Gods Help Us, St. Louis Did it Right #OWS
The St. Louis Beacon non-profit news site is reporting that St. Louis's mayor didn't bother listening to the conference call himself; he let his chief of staff take the call. And after seeing how other cities handled their raids, and comparing it to how St. Louis handled its raid, I'm left wondering: did Jeff Rainford laugh out loud at the FBI and the credulous mayors who were listening in? Or did he manage to hide it?
See, here's one thing I didn't have the heart to tell my friend who's peripherally involved in Occupy St. Louis: Occupy is not the first liberal group to think that they could win for their political issue by setting up a permanent encampment on a major thoroughfare in downtown St. Louis. They're not even the first in my lifetime. They're the third. The only difficulty that anti-war tax-evasion advocate Bill Ramsey and his encampment posed for the St. Louis police was keeping the feds off of their back long enough for them to deal with it peacefully; homeless services advocate the reverend Larry Rice had multiple churches, half the city's politicians, and significant manpower at his disposal and was never more than a minor annoyance to the powers that be or to their police. And, now that I understand their strategy, St. Louis's sadly under-staffed, horrifically mismanaged, and irredeemably corrupt metropolitan police department did at least demonstrate this: they have dealing with encampments like this down to a science; Occupy St. Louis never stood a chance.
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, respectfully occupied 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.
A couple of people on the Occupy St. Louis Facebook page are still promising defiance, but whether they know it or not, they're beaten. One thing that I've heard from everybody who's ever tried to organize St. Louisans to volunteer for anything as a group, from churches to political parties, from the VFW to anti-war groups, from the Bill Gothard Seminar to ACT-UP, is that it is almost completely impossible to get St. Louisans to show up for volunteer work. St. Louisans are available for work in the past tense. ("Oh, you did what? you should have called me, I would have helped!") St. Louisans are available for work in the future tense. ("The next time you do that, you should call me, I want to help out.") But they are never, ever available in the present. ("Sorry, I wish I could help.")* Occupy St. Louis benefited from the publicity of the national movement, and college students facing the prospect of graduating into an economy with high unemployment while carrying tens of thousands in debt were highly motivated, but I think their momentum is broken now. On the off chance it's not, the city is dangling the carrot that maybe, if you patiently wait and don't violate the ordinances between now and then, maybe some day we'll repeal an ordinance or the court will rule in your favor, and you can have your camp back ... yeah, never going to happen, they just have to stall until the last of the momentum is gone. The city will get that polite obedience, too; St. Louis has near-Minneapolis levels of politeness about those kinds of things. And long before then, St. Louis' genuinely awful winter weather will have kicked in, the time of year when nobody leaves the house voluntarily.
In every town where the local cops thought that the Obama administration's Department of Homeland Security knew what they were talking about, Occupy is roaring back bigger than ever; as Olbermann and others have pointed out, this is the historically inevitable automatic response of every American to police brutality and media censorship. Too bad for the 1% in other towns that their cops don't have St. Louis's long practice at appearing to ignore, and then effortlessly dissipating, liberal activist groups.