It’s been a heady couple of weeks for OccupySD, indeed for the entire national Occupy effort. The dynamics of the movement and the importance of the issues being raised provide plenty to chew over for a long time yet, but even more immediately, its interactions with police have raised a number of questions that the public deserves answers to. None of these issues are raised with any presumption that the SDPD will be unable to provide a good explanation — I both expect and hope that they will. But that’s different than not caring if those answers are ever provided. It’s still necessary to raise these questions and require a meaningful process of accountability.
- More than two weeks ago, police used pepper spray and/or mace (depending on the report) on members of OccupySD. An AP photographer was among those who documented the moment. Police have not, thus far, explained what justified this action. Presumably the vast majority of people would like to know how to not get maced by police, so explaining to the public what actions justify such a response is an issue of public information and safety. If we don’t collectively expect that the police have to explain the reason for publicly macing citizens — no matter how good the explanation turns out to be — it sets a dangerous precedent.
- The Union-Tribune reported over the weekend that, in the pre-dawn action conducted by police and sheriffs on October 28th, among the items seized by police were “4-5 cameras.” There are separate claims that police were “grabbing…and destroying” cameras at the Occupy site. Now, no matter how justified law enforcement has been in enforcing a prohibition on permanent encampment, it’s exceptionally difficult to imagine how a camera could be considered contributory to any kind of encampment or provide a physical threat. Obviously carrying a camera around downtown San Diego is not illegal, so it’s particularly important to address this question because of the appearance that law enforcement was specifically attempting to confiscate or destroy documentation of police behavior. We need to know if and why law enforcement seized personal property that was not contributing to encampment and, if so, for what reason.
- At the press conference that morning, Police Chief Lansdowne denied accusations that police had targeted members of the Occupy media team for arrest during the action. However, video (below, focus on 1:55 to 2:35, watch out for language) clearly shows police bypassing a half dozen other protesters to single out and arrest an occupier immediately identified as a member of the media team. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some other reason that she was singled out, but obviously she was singled out, which challenges the statement made later by police. If there’s a different reason that explains that specific targeting, that’s fine, but a simple denial does not and should not cut it as an explanation for anyone.
- Later that same day, a number of people at the Occupy site claimed that there were bloodstains on the concrete left by physical confrontations between occupiers and police during the pre-dawn action. There was a second round of tension when police attempted to power-wash the area. There were sketchy reports afterwards that evidence was collected, but if there’s been any further explanation of this point by the police, coverage has been exceptionally limited. There’s nothing conclusive in either direction as to what it was or what happened, but the claims are exceptionally serious and demand a clear resolution one way or another.
- There were also reports that occupiers at Children’s Park had negotiated an understanding with police that allowed them to camp there overnight. However, encroachment and violation of the park’s curfew was cited by police as the reason for clearing the area and making arrests. It’s not clear how much warning, if any, was given before the Friday morning clearing and arrests in the pre-dawn hours. While police absolutely had laws to enforce that would allow their actions, if they had come to a separate arrangement with the people there and gave them little or no notice that the deal was expiring, that’s important information to the story of what went on that day.
- Then, the account posted here on Friday, that the city contractors that were cleaning the Occupy site after the pre-dawn clearing on the 28th were violating the same municipal code that was used to justify that police action. Not only were police observing this violation, they were providing physical security for the violation and refused an explicit request to enforce the law. By all appearances, police knowingly provided security for city contractors who were in the process of breaking the law. The same law that police enforced just hours earlier in the same exact location. That legitimately raises a number of questions, and the Police Department should be expected to explain the apparent selective enforcement.
- In a brief Twitter exchange recently with the counsel to the Chief of Police, I tried to understand the legal distinction between the homeless people that are legally allowed to camp out on downtown streets and the occupiers who SDPD have decided are not allowed to camp out. He either could not or would not explain the legal distinction in that brief exchange, but it’s increasingly relevant to understand what the basis is. Whether there should or should not be a distinction is beside the point: If there is a legal basis for a distinction, it shouldn’t be too hard for police to point to it. If there is not, then there are other questions about how decisions are being made. In Nashville, a judge halted arrests indefinitely, noting problems with selective enforcement and said that ‘unsanitary conditions’ were insufficient grounds for police to clear an Occupy site and arrest participants. If police are making a judgment call that isn’t rooted in a codified distinction, that opens up legal questions about selective enforcement. There are now two possible problems with selective enforcement around San Diego Occupy — one about who is allowed to sleep in public and why, one specifically to do with enforcing sanitation code. Since selective enforcement is causing legal problems elsewhere already, it makes perfect sense for SDPD to explain why these are not cases of selective enforcement.
- Finally, disturbing allegations were presented to the San Diego City Council this week by occupiers who were detained in the October 29th raid. It includes one woman saying that detainees were denied water or access to bathrooms, forced to defecate on the floor of the police van, later sit in urine, and that she was at one point choked by a law enforcement officer. Nobody who wasn’t there can say with certainty what actually went on (I certainly don’t know), but these are allegations that must be addressed and cannot be allowed to just disappear into the ether. If they’re true, action is obviously necessary. If they aren’t true, there’s an obligation to restore law enforcement’s good name. Either way, it demands an answer.
That’s a full press conference by itself, just off the top of my head, and I expect and hope that police can provide good answers to all of these questions. But before even reaching that point, I expect these questions to simply be asked at some point by someone. Between media, lawyers and watchdog groups, this shouldn’t be difficult. Respect has to be earned through accountability, not avoidance or stonewalling, and as Josh Richman said just this morning, “I don’t trust anyone. If I did, I wouldn’t be a very good reporter, would I?” It’s a basic necessity of a functional society that the public knows how and why they are being policed, but it isn’t going to happen without an insistence on accountability. We’re now facing a fundamental concern over whether San Diego is equipped to even insist that the questions be raised and sufficiently answered, no matter what those answers ultimately are.
Perhaps a potential lawsuit from one of the occupiers will bring some answers to light, but if that’s what it takes to maybe get answers, we’re already in trouble. A collective failure to expect basic answers both discourages people from raising concerns in the first place and fosters a complacency that will inevitably lead to abuses at some point. And if a failure to seriously pursue answers to such questions ever, in any situation, allows impropriety to go unexposed, it’s a systemic breakdown.
I hope we do get these questions. I hope they’re already being asked or have already been asked and I just haven’t yet seen the answers reported. But in these first few days and weeks, there are worrisome suggestions that San Diego just doesn’t have the apparatus to insist on a basic level of accountability.
by Lucas O’Connor