Crackdown on Occupy Probably Not Organized by the Obama Administration

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.


  1. Andrew Tonkovich August 15, 2012 at 11:25 pm | #

    Trust you saw today’s Los Angeles Times, with two opportunities for more Ayn Rand comment. I recommend and just reread your clever section in the book about her. Any day Mr. Ryan talks about her is a good day!

    Best, at


  2. John Comeau August 16, 2012 at 12:18 am | #

    whether the DoJ or DHS actively coordinated it or not, the rate at which local police departments have been beefed up with military gear hasn’t diminished under Obama; and as I said before, when you’re dressed for battle, everything starts looking like an act of war.

  3. Frank Moraes August 16, 2012 at 1:07 am | #

    I don’t doubt that you are right as far as it goes. However, the whole War on Drugs and War on Terror push to militarize local law enforcement does show that there is a centralized aspect to it. I would say that the simultaneity of the crackdowns were mostly a matter of trends in media coverage. And that bothers me more than an organized effort, because I don’t know what we can do to combat our “independent” media corporate overloads.

  4. Evan Rowe August 16, 2012 at 2:52 am | #

    Good post, and trust me this issue will keep coming up. People overstate the power of straight concentrated power in the U.S. The power of local management is absolutely crucial to the U.S. power system both domestically and obviously our foreign policy.

  5. Theo August 16, 2012 at 7:25 am | #

    I had been waiting for an apology from you and Joshua Holland to Naomi Wolf re this issue. I thought your position was naive given how far along we are to a police state. This administration is so secretive and not above lying when it suits them and regularly tramples on the Constitution so I am not convinced of their desire to maintain the First Amendment right of dissent. Why else have they, Clinton, Bush II, and the Congress built up an elaborate and unaccountable maze of surveillance entities to capture our every word and deed. Why else are we fed propaganda on every issue by entities set up by government, political parties, and media and other corporations.

    They failed to anticipate or head off the predictable over reaction and sadism of the police and uttered the lamest of words in support of Occupy and let media spread their usual lies or distortions (the NYT is still at it, most recently in its Sunday magazine, in a hatchet job on Occupy) and kept their heads low lest someone accuse them of believing in democracy. This over reaction and every future over reaction and act of brutality is built into the system and is ready made for such activities and the negation of privacy.

    The Obama administration’s cruelty in going after whistle blowers is repellent and illegal, as it is in many matters large and small when it suits their ends and those of the terror cult and the phony war on terror. The decision by Justice to cut Goldman loose is proof that no crime by our corporate elite is ever big enough for our political elite to prosecute. We are enraged by this but our rage is ignored on this and every issue. A vast no has arisen across the board at all levels of power on every issue. At the same time both federal and state law enforcement act with zeal in prosecuting and sentencing every ordinary Joe and Jane Doe, especially if black, Hispanic, or female, for every crime no matter how small and sentencing them to long prison terms, whether guilty or or innocent, while shutting down dissent and prosecuting dissenters. Corporations, governments, and other entities carry on as if citizens don’t exist.

  6. Ringo August 16, 2012 at 7:43 am | #

    DOH vehicles and personal are present at every Occupy protest in NYC – big and small. To claim that the Obama administration does not have a roll in the crackdown implies Obama has no control over his branch of government or willfully ignores the empirical evidence. There is more evidence in your writing that you are trying to hide Obama’s record in an election year than actually work with fellow citizens to unravel the continued attempts to erode our civil rights. I hated George W. Bush, but Obama has continued or expanded every operation designed to infringe upon our rights.

  7. jonnybutter August 16, 2012 at 9:47 am | #

    There is more evidence in your writing that you are trying to hide Obama’s record in an election year than actually work with fellow citizens to unravel the continued attempts to erode our civil rights.

    There is no such evidence – not more, or less, but NONE. Did you ideological-automatons read the post? Does what CR wrote imply, even quite obliquely, that he admires the Obama Administration civil rights record? No. He is simply debunking the right-wing line (and thereby identifying it as such) that localism necessarily equals more individual freedom or greater individual rights. Kind of an important insight to consider. This post is a continuation of that consideration. Aren’t you even interested?

    • jonnybutter August 16, 2012 at 10:15 am | #

      I want to revise and extend my remarks. First of all, I see that our host has posted an update, rendering my comment mostly superflous. I also wanted to say that CR never called our national default of favoring localism to nationalism ‘right wing’ – that’s only me. The truth about that is that Reaction favors whatever ‘works’ at the time – localism, centralism, whatever – ‘states rights’ today, strong nationalism another day, etc. That there’s no evolved, systematic ideological purity on the right is one of the more interesting insights in ‘Reactionary Mind’. But localism does seem to me to be inherently conservative, and I would think that people on the Left in the US would want to at least consider the possibility.

