Police Respond to Occupy Protests: Albany v. Oakland

By Luis A. Fernandez, co-author of Shutting Down the Streets: Political Violence and Social Control in the Global Era

Recently we saw police react to the Occupy Movement in several, seemingly contradictory, ways. For instance, the Mayor of Albany ordered the police to physically remove protesters occupying Academy Park for violating the 11 p.m. park curfew. However, the police defied orders and refused to arrest occupiers, stating that protesters were not “causing trouble.” According to the Albany Times Union, they added that it was best to leave policing to them, since “the bottom line is the police know policing.” In sharp contrast, the Mayor of Oakland, California, ordered their police to clear Occupy Oakland, resulting in several days of brutal law enforcement that ended in a serious head injury to Scott Olsen, a protestor and military veteran. Why did the police act differently in these two cases?

One possible answer is that Albany Police defied orders out of conscience, feeling solidarity with protesters. Or, perhaps Oakland Police are inherently brutal and unable to calibrate an appropriate response. However, neither of these is correct. Rather, the police in both Albany and Oakland “know policing” equally well, but are implementing strategies based on different racial and economic context. That is, they are following strategies to maintain order in specific circumstances, each requiring different tactics. To understand these seemingly contradictory police reactions, we must keep in mind a) the role of police in society and b) the social/racial context.

Generally, the role of police is to maintain the existing social order. In contrast, the role of mass mobilizations is to disrupt the social order. In the case of the Occupy Movement, then, the role of protesters is to take over public space to highlight economic inequalities. In turn, the police function to minimize the disruption so that “order” continues. These are opposing forces that can lead to strong clashes like in Oakland. However, they can also lead to police tolerance of unthreatening demonstrations. As we argue in our book, Shutting Down the Streets, law enforcement adopt policing tactic (i.e., containment, isolation, preemptive arrests, etc.) to either minimize the impact of the disruption or to suppress the threat of future and larger demonstrations.

The racial context also matters in explain why police select one tactic over another. For example, 65% of the population in Oakland is people of color, while Albany has the inverse with 63% of the population identifying as white. Taking into consideration that unemployment in Latino and African American communities is approximately 40%, then we can see why Oakland has a much higher potential for generalized disruption. That is, the occupy movement could go from the parks to the neighborhoods to the entire city in a way that is more explosive than is the case in Albany. We know from research that police are friendlier to crowds they deem non-threatening, which can include whites, perhaps older, middle class formations.

As we look to the future, what will determine if police will be more or less aggressive will have everything to do with the make up and location of the specific occupation. The more “threatening” the group to police, the more repressive the response.

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