Misinformation 101: False Police Claims of Protestor Violence

A disturbing trend is developing regarding police pre-emptive response to mass protest. In numerous situations since WTO protests in Seattle in late 1999, police have issued misinformation claiming unsubstantiated evidence of violent plans by protestors gathering for mass actions. The false information is then used as a pretext for unwarranted police actions.

A disturbing trend is developing regarding police pre-emptive response to mass protest. In numerous situations since WTO protests in Seattle in late 1999, police have issued misinformation claiming unsubstantiated evidence of violent plans by protestors gathering for mass actions. The false information is then used as a pretext for unwarranted police actions.

The misinformation concerning protestor plans has ranged from chemical weapons to bomb-making. None of the numerous claims of violent plans have been substantiated. Nonetheless, many media outlets appear to have been predisposed to repeat information provided by police without fact-checking or seeking responses from the organizations accused. The damage to free speech and the mass protest movement has been extensive.

Introduction

Mass protest of government policies on this continent is at least as old as the property destruction that characterized the Boston Tea Party, involving hundreds of activists in 1773. Since the anti-war protest of the 1960’s and anti-nuclear protests of the 1970’s, few instances of mass protest have garnered national media attention. That situation changed radically on November 30, 1999 when activists from around the globe shut down Seattle meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This story garnered widespread international attention; fueled further by the violent police response to peaceful protestors, the declaration of a no-protest zone and millions of dollars worth of property destruction to multinational corporate buildings in the city center.

The Seattle Police Department reputation was damaged severely by officers’ lack of control and brutal response in the streets. In the protest’s wake, Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper quickly resigned. Police departments charged with preventing similar disruptions in their cities since the Seattle actions have scrambled to find ways to prevent mass protest.

A disturbing pattern of response has appeared over the last six months. It is loosely characterized by three steps. First, police departments, often in conjunction with city government, begin a multi-faceted media campaign designed to make protest organizers appear to be involved in preparations for violence. Police departments have assembled and distributed collections of flyers claiming violence, released videos of protest from other cities, held meetings with individual media organizations and created a mythic notion of an organization dedicated to violence and central to the protest usually identified as “anarchists” or “Eugene Anarchists.”

Once the public is predisposed to expect violence from activists, the second step in the process involves a specific claim of evidence suggesting an imminent act of violence. These claims will later be retracted, corrected or will simply remain unsubstantiated. They have included claims of stolen bomb-making materials, a bus load of poisonous animals, a factory to produce pepper spray, acid filled balloons, a cyanide poisoning or the simple fact that known terrorists have evaded police surveillance and now may be prepared to act without restraint.

The third step in this tactic follows the second closely or simultaneously. It involves a police action publicly justified in the climate of imminent terrorism. It has the effect however, of a prior restraint on free speech and intimidation of those who would speak their mind against their government. Examples have included seizing training and puppet making facilities; seizing training, art and medical supplies; and seizing hard drives and political literature. Potential protestors have been arrested, beaten and had bail set at ridiculously high amounts to hold them past the event around which the protest was scheduled.

Recent Examples

Philadelphia Republican National Convention – August 2000

The Philadelphia Police Department raided a warehouse where activists were engaged in creating puppets to protest at the Republican National Convention (RNC). Seventy activists were arrested, materials were seized and the warehouse was shut down. The police claimed prior to the raid that they believed that activists were storing C4 explosives. Also, activists were allegedly preparing weapons in the form of acid-filled balloons presumably to throw at the police. The warehouse was claimed to be a staging ground for both producing weapons and preparing a riot. Police also claim to have arrested people associated with a bus containing small animals, some of which were poisonous. Police claim that these animals were to be used to attack delegates of the RNC.

No C4 explosive was found. Nor were any other weapons or acid found. The bus driver transporting the animals claims to be a pet shop owner.

At the time of this report’s release many of those activists remain jailed. Bail has been set at amounts that preclude easy release generally ranging around $15,000. One activist was held on misdemeanor charges and $1,000,000 bail subsequently reduced to $100,000. This has effectively prevented activists from speaking out against the RNC and the subsequent Democratic National Convention (DNC) about to begin in Los Angeles.

Washington, DC IMF/World Bank Meetings – April 2000

The day before mass protest of World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington, DC police raided a training and art supply warehouse popularly referred to as a “convergence” space. Police reports claimed that they found materials for making Molotov cocktails, a laboratory for mass production of pepper spray and bomb-making materials. This, in part, justified arrests that ran to near 1200 people for the week.

In a later retraction, police admitted that the Molotov cocktail supplies were plastic containers and rags that smelled of solvents. The pepper spray factory was nothing more than a kitchen and bomb-making materials were limited to simple plastic water pipe. All of these materials are consistent with activities related to the convergence and art projects.

