represent the movement and risk its credibility by causing trouble. As with any movement, there are some misguided folks who taint the movement with their idiocy. But the movement itself, which operates by consensus, has clearly come out in support of nonviolence, cooperation, mutual respect and keeping the park free of illicit behavior.

Boston, however, is a highly populated city with plenty of crime and drug trafficking. And, in the course of the occupation's first month, police – often using undercover sting operations – did manage to make four drug arrests, all of them involving homeless people selling to undercover cops.

Exactly how involved – if at all – the defendants (who have not been proven guilty) were in the organizing of Occupy is not clear. But no matter what happens in these cases, it is absurd to try and portray Occupy Boston as a haven for drugs and debauchery, as opposed to the highly organized and peaceful operation that it is. Four drug arrests in an urban area is hardly a spike in drug activity. Police officers have told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity, that there has been no real surge in criminal activity as a result of Occupy. There is a surge in headlines. A drug arrest in Boston is an everyday occurrence that typically does not warrant much press coverage. But a small drug transaction that occurs anywhere near Occupy Boston is fodder for endless headlines and smears. But, as organizers have repeatedly pointed out, those who are staying in tents on Dewey Square are almost all there out of a genuine desire for change.

The problem, of course, is that all of these negative headlines – and the false narrative blaming the Occupy movement for all of these crimes – could lead Boston city officials to take a similar action, as Mayor Bob Kiss did in Burlington. “The problem we have today is that we have different groups infiltrating the people who have the message. We have anarchists who are part of the group. We have homeless individuals who are part of the group,” said Boston's Mayor Thomas Menino in an interview with a local CBS affiliate where he suggested the occupiers “think about leaving” Dewey Square. “I just wish that the group that's demonstrating, not just here in Boston, but nationally … They're directing their anger at the wrong location.” Menino seems to be setting the stage to possibly close down the occupation – something that should not be tolerated.

Demonizing the Homeless

At Occupy Boston and Occupy Vermont, as well as other encampments across the country, the issue of homelessness has been a major subject of scrutiny by the media. While it is true that the homeless have been at the center of some of the controversies, here again we see efforts to disparage the movement as well as the poor and the homeless. It is indeed true that homeless people have flocked to encampments. Some have come because they feel they have fallen through the cracks in our society and want to help fill them; others come for food, shelter and company. They are human beings with human needs and the occupations offer them many things that the US government – in the richest nation in history – does not offer them: food, warm clothes, acceptance and respect.

“We recognized early that many homeless people would come. We were happy to help them with food and shelter. Many of them became very interested in the political process … people were learning from each other and forming great relationships,” Hurd said. “It was beautiful to watch. And now that the park is closed, the homeless are forced to scatter to various places to sleep.”

But media across the country have ignored the positive interactions – as well as the context of how our unjust economic system leaves so many people without work or shelter. In Vermont, one newspaper article portrayed the relationship between organizers and the homeless as divisive, and quoted one man who said: “I haven't met anybody who's ended up homeless for economic reasons only …Somebody who wants to get off the streets can definitely do that in Burlington.”

This statement is patently absurd and basically states that all homeless people are either addicted to drugs or are crazy. Currently, less than half of the unemployed in the United States receive any benefits and this does not include those who graduated college recently and can't find a job at all. There are currently about five job applicants for each job opening. So, clearly many people can become homeless even if they have no mental illnesses or drug addictions; to claim otherwise is to ignore the gross injustices of our economic system. For those with mental health issues, it is quite a shame that in our system they are so often forced to the streets to starve, as opposed to being treated in humane public facilities. It is indeed remarkable that the collective good will of Occupy Vermont, for instance, cares better for the homeless than the federal government.

Articles about the homeless and other Occupy encampments were very similar in that they paint the homeless as a divisive group, rather than a major stakeholder in US economic policy. The Boston Globe, for instance, reported on “divisions [that] have begun to emerge,” as protesters try “to distinguish between homeless people who are joining their movement and those who are there for the amenities.” The New York Times ran an article with the headline “Dissenting, or Seeking Shelter? Homeless State a Claim at Protests.” The Week pointedly asked, “Does Occupy Wall Street have a Homeless Problem?” Perhaps a better question would have been, “Does the United States economy have a homeless problem and will Occupy Wall Street help us fix it?”

To its credit, the aforementioned Times' article did note that the “rising number of homeless, many of them suffering from mental disorders, has made it easier for Occupy's opponents to belittle the movement as vagrant and lawless and has raised the pressure on municipal authorities to crack down.” This is undoubtedly true, but would not be as much of a detriment if the media did a better job of explaining homelessness in the context of our failed economic policies, as well as their positive interactions with the protesters at the Occupy encampments.

In any event, the judgmental portrayal of the homeless population at Occupy demonstrations is yet one more example of how poor people are portrayed negatively, how the protests are demonized. Protests, it is worth noting, which are filled with people fighting for a world in which nobody would have to sleep on the streets and beg for food.

“Whose Parks? Our Parks”: Keeping the Occupations Alive

Clearly, the Occupy movement is in a critical stage, especially with the hub of the movement now facing a police assault. The media and city officials are doing everything they can to demonize a movement that is actually challenging centers of power in the United States. By blaming the protesters for shootings, health problems, drug deals, suicides and rapes for which the movement is not at fault, city officials now have justifications, however invalid, to shut down the occupations. Burlington, Vermont's, occupations have been ransacked by police. Occupy Oakland has also recently been shut down. Are city officials feeling more emboldened to take aggressive action against these centers of free speech? Will more occupations be met with violent confrontations aimed at shutting them down?

Clearly, the answer is yes. But nobody said fighting for change is easy. And if the Occupy Movement and its supporters redouble their efforts and are willing to continue this peaceful movement – even at the risk of arrest – city officials will be more cautious in shutting down these protests. This is especially true given that, according to polls, the Occupy movement is still more popular with the public than the Tea Party or Wall Street, despite all the recent bad press. This is a testament to the anger this country has at the recklessness of the top 1 percent and the government which it controls.

Despite setbacks, there are many signs of progress. In Boston, California, and elsewhere, the movement is expanding into colleges, such as Harvard and Northeastern.

This is the right idea. While circumstances have put Occupy on the defensive, organizers are aware that this movement is, and needs to be, growing. And justice, the will of the public and the staunch determination of those who brave cold nights to fight for a better world for their children, are still very much on the side of this movement. The protests are working, which is why they are being attacked with such vigor. Now is the time to keep these occupations alive and growing through the winter. So, police shut down Zuccotti Park, or City Hall Park in Burlington. Well, then protesters will come back and set their tents back up, somewhere. They cannot lock all of us up. And when the warm air returns and the leaves grow back, the movement can emerge with momentum into our own “American Spring.”

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