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  • Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper on Paramilitary Policing From WTO to Occupy Wall Street

    We host a discussion on policing and the Occupy Wall Street movement with Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which helped organize calls among police chiefs on how to respond to the Occupy protests, and with Norm Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle, who recently wrote an article for The Nation magazine titled “Paramilitary Policing from Seattle to Occupy Wall Street.” “Trust me, the police do not want to be put in this position. And cities really need to ask themselves, is there another way to handle this kind of conflict?” Wexler says. Stamper notes, “There are many compassionate, decent, competent police officers who do a terrific job day in and day out. There are others who are, quote, ‘bad apples.’ What both of them have in common is that they ‘occupy,’ as it were, a system, a structure that itself is rotten. And I am talking about the paramilitary bureaucracy.” We are also joined by Stephen Graham, author of “Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism,” and by retired New York Supreme Court Judge Karen Smith, who worked as a legal observer Tuesday morning in New York after the police raided the Occupy Wall Street encampment. “I was there to take down the names of people who were arrested… As I’m standing there, some African-American woman goes up to a police officer and says, ‘I need to get in. My daughter’s there. I want to know if she’s OK.’ And he said, ‘Move on, lady.’ And they kept pushing with their sticks, pushing back. And she was crying. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he throws her to the ground and starts hitting her in the head,” says Smith. “I walk over, and I say, ‘Look, cuff her if she’s done something, but you don’t need to do that.’ And he said, ‘Lady, do you want to get arrested?’ And I said, ‘Do you see my hat? I’m here as a legal observer.’ He said, ‘You want to get arrested?’ And he pushed me up against the wall.” [includes rush transcript]

    This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, a number of questions have been raised about how much cities across the country have coordinated their actions against Occupy Wall Street. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan recently admitted in an interview with the BBC that she and leaders participated in a conference call.

    MAYOR JEAN QUAN: I was recently on a conference call of 18 cities across the country who had the same situation, where what had started as a political movement and a political encampment ended up being an encampment that was no longer in control of the people who started them. And what I think you’re starting to see is that the Occupy movement is looking for more stability. I spent a lot of last week talking to peaceful demonstrators, ones who wanted to separate themselves in my city away from the anarchist groups who had been looking for a confrontation with the police.

    AMY GOODMAN: The conference calls were organized by the Police Executive Research Forum, a national police group. For a discussion on policing and the Occupy Wall Street movement around the country, we’re joined by two people. Chuck Wexler is the director of the Police Executive Research Forum. And Norm Stamper is with us, the former police chief of Seattle, who recently wrote an article for The Nation magazine, titled “Paramilitary Policing from Seattle to Occupy Wall Street.”

    I want to start with Norm Stamper, because you just may have heard Dorli say, “Thank you, Norm Stamper,” as she got pepper-sprayed, today, remembering what it was like in 1999, as well, at the Battle of Seattle, at the time when you were presiding over the police actions. Your thoughts today?

    NORM STAMPER: Well, we made huge mistakes back in 1999, and I’m afraid they’re being repeated today across the country, in Seattle, in Oakland, and in all other cities where there have been confrontations between the police and members of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Norm Stamper, in your article you mention that you think that there are institutional problems, structural problems in policing, that no matter who the political leaders are or what the top brass are, that these problems continue to crop up and appear to be getting worse.

    NORM STAMPER: I certainly do believe that. I think the drug war, which has put police officers against young people and poor people and people of color, the war on terrorism, the domestic dimensions of that war, have all served to increase the militarization of America’s police forces. And this is particularly tragic because, prior to these developments, we were on a path to create what I would call authentic partnerships with the community. That means no more unilateral decision making. It means, for example, today, police officers and Occupy movement leaders understanding the diffusion of that leadership, getting together and carving out rules of engagement, if you will, that will help protect public safety, public health, and also assure civil liberties, human rights and some degree of social justice.

