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Police and Occupy Protesters Should Open a Dialogue

Occupy Wall Street is a symbol of the troubling economic times we live in. The movement has a constant presence in certain locations across the country, like Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, which is bolstered by extra participation on the weekends. As protests continue, police must be ready to control the crowd while protecting protesters and bystanders. The protesters and the police should open a meaningful dialogue that will be beneficial to both sides. Through discussion, the police can be better prepared and organized for events that protesters have planned. Likewise, protesters will be more aware of the difficult balancing act that the police must engage in everyday between protecting First Amendment rights and the interests of other citizens and private businesses. If both sides are aware of the other’s plans, these protests will be less likely to turn violent.

For the police, their focus has and should continue to be on planning. In New York City, the police have erected stanchions, large metal gate-like structures, around Zuccotti Park, which help control the crowd. According to one source, there are about 150 of these barricades surrounding the park that set up clear borders that limits confrontation with protesters. If police are able to plan for events, protests are less likely to turn violent. In order to anticipate the protester’s next move, police departments must open a dialogue with those at Occupy Wall Street and similar demonstrations.

Reports of the “hipster cop” Detective Rick Lee may sound like a bit from SNL, but he has proved to be an asset to the NYPD. As a community affairs officer, Lee has engaged with the protesters, serving as a conduit between those at Zuccotti Park and the police department. Occupy Wall Street has been difficult to engage given their valiant desire for these protests to remain a leaderless, grass roots movement. Still, Lee and other members of the police department have been able to engage with protesters who are willing to discuss their concerns and plans with the police. Police departments must realize that these protesters are individuals and have many different goals. In the same way, protesters must realize the action of one police officer does not reflect every police officer across the nation. If this dialogue can occur, police departments can be better prepared for events that will occur as the Occupy Wall Street protests continue.

Police departments throughout the country are in a difficult position and positive engagement with the protesters will make their job slightly easier. The NYPD was ridiculed for its planned efforts to clear Zuccotti Park for cleaning, but few realize this move was originally requested in a letter from Brookfield Properties. The police were required to comply with this request, as the park is private property, but they were called off after pressure from elected officials and the defiance of the protesters. Police departments have a difficult task in protecting First Amendment rights and supporting local businesses that have been hurt by the increased police presence and barricades set up around Zuccotti Park.     

Perhaps the most successful event of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City thus far was organized by students and several labor unions and was held with a permit in Foley Square. More protests like this should be a goal of the protesters. Large gatherings are likely to gain more media attention to their cause. In a setting like the one in Foley Square, the police can maintain order by using barricades and crowd control techniques during the march to a location, the protest, and as the crowd disperses.

Protesters were recently greeted with a visit from one of the leading activists from Tahrir Square, Asmaa Mahfouz. Mahfouz immediately asked them, “Where are the organizers?” This question was followed shortly by a recommendation that the protesters “sharpen their message” if they want real change. If Occupy Wall Street takes this advice, echoed by many prominent activists, they should work through their goals and engage with their respective police departments around the country. Police will be able to enable protests, rather than hinder them, if protesters discuss legal means to their goals with their local police departments.

If the Occupy Wall Street Movement is really about the 99%, police departments across the country can and will sympathize with this goal. For example, one group, OccupyPolice, calls for engaging with police departments to help them understand the goals of this movement. Police officers too have deadlines to meet, bills to pay, and college loans to reconcile. If both the protesters and the police can engage in a dialogue, I predict this movement can continue to grow.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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