What's behind the OWS clampdown?

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Writing in UK’s Guardian last week, Naomi Wolf raised some troubling questions about the nature of the recent countrywide crackdown on various “Occupy Wall Street” encampments as they approached their second month anniversary. Like many other commentators Wolf marveled at the level of violence exhibited by some police, but what concerned her most of all was the possibility of an unacknowledged federal hand in the actions of local police agencies. Wolf alleges that the federal authorities via the Department of Homeland Security and FBI participated in a conference call with representatives from U.S. cities to help coordinate police tactics during the clearing of OWS sites, justifications for same and handling public relations in the aftermath of police actions. Civil libertarians for years have already been troubled by the encroaching power of the federal government via the Patriot Act. This apparent collusion represents another alarming example of federal authority exercised in an apparent disregard for long-standing constitutional principles.

But perhaps more disturbing than this almost cavalier extension of federal power may be the causes behind it. “Why this massive mobilization against these not-yet-fully-articulated, unarmed, inchoate people?” Wolf asks. “After all, protesters against the war in Iraq, Tea Party rallies and others have all proceeded without this coordinated crackdown. Is it really the camping? As I write, two hundred young people, with sleeping bags, suitcases and even folding chairs, are still camping out all night and day outside of NBC on public sidewalks – under the benevolent eye of an NYPD cop – awaiting Saturday Night Live tickets, so surely the camping is not the issue.”

What is? Wolf suggests that the OWS movement has stumbled across a new “third rail” in American politics. Not Social Security but congressional insecurity, anxiety that average Americans are beginning to grow wise to the Washington game, the corruption lurking in Capital Hill hallways, the revolving door between corporations and government, the fact that members of Congress may begin political careers as solid representatives of the U.S. middle class, but seldom leave office without amassing a sometimes inexplicable fortune while engaged in “public service.”

While pundits persist in expressing mystification about the aims of the OWS movement, the protests themselves have consistently focused on restoring pre-Citizens United standards for campaign contributions, restoring Glass Steagal style regulations on U.S. finance institutions and protesting the persisting impunity of Wall Street’s worst actors in light of the reckless, and as yet, uninvestigated and unprosecuted behavior which contributed to the 2008 global economic collapse. In addition an informal survey conducted by Wolf suggests that OWS protesters are properly focused on the kind of government corruption long assumed to be a problem only in the developing world. But recent adventures in government ethics suggest that members of Congress regularly exploit info gleaned from legislation they are shaping to guide investment decisions in a manner that would land them in jail for insider trading were it conducted on Wall Street instead of K Street. In addition many OWS demonstrators told Wolf that they are particularly concerned with closing a “little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.”

Some may dismiss Wolf’s observations as paranoid conspiracy spinning, but it is fair to wonder at the large scale effort to shut down the OWS protests before they mature into a more threatening political movement, and some of the justifications deployed for shutting down specific protests appeared sketchy at best. It could be that the OWS campaign has more in common with the Arab Spring demonstrations which inspired it than merely the tactics it employs. Few of us may have ever suffered under any illusions about the “untouchability” of American politicians. What may turn out to be a real shock to the system however, is how commonplace political corruption has become in Washington and how far it has penetrated in the halls of U.S. power. The OWS movement may have been begun as a cry of frustration with the growing inequities in American life, but it may evolve into a far-reaching spotlight on political corruption that has long been hidden from sight.