Things did not start out this way.
When the Occupy movement first took root on Saturday, September 17, 2011 in New York’s famously renamed Liberty Square, it took the country and the whole world by surprise.
None more shocked than the now notoriously renamed one per cent. They were embarrassed by the spotlight on their secretive, self-serving, and sometimes illegal transactions.
As a result, for the first few weeks, the stunned rich and powerful were thrown off balance. Protestors had the upper hand. Rights of assembly and free speech were exercised in ways originally intended, with few restrictions and no curfews.
A remarkable and rewarding political discussion ensued that influenced millions. America was awakening from its deep political slumber. It was coming alive.
But the Wall Street elite was aghast. Everything for them was coming apart. Protests exposing economic inequality were jeopardizing everything they took for granted.
It had to be stopped.
Weekend trips to the Hamptons and Aspen were put on hold. The rich and infamous on both coasts “took meetings” with their underlings, including their well-connected hirelings in our nation’s capital, to figure out what to do.
A political counter-offensive was launched. This occurred everywhere, including in my city, San Francisco.
Political Counter-Offensive by the One Percent
A corporate campaign to demobilize Occupy SF initially went public in November with a series of threatening letters obtained by SF Weekly that were sent by Embarcadero Center attorney Marshall C. Wallace to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.
Embarcadero Center is a huge commercial complex of office and retail facilities in and around the area of the Occupy SF encampment.
Wallace repeatedly indicated he and other business interests would sue the city for damages if the Occupy SF “illegal camp and associated activities” were not stopped. Numerous health, fire and safety violations were enumerated.
A November 10 letter by Wallace further warned that “a coalition of property owners is forming and we expect this coalition to join Embarcadero Center in its call for the city to act.”
Jumping into this escalating corporate campaign, San Francisco Hyatt Regency general manager David Lewin wrote disparagingly on November 18 to city Supervisor Sean Elsbernd that the Occupy “movement has been hijacked by vagrants and delinquents who are seriously impacting my business and this neighborhood.”
Hyatt, the Chicago-based hotel corporation controlled by a family of billionaires, is already considered by many to be the epitome of the one percent and Lewin’s vulgarity probably makes it even easier to understand why the Unite-HERE union boycott of Hyatt hotels is very popular in San Francisco.
In any case, Lewin represented only one part of a larger Chamber of Commerce-type “coalition of property owners” as proclaimed by business attorney Wallace in letters to Mayor Lee.
Playing supporting roles was a noisy media chorus repeatedly echoing pretexts of various municipal health, park and police regulations that were allegedly being violated.
And, the whole experience was not just local. The same orchestrated script was being followed nationally as best described in the December 1, UK Guardian:
“Throughout the country, local authorities are citing health and safety concerns and invoking obscure municipal codes as pretexts for clampdowns, according to the National Lawyers Guild.”
As Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) community leader Shaw San reminded me in a conversation, “it was deposed President Hosni Mubarak who first ordered occupying Egyptian protestors to clear Tahrir Square because it was becoming a health and safety hazard. These ridiculous red-herrings were rejected then by the world community and they should be rejected now as well.”
Low Friends in High Places
Undue corporate influence on politics is one of the mainstay complaints of the Occupy movement and it did not go unnoticed in this city.
On December 2, for example, the San Francisco Labor Council and Occupy SF sponsored a Hyatt Regency hotel picket that drew close to 1000 activists.
“Nonetheless,” Shaw San said matter-of-factly, “I personally don’t think it as simple as if the Hyatt alone strong-armed Mayor Lee. It is not just one corporation but it is the whole way the system is set up and the way business interests and politics converge.”
Homeless advocate and Episcopal minister Rev. Vicki Gray agreed that big business influence on politics even applies to liberal San Francisco. “The progressive label put on San Francisco is a little off target. Nice words but not much action.”
But corporate influence peddling was not limited to aggressive lobbying of Mayor Lee. It went much further. The Hyatt Regency, as one of several examples, offered logistical support for San Francisco police to launch their numerous attacks on the Occupy encampments.
Occupy activist and professional chef John Hutt told me:
“On two separate occasions, I saw cops assembled in the Hyatt and a couple of other nearby hotels. I was sent by our General Assembly to do recon so I buttoned my shirt up, took off my bandana and put on my best English accent.
“Walking with a confident stride toward the Hyatt, wary security and bellhops opened the door for me. I found the cops relaxing in a conference room.”
A report in the December 8 SF Examiner also indicated police were located in “waiting rooms in the Hyatt hotel.”
Other activists showed me photos of a sign posted in a large room alongside food tables reading “Hyatt Regency San Francisco thanks SFPD for all you do.”
Anticipating an obvious question, sources confirmed that “donuts were on the menu.”
When I informed the police that I had photos and eyewitness reports of cops using the Hyatt as a staging area for assaults against Occupy SF, Sgt. Michael Andraychak, of the SFPD Media Relations Unit, would only tell me that “it is not uncommon for building managers/owners to make restrooms and facilities available for use by public safety officers.”
Both the Hyatt and Mayor Lee declined numerous requests for statements. Unfortunate stonewalling but, still, there is a trail of evidence for us to evaluate.
I am reminded of advice from 19th century unscrupulous business magnate Andrew Carnegie who knew the dark side of the corporate world better than most. He said “I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.”
More Corporate Influence & Increased Police Brutality
San Francisco State University full-time accounting student Sean Semans was an Occupier until he himself was severely injured by the San Francisco police.
“I saw a trend throughout November of escalating police attacks that seemed to converge with the increased corporate campaign against Occupy. In the first weeks of our Occupation in September and October, we were having a steady dialogue with the Mayor and the various city parks, fire and health departments.
“We responded agreeably to most of their issues by moving tents off grass, cleaning the area and enforcing safety rules.
“But then in early November, particularly after Mayor Lee’s election, things changed. Every interaction with police resulted in some kind of injury, someone being jabbed with a nightstick, being thrown to the concrete, being stepped on or being kicked in the head with swollen limbs twisted and broken. The level of violence against peaceful protestors was systematic.”
Sean was ultimately forced to leave the camp to attend to serious rib, wrist and head injuries. He remains active at Occupy SF State and is catching up on his studies while recovering.
But police disruption included more than physical violence. According to protestors, it also extended to severe curtailment of the right to peacefully assemble.
Twenty-three year old San Francisco native Emma Ashley-Roth went to Justin Herman Plaza on the evening of December 7 after Occupy SF’s main camp had been evicted early that morning.
“When I arrived at Justin Herman Plaza [renamed Bradley Manning Plaza by Occupy] the General Assembly was just beginning and people were standing in a circle in the park, holding a meeting – the very definition of peaceful assembly. Suddenly we were surrounded by riot cops brandishing nightsticks. We never even heard a dispersal order.”
Emma was trapped with about 50 others inside the police perimeter for over three hours.
“At first, people went up to the police and asked if they could leave. The cops refused to talk. Anyone who approached the police line was struck with nightsticks and one man was seriously injured. I was pretty scared. The cops didn’t arrest us but they kept us trapped in the park under threat of physical harm.
“Adding some comic relief to the situation was the single ’one percenter’ who was trapped with us. Despite hollering repeatedly that, ‘I’m not with them’ and summoning his lawyer to the scene, the man was not allowed to leave the area either.”
Shaw San Liu, the activist with CPA, was also encircled by the cops and said of that evening: “What is this if not harassment and intimidation aimed at discouraging peaceful dissent?”
Ashley-Roth wondered out loud, “Aren’t the police supposed to serve the interests of the people, not of corporations? To me, it sounds like Hyatt is trying to use SFPD as its own Pinkerton force.”
She is not alone. Aggressive and violent assaults of peaceful assemblies all across this nation are leading more and more credible voices to describe police as a sort of Praetorian Guard for the one percent.
But the problem goes much deeper. As we see from the San Francisco example, it is the economic establishment and their political cronies that unleashed police violence and it is that layer that must be overcome before the majority enjoys any real economic and social justice.
History Meets Occupy
The Occupy SF encampment was established on the edge of the famed bay waterfront where police and longshore strikers battled during the 1934 victorious general strike. Today, there is a plaque nearby honoring martyred Nicolas Bordoise and Howard Sperry who were felled.
Working-class cafes and lunch spots have long ago been replaced by elite shops and fancy bistros shaded by magnificent, imported palm trees lining the entire length of the city’s grand waterfront overlooking the bay.
Different times and a somewhat different city to be sure, but the Occupy SF protests today harkens back to the very best traditions of this historic district and portends dramatic showdowns that lie ahead in this great city and across the country.