Last fall, you might recall, there was a big debate on the left about whether or not the Obama administration and the Department of Homeland Security had ordered the crackdowns on the Occupy protests throughout the country.
Naomi Wolf was perhaps the most prominent exponent of the claim that the crackdowns were organized/coordinated/ordered/directed—the specific allegation was always a mosh pit of roving verbs and changing charges—by the feds. I took the opposite position, pointing out that political repression in the US tends to be decentralized and local.
I’ll admit I haven’t been following this particular issue much since then, but this latest report suggests I was right. Focusing mainly on the crackdown in Portland, it provides evidence that if anything the Obama administration urged restraint on local police forces. As one administration official says in an email:
The arrests last week were carried out despite our request that protesters be allowed to remain and to camp overnight.
I’m not entirely certain about the accuracy of these reports (the whole issue seems to be a political football between liberal partisans and conservative opponents of the administration.) So read them carefully.
But let’s be clear: saying that the crackdown of Occupy was not coordinated or organized by Obama hardly means it wasn’t repressive. As the dwindling fortunes of the Occupy movement suggest, it was—and almost lethally so.
But to understand how and why that repression was so effective, we have to revise our notion that somehow centralized power is automatically more coercive and repressive than decentralized power. As I wrote last November:
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…could be further from the truth.
Update (August 16, 9 am)
To clarify: The issue is not whether the administration participated in or was somehow involved in the crackdowns. Nor is it whether there hasn’t been an increase in the national security state since 9/11 (clearly there has). It’s a more specific question, which Joshua Holland stated well last year:
The issue in dispute, as I made crystal clear in my critique, is whether any outside agency had “some unseen hand directing, incentivizing or coercing municipalities to [crack down] when they would not otherwise be so inclined.”
On that issue, there’s very little evidence supporting the claims of Wolf and others.
And, needless to say, nothing in this post is a defense of the Obama administration’s record on Occupy or much else.