Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was a peaceful protest movement that began on September 17, 2011, in New York City’s Wall Street financial district. It received global attention and spawned a huge movement against economic inequality worldwide, but there was evidence that the FBI maybe have viewed it as a potential criminal and terrorist threat.
FBI documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that from its inception, the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat even though the agency acknowledges in documents that organizers explicitly called for peaceful protest and did “not condone the use of violence” at all protests.
PCJF obtained heavily redacted documents showing that FBI offices and agents around the country were in high gear conducting surveillance against the movement even as early as August 2011, a month before the establishment of the OWS encampment in Zuccotti Park and other Occupy actions around the country.
The original protest was initiated by Kalle Lasn and Micah White of Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist publication, who conceived of a September 17 occupation in Lower Manhattan.
The slogan for OWS was “We are the 99%”—referring to income inequality and wealth distribution in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population.
Documents procured by PCJF offered further insight into the FBI’s response to the protests:
“We believe [the documents are] just the tip of the iceberg—a window into the nationwide scope of the FBI’s surveillance, monitoring, and reporting on peaceful protestors organizing with the Occupy movement,” stated Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of PCJF.
“These documents show that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are treating protests against the corporate and banking structure of America as potential criminal and terrorist activity. These documents also show these federal agencies functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America.”
“The documents are heavily redacted, and it is clear from the production that the FBI is withholding far more material,” added Heather Benno, staff attorney with the PCJF. “We are filing an appeal challenging this response and demanding full disclosure to the public of the records of this operation.”
The following is a sampling of what they disclosed of these documents. The rest can be read here.
- As early as August 19, 2011, the FBI in New York was meeting with the New
York Stock Exchange to discuss the Occupy Wall Street protests that wouldn’t start for another month. By September, prior to the start of the OWS, the FBI was notifying businesses that they might be the focus of an OWS protest.
- The FBI’s Indianapolis division released a “Potential Criminal Activity Alert” on September 15, 2011, even though they acknowledged that no specific protest date had been scheduled in Indiana. The documents show that the Indianapolis division of the FBI was coordinating with “All Indiana State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies,” as well as the “Indiana Intelligence Fusion Center,” the FBI “Directorate of Intelligence” and other national FBI coordinating mechanisms.
- Documents released show coordination between the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and corporate America. They include a report by the Domestic Security Alliance Council (DSAC), described by the federal government as “a strategic partnership between the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the private sector,” discussing the OWS protests at the West Coast ports to “raise awareness concerning this type of criminal activity.” The DSAC report shows the nature of secret collaboration between American intelligence agencies and their corporate clients – the document contains a “handling notice” that the information is “meant for use primarily within the corporate security community. Such messages shall not be released in either written or oral form to the media, the general public or other personnel…” (The DSAC document was also obtained by the Northern California ACLU which has sought local FBI surveillance files.)
- Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) reported to the DSAC on the relationship between OWS and organized labor for the port actions. The NCIS describes itself as “an elite worldwide federal law enforcement organization” whose “mission is to investigate and defeat criminal, terrorist, and foreign intelligence threats to the United States Navy and Marine Corps ashore, afloat and in cyberspace.” The NCIS also assists with the transport of Guantanamo prisoners.
- DSAC issued several tips to its corporate clients on “civil unrest” which it defines as ranging from “small, organized rallies to large-scale demonstrations and rioting.” It advised to dress conservatively, avoid political discussions and “avoid all large gatherings related to civil issues. Even seemingly peaceful rallies can spur violent activity or be met with resistance by security forces. Bystanders may be arrested or harmed by security forces using water cannons, tear gas or other measures to control crowds.”
The documents detailed further accounts of FBI activity in several cities across the entire country including Anchorage, Jackson, Memphis, Richmond, Tampa, Birmingham, Denver, Milwaukee, Syracuse, and Albany—reporting on current or potential protests in their cities.
After the PCJF filed Freedom of Information Act demands with multiple federal law enforcement agencies in the fall of 2011, the FBI initially attempted to limit its search to only one limited record-keeping index. Recognizing this as a common tactic used by the FBI to conduct an inadequate search, the PCJF pressed forward demanding searches be performed of the FBI headquarters as well as FBI field offices nationwide.
The PCJF vowed to continue to push for public disclosure of the government’s spy files and release documents as they were obtained.
Protesters at the initial event in Zuccotti Park were eventually forced out on November 15, 2011. The movement then turned their focus to occupying banks, corporate headquarters, board meetings, foreclosed homes, and college and university campuses across the country.
By October of that year, Occupy protests had taken place or were ongoing in over 951 cities across 82 countries, and over 600 communities in the United States.
About 2,000 protestors were arrested in New York City alone. Most of these arrests in New York and elsewhere were on charges of disorderly conduct, trespassing, and failure to disperse. Nationally, a little under 8,000 Occupy-affiliated arrests have been documented by tallying numbers published in local newspapers.