    AMY GOODMAN: As I said, we’re also joined on the phone by Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum that coordinated the conference call with mayors and police officials around the country. Can you talk about what’s happening today—the Occupy Oakland, the massive police response, the kind of police response we saw in Seattle with the pepper-spraying of not only Dorli Rainey, but many other people directly in the face—the conversation that took place, and why you coordinated this call, Chuck?

    CHUCK WEXLER: Well, yeah. Good morning.

    But first of all, a correction: we did not coordinate the call with the mayors. It was simply with police chiefs. And it originated from Boston and Portland. The police chiefs in those cities asked to just compare notes.

    You know, I think, you know, this movement has evolved since it started. It was very—you know, relatively peaceful. And quite frankly, I think a lot of the police officers had a lot in common with, you know, the demonstrators, in terms of the concerns about the economy and working-class people and so forth. But I think, you know, over time, in some cities, the nature of the demonstration has changed. But it’s hard to talk about it, you know, all over the United States, because I think you probably have—you know, it’s very idiosyncratic depending upon the city, depending upon the nature of who’s involved. But in some cities, it has—that the hand of the police has been forced by, you know, either violence or the changing nature of what’s been happening on the ground.

    I’m not—you know, I don’t have the details about Oakland and Seattle and so forth. I can just tell you—and I know Norm Stamper would agree, at least insofar as we learned a lot from what happened in Seattle, when he was chief up there, about handling demonstrators. And I think the police are far more careful about not wanting to be drawn into something that really has nothing to do with them, and really trying as much as they can to exercise restraint, to use intermediaries, to reach out to the leaders of these Occupy movements. The challenge is, there aren’t really any leaders, or if there are leaders, they don’t want to be leaders. So it’s difficult to know who’s responsible, who’s in charge. But I think, you know, the police today are far more careful about exercising restraint—I mean, by and large. I mean, you have 17,000 police agencies in the country, so, you know, it’s hard to make generalizations. But I do think that—you know, when the first Occupy Wall Street movement started, and police saw what happened on the bridge and so forth, and the police sort of getting drawn into that, there’s been really a reluctance on the part of the police, you know, to want to move, unless absolutely necessary. And so, I think the political structure within these cities has played a big role in determining what kind of action the police are going to take.

    AMY GOODMAN: Norm Stamper, your response?

    NORM STAMPER: Well, I have great respect for Chuck, and I do believe that since 1999 and the Battle in Seattle there have been many changes. My concern is, many of those changes have been for the worse. The officers, for example, in Oakland were dressed as my police officers were in Seattle, which is, in effect, for full—in full battle gear. We were using military tactics. I authorized the use of chemical agents on nonviolent offenders. I thought I had good justification at that time. I did not. The police officer in me was thinking about emergency vehicles, fire trucks, aid cars being able to get through a key intersection. The police chief in me should have said, “This is wrong,” and vetoed that decision. I will regret that decision for the rest of my life. We took a military response to a situation that was fundamentally nonviolent, in which Americans were expressing their views and their values, and used tear gas on them. And that was just plain wrong.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Chuck Wexler, I’d like to ask you about that, not only about this issue of the increased militarization, also that there have been other cities where law enforcement has taken a very different approach. In Philadelphia and Albany, the district attorney is refusing to—declining to prosecute cases of arrests of people who are being arrested for being in a park. But also, the way that the—some of the police forces are dealing with the press, and of the—because the press are supposed to be there to be able to be the eyes and ears of the public in these events, but increasingly you’re getting reporters arrested, removed, not allowed to be at the biggest flash points or to be able to take photos or to take camera shots of them.

    CHUCK WEXLER: Yeah. No, I mean, you know, it’s—the police response is going to vary from city to city. But let me just kind of back up a little bit and respond to what Norm said. You know, we—you know, I have a lot of respect for Norm Stamper, too. We learned a lot. He’s very forthcoming with what went right and what went wrong with the Battle for Seattle, if you will. But, you know, in fairness, you know, you were faced, Norm, in a very difficult situation, and in fact, there really hadn’t been many demonstrations up ’til Seattle. I mean, prior to the Vietnam era, there was a big lag time. But what was—what does happen in some of these events is you can have 90 percent of the people are there peacefully, and you have this small contingent—and I think, Norm, what you had in Seattle is you had this group of anarchists that somehow was able to cause such disturbances that it forced a reaction, that perhaps was an overreaction, but I don’t think the police were prepared for it. And today, you know, the police struggle between these two extremes, between people who go to exercise their First Amendment rights and then people who are there to cause, you know, damage and destruction.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, Norm Stamper, respond to that issue, why you still think you were wrong, that you’re taking issue with Chuck Wexler here, that given the situation in 1999 you now say you did the absolutely wrong thing.