  8. Glenn August 16, 2012 at 9:56 am | #

    The banality of evil compels the many to remain silent in the face of the suppression they feel compelled to accept as necessary.

    Obama presided over the aggressive prosecution of OWS, standing silent, making no public pronouncement on issues or their suppression, both direct and within the media.

    His non-action is not excused by some secret e-mail.

  9. Daniel August 16, 2012 at 12:16 pm | #

    Perhaps a lot of the confusion concerning the Occupy crackdowns – in addition to this sort of national heuristic to locate tyranny in central power as Corey explained – comes from the fact that we tend to be trained by our materialist-dominant society to look for concrete, material mechanisms of causation. We want to find emails and other recorded communications tied to easily demarcated central powers that can clearly explain our suspicions…which works great when it is there! Faced with the absence of this evidence, we’d be much better served sticking to analysis of central and local political power formation in the US and the underlying social dynamics associated with it, which may appear to us as vague, slippery forces but which are much better understood by certain political scientists and sociologists and the like.

    Maybe there is a centrality to whatever is animating this repression, but it won’t be found through the usual material analysis. I think the actual evidence is much more faithfully located in these decentralized regimes of power that Corey discusses.

    I think another interesting aspect of our system is highlighted in the report on the Portland crackdowns Corey linked to. We have this oscillation between administrations which either seek to facilitate this neoliberal system of ours by slapping a smiley face on it or administer it with an iron fist. Having two governing styles to analyze could muddy the waters a bit too, but it seems they both accomplish the same thing.

  10. Jd Hoff August 16, 2012 at 1:01 pm | #

    I really feel like you are missing the forest for the trees with this one and in your rush to be “right,” you seem to protest a little too much. I think you are absolutely correct that local power can be oppressive (and who on the Left disagrees with you about that anyway?); however, the federal government, including the Obama Administration, has, as you know, passed, over the last decade, legislation that significantly limits protest, criminalizing even the most innocuous forms of dissent and. I am frankly amazed that you fail to even mention the NDAA, passed just weeks after the crackdown, which effectively, as Chris Hedges argues, “criminaliz[es] dissent” by allowing for the indefinite detention of US citizens broadly suspected of “terrorist” activity. The indefinite detention clause of that legislation was suspended by a federal judge, but that has not kept Obama from appealing the case—an indication that he has no problem with the use of federal legislation and agencies to impose national order. This is on top of the Patriot Act, brought to us by Bush II, in which the definition of terrorist and terrorist activity were already broad enough for many ordinary activists and radicals to be categorized as terrorists or as providing material support to terrorist organizations. I am also surprised that you fail to mention the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s several raids on OWS and NATO protesters or the presence of HS agents at OWS protests, which was well documented by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone. These are ALL federal crackdowns on dissent of all kinds, not only an attempt to combat terrorism, as proponents would have us believe. Therefore, I am surprised that you so flippantly seem to dismiss the possibility of a federal crackdown on OWS in order to offer what is clearly a theoretical critique of localism. I am also really baffled by the way that you seem to make this about Obama, when it’s really about the government. I don’t care what Obama thinks about much of anything; we all know that presidents operate within a very narrow range of political possibilities and that governments have a momentum of their own, so the real issue here shouldn’t be whether or not Obama called for a crackdown on OWS, but what the federal government was doing to make that crackdown possible. Naomi Wolf (whom I dislike greatly by the way) may have been speculating when she accused the Obama Administration of coordinating the crackdowns, but that doesn’t mean she was wrong. There may not be any evidence that they were directly involved but neither does there seem to be any evidence; besides the administration statement you provide in your post, that they were not involved. As for local government, I am not convinced we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Look, for instance, at the statewide health care reform being passed in Vermont, and the several states that have legalized gay marriage. I think there is a place for discussions of the real value of local government and local democracy on the Left.

