Police use 'excessive force' fighting Anonymous over Wall St. protest

Anonymous-led protesters prove persistent, but is it time for Anon to to move its activism back online?

After half a week of sit-in/campout protest carefully moderated to impede the masters of Manhattan's universe enough to make a point but not enough to prompt a response from police, members of Anonymous' #OccupyWallStreet project are charging police used excessive force yesterday in tearing down tents and tarps some protesters were using as shelter from the rain.

Seven people were arrested, according to the NY Police Department, which said most were charged with disorderly conduct and only one was slightly injured.

Video of the incident shows one protester being dragged off and illustrates the international stage on which hactivist group Anonymous and other groups have placed the protest, whose goal is to urge the Obama administration to use prosecutions and new regulation to end “the influence money has over our representatives in Washington,” according to Adbusters Media Foundation, one of the groups helping to organize the protest.

A total of 16 people have been arrested since the protest began, according to NYPD sources cited in BusinessWeek, but fell far short of the scale predicted by organizers, who called for 20,000 people to shut down the Wall Street area simply with their presence.

Protest smaller than predicted, more persistent than expected

Instead, about 1,000 people showed up Saturday Sept. 17, many confused about conflicting instructions posted by Anonymous and other groups trying to steer protesters around Manhattan regulations on public gatherings, public hygiene and traffic regulation.

The NYPD and Mayor's office promised an immediate, large-scale response to break up the protest if, as some organizers threatened, the group managed to flood the financial district with activists who would block off the area for the long term by setting up tents and other facilities anywhere they liked.

Part of Saturday turned into a giant game of tag as protesters looked for places to gather in sufficient numbers to make an impact and police maneuvered to scatter, threaten or arrest them.

Most of the protesters eventually settled in the privately owned Zucotti Park, which gave them partial immunity from regulations against sleeping or camping on the sidewalk or other public areas and strict rules on public gatherings designed as much to protect the flow of traffic as to prevent protest.

Organizers communicated via Twitter and various blogs, advising protesters on changes in tactics and gathering points – planning to scatter when police moved in and re-unite as a group elsewhere, a serial flash mob that refused to go away:

"Zucotti Park where 1000+ protesters are gathered is being surrounded by police. Suggest prepare to disperse & reform – tweet from USDayofRage, 6:38 PM

“Given that police overtime is expensive if Bloomberg wants to clear the park he will do it shortly after dark rather than later. Mood change” … “Other groups are dispersed through the general Wall St area without large enough concentrations to challenge police minds.” … “If you can’t afford to get arrested you should legally occupy some sidewalk & continue your protest. Avoid pointless arrest.” – Tweets among organizers during the day of Sept. 17, as liveblogged by Kevin Gosztola on The Dissenter.

Fighting over tarps, politely

By yesterday the number participating in active marches had dropped to around between 100 and 200, according to estimates by BusinessWeek and International Business Times.

Before a sudden confrontation over the use of tarps and tents by protesters to shield themselves and equipment from rain, the protest had deflated almost into an extended hang-out session, according to the New York Observer.

The confrontation, and continuing issue for organizers over setting up shelter for protesters, are the enforcement of NYC regulations against tents or temporary living quarters, most of which were primarily intended to deter the homeless from camping on sidewalks.

Confrontations were so few that, until the set-to, most of the protesters arrested were binned for wearing masks in public. Most were the mustachioed Guy Fawkes masks made famous by Anonymous, though at least one protester was arrested for hiding his face with a ski mask.

Even afterward the tone of organizers was surprisingly civil toward the police, even in postings charging them with using too much force to persuade or move protesters who weren't cooperating:

"Before we say more about what happened to us it seems important to point this out: we do not think the police are our enemy," according to a post this morning on OccupyWallStreet. "They have jobs, how could we fault them for that, when one sixth of America lives in poverty? when one sixth of America can't find work? The police are part of the 99 per cent."

The "99 percent" is a phrase organizers have been using to represent the bulk of Americans who they say are victimized by "the greed and corruption of the 1%."

That's a lot more forgiving than NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who warned in a New York Times story that Manhattan was on the verge of violent revolution like those that gripped the Middle East during the Arab Spring: "You have a lot of kids graduating college, can't find jobs. That's what happened in Cairo. That's what happened in Madrid. You don't want those kinds of riots here."

Bloomberg, you'll remember, made his billions serving the financial industry OccupyWallStreet is protesting.

"Day of Rage" sparks (mostly) mellow response

The protest drew little coverage in mainstream media, though what coverage it got seemed more bemused than opinionated.

The Wall Street Journal seemed most impressed about the ability of groups to organize via Twitter (just like the Arabs!) and with the range of opinions and positions on the traditional scale of political loyalties, which included "protesters identifying as Leftists, Socialists, Libertarians, and Anonymous, and with issues of common concern with both the Tea Party and the Coffee Party."

The hot issue aside from police beating up protesters to take away their rain shields is the right of protesters to protest and police to stop them.

Some supporters of the protest are mad that the law under which those with masks were arrested was passed 150 years ago to prevent tenant farmers protesting exploitation by landlords and the city from disguising themselves as Indians to attack police. It was updated to prevent "masked gatherings" of more than two people, though the Village Voice notes that costume parties get a special pass on that rule.

Yahoo is also taking fire for allegedly blocking emails that included mention of occupywallst.org, the main site set up by protest organizers.

Messages including the site bounced, with an error message saying "suspicious activity has been detected on your account," according to IBTimes. Yahoo was also criticized in 2001 for censoring and blocking the email of Chinese activists at the request of the Chinese government.

Thinkprogress.org verified that Yahoo was blocking messages containing phrases about the Wall Street protest, but are now apparently being allowed to go through.

Yahoo's customer service Twitter account carried an apology yesterday, saying the blockage was due to problems with spam filters, not intentional censorship of customer emails.

The protest continues today, continuing to gather support from foreign news coverage and from some local unions.

So far, despite tons of coverage from its protest of San Francisco-area transit authority BART last month and the global financial industry this month, Anonymous seems to be having less impact in person than it did online.

Hactivism has the disadvantage of (often) being an obvious crime. And getting you arrested.

If what you're after is to affect the thinking and policy making of a huge, impersonal government, it's possible that camping out in the streets of Manhattan is not the most obvious way to get its attention. Especially considering the kind of attention Anonymous gets in its traditional venue.

Time to think about moving things back online, guys.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon