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Repressing Occupy as Corporate Welfare: Reflections on Corporate Media and “the Costs of the Occupy Movement”


Consistent with their roles as propaganda assets of the rich, many local newspapers last week ran on their front pages an Associated Press (AP) story that accused the Occupy Movement of costing American taxpayers a lot of money.  “During the first two months of the nationwide Occupy protests, the movement that is demanding more out of the wealthiest Americans,” the story reported, “cost local taxpayers at least $13 million in police overtimes and other municipal services.” The AP arrived at this figure by surveying 18 cities with active protests through November 15, when New York City Mayor and Wall Street chieftain Michael Bloomberg (the twelfth richest person in the U.S.) evicted the nation’s occupiers from his city’s financial district. 

 

At the Quad City Times (Rock Island, IL and Davenport, IA), the story bore a provocative headline: “PRICE OF PROTESTS: Occupy Movement Costs Cities $13 Million.” A photo of an Oakland protestor with a Mohawk haircut and his son with the same was pictured above the following caption on the front page of the Quad City Times (QTC) on Thanksgiving Day: “Cities across the country will spend at least $13 million because of the Occupy movement.”  This supposedly exorbitant cost was attributed to “policing, cleaning, and repairing property at dozens of 24-hour encampments” and “cities hav[ing] to monitor frequent rallies and calls.” According to the AP, a disproportionate share of this terrible taxpayer expense was carried by cash-strapped Oakland, whose city government “has spent more than $2.4 million responding to the protests.”

 

The story included rueful comments from Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Sgt. Don Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association. “The costs of the encampments is growing and putting a strain on our already fragile resources,” Quan was quoted as saying. “We will continue to be vigilant and ensure that public safety remains our first priority.”

 

Arotzarena complained to the AP that “Occupy-related costs” will surpass $3 million.  The city, he said, had to pay more for mutual aid (to surrounding police departments) when police removed the encampment at City Hall for a second time on Nov. 14, nearly three weeks after its first early morning raid, “A lot of this could've been avoided if we stood our ground when we went in there in the first place," Arotzarena said. "I know we would've saved the city a significant amount of money."

 

“The price of the protests is rising by the day,” the story read, “along with taxpayer ire in some places.” The AP backed up the second assertion with a comment from a downtown Oakland resident named Rodger Mawhinney. “‘What is their real agenda?’ Mawhinney asked the AP, as he watched police remove an encampment outside his apartment complex in downtown Oakland. I’ve gone up and asked them, ‘What are you truly trying to accomplish?’ I’m still waiting for an answer.”

 

The excited headline and story was clearly designed to provoke citizen anger at “those nasty and expensive protestors, who are costing us money with their pointless actions!”

 

 

The Cost of Homeland Repression

 

But how expensive have the protestors really been to taxpayers? A more detailed and extended version of the AP story than the one that QCT made available in print noted that more than half of the total reported “cost of Occupy” was spent by New York City, where “the police department has spent $7 million in overtime on the protests. But that's small change given the department's $4.5 billion budget, which allots money for emergency overtime,” the AP added, “Last year, the NYPD spent about $550 million on overtime.”  The more detailed AP version further noted that: Boston’s overtime costs for policing Occupy Boston has amounted to no more than 2 percent of this year's $30 million police overtime budget’ a number of cities (including St. Louis, Des Moines, Providence, R.I., and Burlington, VT) reported costs of less than $10,000; Occupy Des Moines saved taxpayer money by taking its garbage out of its city park and shoveling sidewalks after the first snow.

Especially important, the more detailed AP story (available later and online[[1]]) cited sources who suggested that excessive repression contributed significantly to taxpayer costs. The extended version quoted New York city activist Pete Dutro, who told the AP that the NYPD's brutal response had been "completely unnecessary….it's $7 million of taxpayers' money that's being spent to stifle our First Amendment rights." Dutros added that "they've consistently overreacted." The more detailed AP story also quoted Portland, Oregon city commission Randy Leonard, who noted that the protest could have cost his city far more but for Portland’s restrained police response: “The amount of money we're saving by (our) very strategic response versus sending police out en masse to arrest people and cause confrontations dwarfs whatever we've spent so far.”

Here the AP might have elaborated. Leonard was certainly thinking about Oakland and New York City. The first repression in Oakland (where Sgt. Arotzarena wishes his city had “saved taxpayer money” by letting the cops “stand our ground”) was described by a downtown security guard who witnessed a massive, Nazi-like police rush on 100 or so hundred peaceful occupiers last October 25th:
 

“It was terrifying to see …there were just so many policeman… the numbers were incredible….they lined up almost like in a phalanx, on the street, and then they moved in…. There were helicopters flying about and with high beams on the camps…the beams were moving across every which way…there were young people in these camps and children, infants in a lot of the tents and this was just…completely out of whack with the situation….they shot…tear gas into the middle of the camp, and at the time, there were dumpsters lined up in front, at the entrance, on the corner because the occupiers were trying to conform to the new regulations that the city of Oakland had given to them….the police moved those dumpsters to the side and then they moved to the next stage of taking the barricades and kicking them down. And then they moved in and the first thing they hit was the information tent, and they just started just tearing everything down… this was a military type operation, the way they moved in. It harkened back to old footage I had seen of Nazi Germany where you know you had the Nazis, the SS going in and picking up innocent people. It had that tenor. …the helicopters, and the lights, and the loud speaker, all those were all intended to create panic and terror for the people inside….It was something like out of a Star Wars movie except instead of being in white they were all in black. …they were all in riot gear…with the visors, they looked like automatons, they just moved in, in a line…They had these vehicles that looked like armored boxes, black, special riot vehicles….the thing that stays in my minds eye is in the middle ground with the lights from the helicopters, the police moving in and just stomping on these tents, and moving in one layer, after another, moving in deeper and deeper.”[[2]]
 

Oakland’s over-the-top late-October exercise in militarized policing put a U.S. military veteran (Scott Olson) in intensive care with a fractured skull and inflicted numerous other injuries.  It also provoked subsequent large-scale protests (including an attempted and partially successful local General Strike) that added to the costs of policing Occupy.

 

One can only guess at the taxpayer expense involved in the quasi-totalitarian crackdown conducted in the name of public safety at the orders of the financial titan Michael Bloomberg in lower Manhattan in the dead of night two Tuesdays ago.  By one eyewitness account:

 

“The area around Zuccotti Park was subject last night to a 9/11-level lockdown over peaceful, lawful protests by a small number of people…Martial law level restrictions were in place. Subways were shut down. Local residents were not allowed to leave their buildings. People were allowed into the area only if they showed ID with an address in the ‘hood. Media access was limited to those with official press credentials, which is almost certainly a small minority of those who wanted to cover the crackdown (the Times’ Media Decoder blog says that journalists are describing the tactics as a media blackout)…reading the various news stories, it appears they were kept well away from the actual confrontation (for instance, the reported tear gassing of the Occupiers in what had been the kitchen, as well as separate accounts of the use of pepper spray and batons). News helicopters were forced to land. As of 10 AM, reader Wentworth reported that police helicopters were out in force buzzing lower Manhattan.” 

 

Repression like this costs a lot of taxpayer money.

 

On a less dramatic scale, I will never forget a curious revelation communicated to me by a neighbor during one of the early General Assemblies (GAs) of Occupy Iowa City (OIC). The GAs were conducted at the site of the occupiers’ encampment, in a pleasant little city park surrounded by middle class homes just off the liberal campus town’s downtown. According to my neighbor, city police had recently gone around to local homeowners and asked if they might please be allowed to set up elaborate electronic surveillance equipment to monitor OIC’s activities around the clock. How many thousands of dollars have to be taken out of taxpayers’ pocketbooks to fund such Orwellian excess?

 

 

A Drop in the Bucket Compared to Other Forms of Corporate Welfare

 

A deeper investigation than that conducted by the Associated Press (even for its more detailed and much less widely read story) would have compared the taxpayer costs of “the Occupy movement” – really the costs of repressing that movement – with various forms of corporate welfare that Occupy has consistently criticized as part of its hardly unclear opposition to the wealthy elite’s control of American politics and policy. Thirteen million dollars (short of the annual salaries of some sports stars today[[3]]) is chump change compared to:

 

  • The $80 billion that leading U.S. oil corporations are due (by the careful calculations of Taxpayers for Common Sense [TCS]) to receive thanks to special tax breaks between now and 2015.
  • The $199 billion in deferral of taxes on the income of U.S. controlled corporations abroad that (the careful calculations of Citizens for Tax Justice [CTJ]) big business will enjoy between now and 2015.
  • The $141 billion that business will receive through the “accelerated depreciation on equipment” tax break over the same years (TCS estimate).
  • The $76.6 billion tax deduction for domestic manufacturing that big business will enjoy in the same years (CTJ)
  • The $24.2 billion in unpaid taxes that big business will garner from the use of the “Last-In, First-Out” (LIFO) accounting method corporations employ to hide their true profits (CTJ).
  • The $52 billion in federal subsidies to corporate agribusiness that will be paid through 2020 (TCS).
  • The $158 billion that big pharmaceutical corporations will garner in profit from the ban on the federal government’s right to negotiate drug prices for Medicare through 2021 (Congressional Progressive Caucus estimate).
  • The $50 billion that Big Pharma will garner from its tax break for “direct-to-consumer” advertising through 2020 (estimate from the office of Representative Jerrold Nadler).
  • The $650 billion that Wall Street’s financial service giants will enjoy from the federal government’s failure to pass even a tiny Derivatives and Speculation Tax through 2020 (Congressional Progressive Caucus) – a failure that reflects (as do all of the above and other forms of corporate welfare) the remarkable political power of the Occupy Movement’s clearly defined enemy: the upper 1 percent that owns more than a third of the nation’s wealth and a certainly much larger share of its elected officials.
  • The $4.76 trillion disbursed so far by the federal government in the Wall Street bailouts  of 2008-July 2011 (according to the meticulous and ongoing calculations of SourceWatch[[4]]).

 

 

The corporate welfare list goes far beyond this of course and should include vast segments of the $1-trillion-a-year Pentagon budget, which amounts among other things to a giant taxpayer subsidy to high-tech “defense” corporations like (to mention just a few) Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Xe Services (formerly Blackwater) and KBR. Beyond direct transfer payments,  the giant American military empire (responsible for more than 1000 U.S. military installations spread across more than 120 nations and nearly half the world’s military spending) functions as a giant indirect subsidy to American multinational businesses, particularly in protecting and advancing Big Oil companies’ access to ever-more scarce and ecologically cancerous petroleum resources around the world. American taxpayers have spent trillions of dollars over the last six decades on the deadly deployment of a petro-imperialist military protection service in and around the world’s energy heartland, the oil-rich Middle East.

A recent New York Times article reports that the U.S. under Obama has entered “A New Era of Gunboat Diplomacy” in pursuit of oil under the South China Sea. The chief naval enemy in this new age is China, which is naturally “enraged by what it view[s and is in fact] American meddling” in coastal waters off Southeast Asia.  Meanwhile, Times reporter Mark Landler notes, the U.S. is vying with Russia and Canada in “eagerly circling the Arctic, where fuel-hungry economic powers, newly accessible undersea energy riches and even changes in the earth’s climate are conspiring to create a 21st-centuty contest for the seas”. (Never mind the uncomfortable fact that, as Landler fails to mention, corporate capitalist “fuel-hunger” has perversely created the eco-cidal climate changes that do so much to make Arctic Sea oil available for further planet-heating exploitation.)++ The sending of the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington to the Yellow Sea for joint exercises with South Korea last fall certainly cost more taxpayer dollars in three days of sailing than the entire “cost of [repressing] the Occupy Movement.” One thing is for sure: taxpayers can expect their bill for Uncle Sam’s Navy’s oil protection game to rise into the trillions in coming years as a rising share of global oil production comes from “offshore fields” (such fields already account for a third of that production). U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Landler that “This hunt for resources is going to consume large bodies of water around the world for at least the next couple of decades.” [[5]]

The Repression of Occupy as Corporate Welfare

But comparing (a) the costs of repressing Occupy with (b) the costs of U.S. corporate welfare is a bit like comparing the costs of prisons in Iowa with the costs of prisons in the U.S. as a whole. As the title of this essay suggests, (a) is a subset of (b). The AP-calculated $13 million “cost of [repressing] Occupy” is actually itself a type of corporate welfare expenditure. Contrary to the claims that it has no clear target or aims, Occupy arose in clear and unambiguous opposition to corporate ownership and management of American society and politics. Contrary to the AP’s Oakland taxpayer Rodger Mawhinney, there’s nothing really all that vague or difficult to understand about the focus of the movement’s anger as articulated in Occupy Wall Street’s early Declaration of the Occupation of New York City: “We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies….We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.”  The Declaration’s list of grievances against corporations includes the following:

 

“They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process….”

 

“They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.”

 

“They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.”

 

“They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.”

 

“They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ health care and pay.”

 

“They have sold our privacy as a commodity”

 

“They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.”

 

“They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through control of the media.”

 

“They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.”

 

“They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.”

 

All of these and other grievances against rich and corporate masters are widely shared across the working class majority of Americans. That has made the Occupy Movement a clear and present danger to the American corporate and financial elite – the unelected dictatorship of money that exercises wildly disproportionate influence over the campaigns, budgets, policy agendas, political ambitions, and world views of city, state, and federal officials in the U.S. The repression of the genuinely populist, grassroots, and largely anti-corporate Occupy Movement can quite reasonably be seen as a corporate welfare expenditure, an attempt to police “homeland” urban areas in accord with the perceived domestic investment stability and related social control needs of the corporate sector and its financial directorate. While the Seventh Fleet patrols and Persian Gulf and the U.S.S. George Washington makes the rounds of the South China Sea in defense of Exxon and other leading oil corporations, militarized police defend the domestic business elite in the eye of the imperial hurricane, where the plutocracy that rules behind the façade of democracy seeks to impose an austerity agenda on an increasingly recalcitrant and newly rebellious populace.

 

Whether the repression actually works on behalf of corporate power is another question, to be sure. OWS garnered significant increased popular support when Bloomberg’s gendarmes attacked it on Brooklyn Bridge in early October. Jean Quan’s original armed assault on Occupy Oakland (the chilling storm-trooper-like night-raid that Sgt. Arotzarena wishes the city had stood behind and stayed with) helped Occupy activists bring thousands of workers and citizens out of the their homes and workplaces in a partly successful General Strike that certainly increased repression costs last November 2nd).  The eviction of hundreds from Zucotti Park by the Wall Street baron-turned-NYC chief executive Michael Bloomberg in the early morning of Monday, November 14th produced an interesting outcome on the evening of Thursday, November 17th:  tens of thousands took to New York City’s streets in a defiant show of popular support the cause upheld by the protestors (the New York Police Department estimated that night’s protest crowd at 32,500).  Many thousands more mobilized the same day in at least 30 U.S. cities. The OWS Web site could with reason crow that “Following Bloomberg’s action, the slogan ‘You can’t evict an idea whose time has come’ became the new meme of the 99% movement overnight.”

 

In a recent thoughtful reflection, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asks rhetorically if Bloomberg and “police chiefs around the country” are “secretly backing the Occupy Wall Street movement.” Their repressive actions have if anything “built popular support” for the movement they wish to crush. At the same time, Kristof argues that anger over the recent armed-force evictions from public spaces is something of a distraction. “Occupy Wall Street isn’t about real estate, and its signal achievement was not assembling shivering sleepers in a park,” Kristof argues.” The high ground that the protestors seized is not an archipelago of parks in America, but the national agenda. The movement has planted economic inequality on the nation’s consciousness, and it will be difficult for any mayor or police force to dislodge it.”[[6]] Indeed, the evictions may help speed the spread of the populist, egalitarian, and anti-corporate occupation contagion across a broader range of contested societal terrains at home and abroad. 

 

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com

 

 

Selected Endnotes



[2] Dennis Bernstein, “What The Cops Really Did in Oakland,” Counterpunch (November 2, 2011) at http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/11/02/what-the-cops-really-did-in-oakland/

 

[3] The epic basketball choke-artist LeBron James made $15 million just from his annual salary alone (he made many millions more from product endorsements and other sources) last year. See Jonathan Zimmerman, “LeBron James: Where’s the Outrage About His Salary” Christian Science Monitor, July 9. 2010, read at http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2010/0709/LeBron-James-Where-s-the-outrage-about-his-salary.  As Zimmerman writes: “At a time when 15 million Americans have no job at all, we should be indignant about pro athletes like LeBron James earning more than $15 million a year.”  

 

[5] Mark Landler, “A New Era of Gunboat Diplomacy,” New York Times, November 12, 2011.

 

[6] Nicholas Kristof, “Occupy the Agenda,” New York Times, November 20, 2011, Sunday Review section, 11. 

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