    NORM STAMPER: Well, for five years after I retired, I remember being on book tour and having people come up to me and say, “I was on the streets, and I’ve got to tell you, I was shocked at the behavior of the police.” And I asked them about what was particularly shocking about the behavior, and it all came back to me. It came back to my authorization of the use of chemical agents, a euphemism for tear gas or pepper spray, and the effect that that had from that moment on and throughout the week.

    There is no question about what anarchists, by definition, or for that matter, even recreational rioters, who are simply sitting in a bar and see the action and get attracted to the downtown area—we had some of that—can help distract attention away from the cause itself and create major public safety issues for the police. Here’s my point: if the police and the community in a democratic society are really working hard—and it is hard work—to forge authentic partnerships rather than this unilateral, paramilitary response to these demonstrations, that the relationship itself serves as a shock absorber. Picture police officers helping to protect the demonstrators. Picture demonstrators saying, “We see people on the fringes, for example, who are essentially undemocratic in their tactics. And so, we need to work together to resolve that issue.” These resolutions are clearly not easy. One of the things that complicates the picture enormously is when a woman like Ms. Rainey is pepper-sprayed. When innocent people who are there to protest what I consider to be very legitimate grievances against corporate America, against a government that has, in many respects, been bought off by corporations, the police have a responsibility to be neutral. It should be apparent that I’m not neutral, but I’m no longer a cop. And police officers on the streets really do need to be neutral referees, and they need the help of their civilian, if I may use that term, partners.

    AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of neutral referees, I wanted to bring a judge into this discussion, retired New York Supreme Court Judge Karen Smith, who worked as a legal observer early Tuesday morning here in New York. I saw her right on the corner of Wall Street shortly after police raided the Occupy Wall Street encampment. Judge Smith, what did you see?

    JUDGE KAREN SMITH (ret.): Well, I arrived about 1:30, 1:40 in the morning, got out and walked to Dey and Broadway. And the police were in full riot gear. I mean, it was a paramilitary operation if there ever was one, I mean, which sets off—here it is, 1:30 in the morning, what we call a stealth eviction, 1:30 in the morning, and they were just lined up two blocks from—on either side from the park, so that nobody could get near, this solid wall of police.

    I was wearing—and I brought this—a hat, which says the “National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer.” And as you can see, in color, it’s quite bright. And at night—

    AMY GOODMAN: It’s fluorescent green.

    JUDGE KAREN SMITH (ret.): It’s fluorescent green. And then I was wearing it, and I had a pad and a pen, and I was there to take down the names of people who were arrested so we could follow them through the system and just observe what was going on. And as I’m standing there, some African-American woman goes up to a police officer and says, “I need to get in. My daughter’s there. I want to know if she’s OK.” And he said, “Move on, lady.” And he kept pushing—they kept pushing with their sticks, pushing back. And she said—and she was crying. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he throws her to the ground and starts hitting her in the head. And I walk over, and I say, “Look, cuff her if she’s done something, but you don’t need to do that.” And he said, “Lady, do you want to get arrested?” And I said, “Do you see my hat? I’m here as a legal observer.” He said, “You want to get arrested?” And he pushed me up against the wall.

    And, you know, it was late at night. There was a lot going on. People were—all of a sudden, there was like a cordon of police pushing everybody into Dey Street between Broadway and Church. And it seemed like they were setting everybody up to get arrested. And then they started—some people broke away, some of the police, and started running after people. I moved away and then decided that I needed to get on the other side. I received a call that there were things developing on Pine and Broadway, and so I moved all the way east to go around the police and then ended up on Pine and Broadway, which is really where I ran into you.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, you had a personal interest, as well. Your son was also one of the participants in Occupy Wall Street.