    • Corey Robin August 16, 2012 at 1:30 pm | #

      As I and others have made repeatedly clear, there is a fundamental distinction, which you want to elide, between federal participation — that no one has denied — and federal direction/organization. You consistently conflate the two. Also you conflate the issue of how overly broad definitions of terrorism and national security can be used to criminalize dissent — an issue about which I began writing immediately after 9/11 (and in fact before that) and which I have discussed many times, I suspect long before Chris Hedges cottoned onto the fact — with federal direction of local policies. The two issues are not the same. I wasn’t trying to make this about Obama; he just happens to be the head of the executive branch now. And since Naomi Wolf and others did make the issue a question of the administration, it seemed like it was appropriate to respond. As for the left’s relationship to localism, well, that’s something I’ve addressed time and again here and elsewhere, showing how the former often tends to be infatuated with the latter. This used to be an issue on which the left was clear; no longer. In any event, I framed my critique deliberately in a narrow way in order to get at some specific issues; if you want to talk about other issues, that’s fine (and I have too), but I fail to see why talking about one set of issues precludes talking about the other. Indeed, given that I have done both, I really don’t see why it’s so hard to walk and chew gum at the same time.

      • Jd Hoff August 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm | #


        I do not think I am eliding the distinction at all. There seems to be abundant evidence, above and beyond the little I provided, that the federal government is and has been interested in controlling and limiting dissent of all kinds, including OWS. If that is not “direction” than I do not know what is. I suppose you are right, however, that they left the “organization” part up to the local authorities.

        From my perspective at least, as somehow who has not read all of your work and reads your blog only occasionally (there’s a lot out there to read after all), you are dangerously overplaying the connection here between your critique of localism and the crackdown on OWS. I say dangerous, because regardless of what you have written previously about the PATRIOT Act or NDAA, and regardless of whether or not you beat Hedges to it (really, Cory?) the post you actually wrote here implies that there is no connection between federal government policies and local police crackdowns. The fact is the federal government did not have to tell local authorities what to do; their policies and their very participation in the form of HS, made it abundantly clear.

        It seems to me that you are the one having a difficult time walking and chewing gum, Cory, since you seem unable to make the connection between local responses and federal policy. But then that wouldn’t fit with a neat critique of localism, would it?

    • jonnybutter August 16, 2012 at 1:43 pm | #

      I’ve posted enough already, but I just have to say a couple quick things: first of all, yes, this is a matter of theory – political scientists and historians of ideas *deal* in theory. You can’t castigate CR for doing what people like him do rather than what you *want* them to. Second, your comment assumes WAY more than it ought to. I don’t really see CR attacking state/local power as inherently reactionary (*I* would argue that it might be, but that’s me). You assume also that CR is unaware of or unconcerned with the civil liberties record of the O Admin, both of which are laughably unlikely. You also assume that he is making this especially about Obama. Obama was the president during OWS, and he is dealing with that in particular, so….?

      Here’s the ‘thesis’ of the post, and it means what it means, no more and no less: ….we have to revise our notion that somehow centralized power is automatically more coercive and repressive than decentralized power.

      Are you guys just mad because he disagreed with Naomi Wolf?

      • Glenn August 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm | #

        “…we have to revise our notion that somehow centralized power is automatically more coercive and repressive than decentralized power.”

        Kim Scipes makes this point well in his book, “AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?”

        He argue here, convincingly, that unions did not need direction from the CIA to make policies unfavorable to unions outside of the USA.

  11. Glenn August 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm | #

    There had to have been much discussion within the Obama administration as to whether OWS could be usefully co-opted, as black slaves were, or extinguished as a force to be contended with, as American Indians were.

    I would be interested in seeing more discussion representative of these positions; a commitment to one or the other position prematurely would have been impolitic.

  12. Jimmy Reefercake (@JimmyReefercake) August 16, 2012 at 2:52 pm | #

    Same is true of reefer madness.

  13. Corey Robin August 16, 2012 at 6:05 pm | #

    Jed: The topic of this post is whether or not the Obama administration — or the federal government — *ordered* the crackdowns on OWS. You say there is “abundant evidence, above and beyond the little I provided, that the federal government is and has been interested in controlling and limiting dissent of all kinds, including OWS.” Can you not see the difference between these two issues? You’re talking about something different. And for the record, I’m aware of it. I don’t expect you to read everything I’ve written, not by a long shot, but when I tell you I’ve written on a topic, I’m not trying to embarrass you: the point is you don’t need to reiterate a claim — to me, at any rate — that I’ve made multiple times. You’re not persuading me of anything b/c it’s not something I need to be persuaded of. As for whether there is a connection between federal policy and local responses, I say in this post, and emphasize it in the update, that I’m not addressing the question of whether there is a connection (and if you read the post I link to from last November, I never claim there is not a connection; quite the opposite). I emphasize a much more particular point, precisely so that people don’t read it into it more than is intended. At this point, there’s nothing I can do if you want to import a meaning to my post that is not intended nor present. But suffice it to say it’s not my meaning. Corey

  14. Roger Babson August 16, 2012 at 10:10 pm | #

    There were DHS trucks stationed outside of OSF.

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