Boston’s decade-long experience with giant sports rallies and its willingness to adjust crowd-control tactics on the fly earned it generally good reviews for its handling of 2011’s Occupy Boston protests, panelists at Suffolk Law’s Rappaport Center roundtable said.
First Amendment attorney Ben Wish of Todd & Weld, who filed multiple suits against the city defending Occupy Boston’s protest rights, said the Boston Police Department’s use of “fair warning” announcements and its “orderly eviction” approach was “a better model” than those used by many cities when shutting down the long-term round-the-clock demonstrations.
Wish was joined at the forum by Professor Alex Vitale of the Department of Sociology at Brooklyn College, and Daniel Linskey, superintendent-in-chief of the Boston Police.
The fourth session in this year’s series of Rappaport Roundtable forums centered on the Occupy protest that began in New York City in September 2011 and spread quickly to dozens of other U.S. cities, posing difficult questions for police forces and elected leaders about an appropriate response. About 40 people attended the Rappaport event, including protesters, residents affected by the rallies, and Suffolk Law students and faculty members. The panel was moderated by Alasdair Roberts, the Jerome Lyle Rappaport Chair in Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School.
Wish took issue with the regulatory and courtroom maneuvers used by Boston to justify the final eviction, saying the refusal of city inspectors to let protesters fix code violations by installing fireproof tents and a food sink was a heavy-handed strategy to shut down the encampment. But he and Vitale made clear that Boston worked hard to communicate with protesters and avert the mass arrests and violence seen in Oakland and other cities.
“Boston did not escalate the protests, and did pretty well overall,” Vitale said. Troubled by the militarization of crowd-control efforts nationally over the last decade, he said the absence of SWAT-style uniforms and armored vehicles was a smart move by the police.
“Given that OWS is deeply committed to defiant tactics” such as arrests and overt disobedience, he said, the city’s use of “negotiated crowd management” and its willingness to delay the eviction to calm tensions “prevented the kind of poisoning of the atmosphere we saw in places like New York.”
Linskey spoke with candor about the challenges of managing protesters committed to “showing contempt of cop” and officers accustomed to compliance once a decision to evict is made.
“It’s better to start in as a lamb,” he said. “If you start as a lion, you have no way to go back from that.”
“We’re pretty liberal when it comes to protests,” he added, “and Occupy Boston did a decent job of policing their own.” He noted that cops must always be alert for the most unruly protesters and “put up with the kind of insults and fighting words that would cause a normal person to react.”
Linskey embraced the plethora of small video devices used by crowd members, saying “our guys know they don’t want to end up on the cover of YouTube.” He said he reviewed hundreds of hours of video during and after the protests and declared, “I am extremely proud of my officers” for avoiding ugly confrontations."
Protester Ariel Oshinsky, 20, of Boston, told the panelists that Occupy Boston’s instant online feedback about police tactics made a big difference.
“We saw a lot more aggressive policing right off the bat due to the defiance,” she said. “But we went viral pretty quickly and they made a P.R.-driven adjustment.”