On Friday, Naomi Wolf made the attention-grabbing accusation in the Guardian that federal officials were involved in, indeed ordered, the violent crackdowns against Occupy Wall Street protesters that we’ve been seeing across the country these past few weeks.
Congressional overseers, with the blessing of the White House, told the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] to authorise mayors to order their police forces – pumped up with millions of dollars of hardware and training from the DHS – to make war on peaceful citizens.
I don’t have anything to add to Holland’s excellent critique. Wolf gets her facts wrong, and he shows it.
To my mind, though, the problem is bigger than that: The reason Wolf gets her facts wrong is that she’s got her theory wrong. And though many were quick to jump off her conspiracy bandwagon once Holland pointed out its flaws, I suspect that one of the reasons they were so quick to jump on it in the first place is that they subscribe to her theory.
Like many critics of state coercion in America, Wolf seems to assume that political repression requires or entails national coordination and centralized direction from the feds. But as I argued in this piece in the Boston Review in 2005, and in a much longer piece in the Missouri Law Review [pdf], that notion gets it wrong.
From the battles over abolition to the labor wars at the turn of the last century to the Red Squads of the twentieth-century police departments to the struggles over Jim Crow, state repression in America has often been decentralized, displaying that very same can-do spirit of local initiative that has been celebrated by everyone from Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam. Though Tocqueville and Putnam were talking of course about things like creating churches and buildings roads, the fact is: if the locals can build a church or a road on their own, they can also get rid of dissenters on their own, too, no?
Even where there has been coordination and direction from above, as in the epic cases of the Red Scare, McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, or now the War on Terror, what’s been most striking is how local police and officials have managed to manipulate that federal involvement to their own ends. As I wrote in the Boston Review:
What history demonstrates is that police officers often use their powers, with or without federal prompting, as instruments of larger political purpose. The danger of cooperation between federal agencies and local police is not that the former will conscript the latter into repressive programs the latter would not otherwise pursue, but that it allows the police to apply the legitimizing gloss of national security to their own pet projects of repression. During the McCarthy era, for example, southern politicians and law-enforcement officers used the language of anti-communism to outlaw the NAACP and to arrest and indict civil-rights leaders for sedition. In the Denver case already mentioned, the police used the rubric of domestic security to keep track of not only the groups cited above but also a local organization working against police brutality in the city. This past summer, during the Republican Party convention in New York City, the NYPD preemptively arrested more than 1,500 protesters—some of them obstreperous, virtually all of them nonviolent—as well as innocent bystanders. How did the mayor justify the arrest and prolonged detainment of these individuals? By drawing parallels, according to The New York Times, “between verbally abusive demonstrators and the Sept. 11 terrorists.”
… if all politics is local in the United States, as Tip O’Neill reminded us, it stands to reason that a good deal of the political repression is as well.
It’s not surprising that faced with the crackdown of OWS protests, Wolf would immediately turn to a theory of national, centralized repression. It’s part of our national DNA, on the left and the right, to assume that tyranny works that way. We’ve inherited a theory that holds, in the words of the Yale constitutional law scholar Akhil Reed Amar, that “liberty and localism work together.” Nothing, as Holland so ably if inadvertently demonstrates in his demolition of Wolf, could be further from the truth.
Update (11/29, 11 am)
This post has been getting a lot of attention, both support and push-back. There’s much interesting discussion in the comments thread here (see below). It’s gotten warm endorsements from Lawyers, Guns, and Money and The Economist, which ran two blog posts, one of them from Will Wilkinson, with whom we’ve tangled and talked before. The Guardian did a round-up of responses to the Wolf piece, and included it there. 3 Quarks Daily picked it up. And Al Jazeera English ran a longer version of it. And if you’re on Twitter, there’s a lot of back and forth there as well.