The Script for Dismantling Protest Sites, or Fool Me Once . . .

In late August of this year, students at UNC, Chapel Hill initiated and maintained a round-the-clock vigil at Silent Sam, the Confederate monument on campus.  The vigil, which never had tents–but did have tables, sleeping pads, and folding chairs–was left unmolested by campus authorities for eight days.  Then the students were informed on Thursday, August 31st that they had to vacate the spot and that anything they did not remove would be confiscated by the police at 6AM on Friday morning, the first.  It did not seem coincidental that the first football game of the season would be played in Chapel Hill on Saturday the 2nd.   The administration did not want football fans to be distracted with thoughts of the legacies of slavery.

I cycled over to campus at 5:30 that Friday morning in order to witness—and to video on my phone—the arrival of the police.  About fifteen students were there.  Most of the vigil’s paraphernalia had been removed.  The students did not intend to resist the police incursion or to get themselves arrested, but did plan to chant various slogans throughout the police action.

I hung around until 8:45 or so, chatting with students and colleagues on the scene.  The police did not show up.  Later that day, I learned that the police arrived around 9:00 am and did just what they had informed students they would do: dismantle the site of the vigil and threaten any students who refused to leave the site with arrest.

Now, some two months later, I discover, while reading Micah White’s The End of Protest (of which more in subsequent posts) that the Chapel Hill action followed a script devised for the dismantling of Occupy sites around the country in late 2011 and early 2012.

“The eviction in Lower Manhattan was effective, and it was no coincidence that evictions spread immediately.  Five days before Zuccotti [the Occupy Wall Street site] was dismantled, police coordinated nation-wide conference calls with mayors from eighteen cities.  An eviction script was developed to counter the tactics of Occupy.  Mayors learned to announce an impending eviction, to give Occupiers a firm deadline so that the people would gather to defend the encampment.  Authorities would then let the deadline expire so that protestors were exhausted by the state of tension and readiness.  Many protestors would return home believing the crisis had passed.  At that point, the police would strike and complete the eviction using maximum force.  The counter-revolutionary tactics developed by Bloomberg and others were quickly deployed in city after city” (The End of Protest, 30-31).

“Maximum force” was not used in Chapel Hill, nor was it needed given the students’ resigned acquiescence in the eviction.  But I was gulled by a trick used five years earlier because I didn’t know of its existence.

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