As a result of police action the infrastucture and political messages in the form of signs and puppets were taken by police and did not appear on the streets or in media coverage. Undoubtedly numerous people stayed home for fear of associating with violent terrorists utilizing bomb-making factories.

Minneapolis International Society of Animal Geneticists – July 2000

Several days before the protest was to begin, police claimed that large quantities of ammonium nitrate had been stolen from a nearby storage area and that unidentifed protestors were suspected of involvement. On the day of the major march, police claimed that a cyanide bomb had been detonated in a MacDonalds restaurant. The FBI called this an act of terrorism and the local anti-protest law enforcement action was placed under federal control. The next day the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, including hooded officers raided a house where some protest organizing had taken place. Residents were beaten, arrested and taken to a hospital. Hard drives and political literature were seized along with less than an ounce of marijuana and a small amount of psychedelics. Police at the raid claimed that an undercover agent had warned that residents at the house wore hunting knives to attack police in the event of an arrest.

Charges on all but one resident have since been dropped. Police announced that they now have no reason to believe that activists were involved in the ammonium nitrate theft. A health department inspector said that there was no cyanide threat, the poison being more concentrated in apple seeds than in the smoke bomb that fogged the MacDonalds. Needless to say, the retractions did not receive the level of press coverage of the original actions. Discussion of the ethics of animal genetics received little discussion.

Tacoma Kaiser Aluminum Lock-out of Steelworkers – March 2000

In the wake of the successful alliance built between labor and environmentalists in Seattle, action was planned in Tacoma to support the locked-out United Steel Workers of America. The Direct Action Network, Steelworkers and more than a dozen other groups allied to call for a weekend of actions. As that weekend approached, police warned the press and community leaders of the violence that was likely. They claimed that “anarchists from Eugene were missing” and actions at the Kaiser plant could start a chain reaction and “blow up the whole port of Tacoma.”

In this case, initial scare tactics were sufficient. Steelworker leadership backed out of the alliance one week before the actions and the protest fell apart. No mass labor-environment action coalition has happened since.

Eugene, OR Eugene Active Existence – June 2000

A six week anarchist conference was the subject of numerous police press releases concerning alleged threats of violence and the precautions the Eugene Police Department employed to avert trouble. Police distributed to the media a portfolio of dozens of flyers spanning five years that they claimed revealed protestors’ violent threats. They created a video simulation of a dummy police officer burned by a police-constructed firebomb that anarchists might use.

Two days before the final planned march, police arrested two young men for allegedly burning a truck. They are currently being held on $900,000 bail and face 15 to 86 years in prison if convicted.

Conclusions

Mass media and public perceptions are being systematically manipulated by police departments and other government agencies faced with upcoming mass protests in their cities. These manipulations are designed to squelch protest and thereby the message of dissent. A common thread in the current series of nation-wide protests is a sense that control of government is no longer in the hands of common people. Governments are effectively squashing the challenge inherent in this message.

Editorial pages and conversations on the street are full of critiques that protestors are not clear about what they stand for and seem more interested in violence than meaningful change. This is as clear a sign as any that protestor voices have been effectively silenced and police positioning of protestors is carrying the day.

In addition, activists are scared. Anyone who has been involved in the mass protest movement through a major event of the last six months has friends who have been brutalized at the hands of the system. Of the nearly 2500 protest arrests that have happened since November 30, 1999, more than three-quarters have had all charges dropped and only a small percentage of arrests have resulted in convictions.

These facts notwithstanding, there is little national debate on police strongarm tactics. The reason seems clear. Despite the injustice activists face for speaking their beliefs, the public allows these police tactics because they have been made to fear activists. Unfortunately, the evidence for their fear is the result of misinformation by these same police agencies.

The costs to police agencies since Seattle are minimal. No chief has been pressured to resign, no officer has been charged with misbehavior and requests for special approriations in the millions of dollars for gear and overtime have been granted.

In Los Angeles we should expect these successful tactics to be repeated. Step one has been completely implemented. The public knows of thousands of National Guard soldiers standing ready, units to diffuse weapons of mass destruction are on stand-by, the public has been asked to phone police whenever they see someone wearing the political symbol associated with anarchism: the circle A. The first protestor arrests resulted in felony charges filed and $20,000 bail for a failed banner hang. Sometime around August 12th or 13th we should expect some stunning news of impending protestor violence. Sometime within a day or so thereafter we should expect a large scale pre-emptive raid or arrest. By the end of the DNC it will be clear that the stunning news claiming protestor violence earlier in the week will remain unsubstantiated.

When the full range of political dialogue is no longer being tolerated by the government, and the general public remain silent about this repression it will not simply disappear. With debate stifled, energy for change will instead transform and move underground. Evidence of a growing movement of covert acts of sabotage indicate that the movement underground is picking up steam.

Author: Tim Ream

News Service: Los Angeles Independent Media Center

URL: http://la.indymedia.org/display.php3?article_id=543