    JUDGE KAREN SMITH (ret.): Yes, my son was a—he’s a staff person for SEIU 1199. And they were there in support. They were not going to get arrested, but they wanted to show the demonstrators and the occupiers that—and they’ve been supportive all along as one of the unions. And he was there. And I was watching carefully to make sure that he did not get hurt, as well. I was very concerned.

    At Pine and Broadway, it was sort of a standoff. People were—there was a lot of confusion. People didn’t know what was going on. There were some people that may have sat on some police cars just in comfort, but nobody was—I heard later on reports—talk about objectivity of the press—you know, that they were jumping up and down and they were taunting the police. The only time I ever saw on—when I first got there on Dey and Broadway, they were just saying, “Shame on you,” you know, to the police, and—but that was it. And down on Pine and Broadway, at least until about 4:30 in the morning, I didn’t see any provocation whatsoever.

    AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to lose the satellite for Dorli—for Dorli Rainey in Seattle. But I wanted to ask you, Dorli, what did it feel like to be pepper-sprayed in the face? This dramatic photograph of you being helped by two people right afterwards.

    DORLI RAINEY: Well, first of all, it’s very painful. And when they say there are no after effects, I still have a pain in my lungs, and my voice is kind of raspy. I don’t know how long that will last. But the thing really is not about me getting pepper-sprayed. It is a much bigger issue than that, and I would like everybody to keep that in mind, that while we’re getting pepper-sprayed, other issues are not being heard. And that’s my problem. I feel issues become a major focus to the detriment of the real issues that cause this whole problem.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: And I’d like to ask Chuck Wexler, this whole issue of the police chiefs trying to exchange information, was there any involvement of the Department of Homeland Security or the federal officials in the discussions with the various police chiefs?

    CHUCK WEXLER: Not on our conference call at all.

    But, you know, if I can just say a few things just in response to the last conversations. You know, this is really the struggle that the police have. This is why, you know, at the end of the day, you know, I think what Norm was saying about the partnerships and intermediaries and communication is so important, because this is a no-win situation for the police, that, you know—and one of the things we’ve learned out of the ’60s and out of the, you know, Chicago Democratic convention, and all the ways in—from the South, and all of the ways the police have had to handle these kind of situations is, you know, a minimum amount—a use of restraint. And I think that’s the real challenge here. The police don’t want to be in this situation. And whatever you can do to have intermediaries, like the judge, whatever, be the people that are intervening rather than the police, I think it’s a real—it’s a no-win situation for most police departments. They have worked really hard to develop partnerships with the community, the community policing all of those things. And sometimes you have one officer that does something—forgive me—stupid, and it characterizes the entire police force. But I think, you know, if you look at the restraint that police use today versus what they used 10, 20, 30 years ago, it’s substantially less use of force. But there are still mistakes, and there are still officers that are going to act inappropriately. And I think—

    AMY GOODMAN: Chuck Wexler, in New York, I mean, we saw a massive phalanx of police moving in. In the area where the judge was just describing, the police forced everyone out of the street onto the sidewalk and said, “Just get on the sidewalk!” They were screaming to everyone, “Get on the sidewalk!” As soon as people got on the sidewalk, they rushed them on the sidewalk up against the—up against the rails along the sidewalk. But I did want to ask you, how involved is FBI and Homeland Security in these discussions, Chuck Wexler?

    CHUCK WEXLER: We haven’t had—they haven’t been involved—maybe they’re involved at the local level, but nationally, at least on our conference calls, I don’t think—they didn’t have a role.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: There were some press reports that there were Homeland Security presentations urging that these arrests be conducted late at night.

    CHUCK WEXLER: That may have been done at the city level. It wasn’t on our conference calls. We had that—no one from, you know, Homeland Security made that kind of presentation, nor—you know, we were really—we were just comparing notes. We were like, how are different cities trying to deal with this in the most civil way possible? You know, what are some of the strategies? In some cities, for example, they didn’t have the police directly involved. They had, you know, the sanitation people and Health and Human Services and folks like that on the front end. And that was interesting, because why—I mean, at the end of the day, why are the police the ones that own this issue? I mean, because the police really don’t want to be the ones dismantling these encampments. But, you know, why is it, if you ask—you should ask cities, why do we put the police in these areas? Because, you know, at the end of the day, people feel as though you need some kind of legal authority or someone who’s going to come in. But trust me, the police do not want to be put in this position. And cities really need to ask themselves, is there another way to handle this—you know, this kind of conflict?

    JUAN GONZALEZ: And Karen Smith, you retired in 2010 as a Supreme Court judge, so you obviously have dealt, over many years, with the police department and police officials. Your sense—when we spoke a couple of days ago, you also talked about your sense that there was a really hostile or tense situation from the very beginning with how the police were responding to the protesters. Could you talk about that?

    JUDGE KAREN SMITH (ret.): Yes, well, I don’t know if Mr. Stamper was the one who said this, but I think it was structural. You—at night, 1:00 in the morning, people dressed in riot gear. There were trucks, remember, lined up for the sanitation to just throw people’s things in—computers and everything. And now people, I’m told, they can’t get their stuff. There was a them and us. I, I mean, worked with police officers for years. There are very—I agree that there are very good ones. It’s not individuals. It’s a system that’s being set up of us and them.

    And the other thing that needs to be brought out—and I think it was in the court case in front of Judge Stallman, who was a colleague of mine—is how often do you get the police and the state enforcing private property rights? The contradictions are tremendous, just that. I mean, as you pointed out in your article I read in some—and also even David Letterman last night, you know, points out, you know, it’s OK for prostitutes, drug dealers, and now we’re having our Christmas fair, where they’re putting up tents. You know, but that’s for profit. So that’s OK.

    AMY GOODMAN: Wait, explain that, because maybe people in other parts of the country don’t understand.

    JUDGE KAREN SMITH (ret.): Oh, at Christmas time in New York, and I think around the country, there are these little craft things that are set up for private businesses, and they put up tents, and they’re there—they have to leave by 11:00, but they’re—

    AMY GOODMAN: Tents all over, for example, Union Square.

    JUDGE KAREN SMITH (ret.): All over Union Square.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: In the parks, yes.

    JUDGE KAREN SMITH (ret.): In the parks, Columbus Circle. So that’s OK. But—and I don’t know what evidence was presented, because I wasn’t in court the other day, about the so-called sanitation violations that were the basis of the state using its authority to come in. But in the end, they were enforcing private property interests. And that’s really what—the message, I think, from the whole Occupy Wall Street’s about.

    AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. And hopefully Ydanis Rodriguez will also be joining us, the New York City Council member who was arrested by police on Tuesday night, when they evicted the Occupy Wall Street encampment. And right now, down at Wall Street, arrests have already started. We will also get a report from there. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


    AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Devereaux is on the phone with us right now, Democracy Now! reporter on the scene outside the New York Stock Exchange. Ryan, what’s happening at this point?

    RYAN DEVEREAUX: I’ve made my way around the Financial District, and it looks like Occupy Wall Street protesters have blocked a number of intersections, sort of with the help of the NYPD and their barricades. Protesters have sat down in intersections. And right now, I’ve returned to the intersection of Wall Street and Hannover, about two blocks or so east of the New York Stock Exchange. About two dozen protesters or so had linked arms across the street, forming a line across [inaudible] the police blockade. They started chanting, “This is a nonviolent protest.” And then the police started shoving into them from behind as hard as they could and eventually broke through the line, knocking a number of protesters to the ground. The police then leaped onto the backs of the protesters. About three were arrested. And the blockade—the protesters’ line was cleared out of the streets and has now been replaced by scores of police officers in riot helmets. This is directly in front of the Deutsche Bank on Wall Street.

    AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ryan Devereaux right near Wall Street. And the plans for today, Karen Smith, a former New York State Supreme Court judge, you have felt that the media has mischaracterized what the plans are for the protest, the mass protest today.

    JUDGE KAREN SMITH (ret.): Yes, particularly the statement that there were plans to take over the subways. There’s never been plans to take over the subways. What the plan was for the afternoon session, I’ve been told and been—and had meetings about so that I’m aware of it, is that they are planning to just have people give stories outside of subways, what they call soapboxes, on how the economics have affected them, and then to go into the subways and try to talk to the public on the subway trains on the way down to Foley Square later on, as to how this economy has affected them personally, to broaden the struggle on all—and they have what they call hubs throughout the city. There is no plan, and never has been, to take over any subway.

    AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Stephen Graham into the discussion right now. We started speaking to him yesterday. He wrote the book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. Just in from Britain, in Philadelphia. Can you talk about—as we were just speaking with the former police chief, Norm Stamper, of Seattle, and he oversaw the Battle of Seattle, how the police dealt with that—the militarization that we are seeing of police forces around our country?

    STEPHEN GRAHAM: Yes, well, it’s a longstanding process that has its roots in policies against drug use. It has its roots in the development of SWAT teams, Special Weapons and Tactics teams, and it has its use in some of the responses to the 1960s disturbances across the West, as well. And really, the effects of this, as we see in New York and elsewhere, is an increasing use of full-on riot squads, increasing use of non-lethal weapons, including things like acoustic systems that make it impossible for people to remain in spaces, including the pepper spray, including the tasers. And we have to remember, this is a really big growth industry that military and security corporations are investing heavily in terms of new research and development.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: And Stephen Graham, what’s the market? You’re talking about a growth industry. What are we talking about here in terms of investment of dollars by—because there are so many, obviously, municipalities in the United States with their own police forces?

    STEPHEN GRAHAM: Well, I mean, globally speaking, the so-called homeland security market is a real—is in real boom town—boom time, excuse me. I mean, in a world where actual defense contracts are often being reduced, a lot of the big companies are moving into civilian applications. They’re moving into these non-lethal weapons, moving into all of the technologies of crowd control and civilian disturbance control. And that has to be added to, of course, the much bigger markets that are growing in terms of broader questions of surveillance and security for buildings, for cities, for special events, as we see these systems established more and more in terms of everyday spaces and everyday bits of cities. So, I haven’t got figures at hand, I’m afraid, but it’s multibillion-dollar markets that are projected to grow globally at very, very high rates over the next 15 years, according to some of the recent market research reports.

    AMY GOODMAN: Norm Stamper, if you’re still on the line with us, former police chief of Seattle, does what Stephen Graham is saying ring a bell for you? Does it resonate with your experience?

    NORM STAMPER: Well, it certainly does. I might even add to that mix the increased privatization of the prison industry in the United States, where people are in fact making huge sums of money on the backs of those arrested for nonviolent drug offenses. And we’re talking really in the millions in this country. So I think there’s that that needs to be considered, as well.

    About the non-lethal tools at the disposal of local law enforcement, many of those were developed in the wake of a controversial shooting. We understand that cops got a dangerous job. It’s delicate. It’s demanding. There are situations that call for life-and-death decision making, oftentimes with no real time to contemplate options and possibilities. Let’s find non-lethal alternatives to that firearm. So, the motive is good. The question is, to what extent are those non-lethal weapons being abused today? We have seen far too many examples of tasers, for example, used in situations where no force was necessary. It’s just simply a way to get somebody to move faster or to get out of a car when they’re passively resistant.

    So, it’s important, I think, to understand the complexities of everything that we’re talking about. For example, there are many compassionate, decent, competent police officers who do a terrific job day in and day out. There are others who are, quote, “bad apples.” What both of them have in common is that they occupy, as it were, a system, a structure that itself is rotten. And I am talking about the paramilitary bureaucracy.

    AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Norm Stamper, but I thank you so much for being with us, as well as Stephen Graham and Chuck Wexler and Dorli Rainey and Karen Smith.

    Thursday, November 17, 2011

    Find this story at 17 November 2011