Conspiracy (noun): A secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful

Naomi Wolf has caused a tremendous imbroglio by writing an article that sought to alert fellow Americans to the dangers of a co-ordinated crackdown on Occupy protesters. She has argued that not only have local mayors met to plan an array of actions against respective local occupy movements but furthermore the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has played a role in planning this plot on direct orders from congress. Despite the argument’s specificity, grounded as it is in American politics, Wolf’s claims seem to speak to the concerns of many in Australia, rapidly circulating via social media, particularly around Australia’s Occupy networks. Are we meant to infer also perhaps that Australia and the US colluded over Occupy crackdowns? After all Obama was recently in the country, during which time he had meetings with Gillard. The reason the Wolf article has garnered so much interest is that h  it seeks to speak, I think, to the sense that many feel ‘that there’s something going on’ when it comes to the Occupy movement. There certainly is, no doubt, something going on. But is it what Wolf suggests it is?

In attempting to capture the sense that there’s something going on Wolf’s argument has been highly divisive. On one hand she has garnered high praise for calling out congress for seeking to stymie the threat posed by the demands of the Occupy movement. On the other hand she has been met with accusations of being a conspiracy theorist by those who think the claims are overblown and stretch the bounds of credulity. What is it about this piece that is so polarising and divisive?

I would suggest that underlying both the respective responses to Wolf’s line of argument is how people respond to what could be described as ‘strong truth claims’. The tenor of the truth Wolf is claiming to have uncovered is captured definitively in the title, “The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy” (italics mine). In this sense Wolf is not just making an argument or offering an opinion but is claiming to have revealed a hidden truth about how government is functioning in regards the Occupy movement. This claim to truth draws a strong link between the suggestion of congress and DHS and the local actions. The federal government is not just somehow involved in the police actions but has caused it. This is what could be called an ‘over-articulated notion of causality’ in that Wolf attributes the driving factor behind the crackdowns to the express wishes of congress.

This is from where the accusations of conspiracy theorising (note if you ctrl+f the article you’ll notice that’s their word not Wolf’s) spring forth. There is little room for a middle ground position on Wolf’s line of argument. Thus for those who agree with her, Wolf has provided solid grounds on which to believe that the government opposition to Occupy goes all the way to the top. Highlighting the involvement of DHS in the crackdown on Occupy ‘means something’ when the actions of federal government are understood in authoritarian Big Brother terms. Up until recently the overarching explanations of the collective actions against Occupy lacked coherency given that these actions has been made up of a seemingly baffling combination of police violence and banal enforcement of local council regulations.

I have said in a previous post that there is an emerging pattern of council responses to local Occupy movements, based particularly around purported concerns for public health and safety. There is, as Wolf suggests, a high level of commonality to the responses, this is without a doubt. Local councils issue notices informing Occupy camps that they have violated health and safety codes and then send in tactical response riot police to clear the space in the best tradition of no questions asked. Unlike another commentators on the Wolf article such as  Joshua Holland, the level on which I would take issue with Wolf is not on the level of a debate about facts but the meaning that we attribute to them: what meaning do we attribute this common response by local councils across the world? Wolf points to the fact that 18 mayors met right around the time of the occupy crackdowns in order to suggest that the common tactics where as a result of co-ordinated planning.

For me, such intent and causation cannot be inferred from the mere fact of the mayors meeting together. That we can prove that key decision-makers met in a room does not necessary prove there was a plot. We don’t know the content of the discussion; they could have been having an awkward discussion about the weather or their local sporting team for all we know. Remember these officials are politicians; it is just as likely that they despise one another and would rather be the master of their own domain as they are likely to plot a co-ordinated response. Even to the extent that they did discuss plans for overcoming the challenges posed by Occupy does this constitute conspiracy or is it just – an admittedly inept – attempt to address the unique challenges posed by the Occupy movement?

Take for instance, the recent visit to Melbourne by the Queen. Such high-level diplomatic visits require extensive security and logistical planning amongst various levels and agencies of government. These meetings would be convened on an ad hoc basis, well outside normal procedures of national, state and local government. These meetings would at least in some instances have been conducted in secret with no public consultation. Does this mean that the government conspired to conduct a massive conspiracy to allow the Queen to safely visit? Probably not, I would think.

There is no doubt that a great deal of pressure is being exerted from many quarters on local mayors and officials to crack down on occupy protesters. This pressure for the most part is not one that is formal. It is more a perceived public relations pressure to maintain the proper functionings of local government, to preserve the reputation of the local councils and to maintain the ‘normality’ of urban space. As Peter Chamber suggested, what is distinct about the Occupy protests is that they challenge the conventional use of public space, to the point that public space is only public so long as you act in a certain (read private) way. The Occupy protests also challenge the normal ideas of protests, particularly the temporal duration.

It has been suggested by Doyle that the universal right to protest is not indefinite and after a certain amount of time people have had their turn and ought to pack up and let the city get back to business. The acceptable use of public space is thus a pretty complicated issue, and disruptions to what is considered normal is understood by many on some level as a threat to society. People may not like drunken violence in Melbourne’s city centre on weekends but it certainly doesn’t cause as great an outrage, or for that matter support, as has Occupy Melbourne. It is in this sense not surprising that given this lack of conceptual clarity about what Occupy protests mean that the police response was not one ideally suited to managing peaceful protest. That does not, however, excuse the use of violence against non-threatening civilians.

City of Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan are both elected officials who oversee local authorities that have been responsible for violent crackdowns on occupy protests. This is, however, where the similarities between the personalities of these two politicians end. Mayor Quan is a progressive politician with a history of herself being involved in protest movements. Mayor Doyle has, let’s just say, a proud conservative pedigree. Despite these political differences and being on opposite sides of the world the end result of police actions against Occupy protesters are very similar. We should certainly not be tempted to stretch Wolf’s argument to suggest that somehow Oakland and Melbourne councils or Australia and US federal governments plotted to co-ordinate the timing and nature of their Occupy crack-downs.

On thing common to both incidences was the unsuitability of police tactics to deal with this new and confounding form of protest. In both instances, given the nature of the heavy-handed police response, there was an inevitable risk that someone was going to be seriously injured. It could just have easily been a protester in Melbourne that ended up in a coma after being trampled by a horse. Instead it was injury caused by less lethal ammunition used buy police in Oakland that sparked city-wide strikes. The common lack of an effective best practice for police tactics does not entirely explain the similarities between the Oakland and Melbourne. But it is not reducible to the top-down orders given by officials, whether they be federal, state or local.

Another partial explanation lies in the informal transfer of ideas and practices through various cultural forms. This transfer can occur at the individual level even easier than at an organisational level. It is not Oakland police force adopting the policies of Melbourne police but rather individual members having been exposed to practices and ideas that give rise to an idea of what is the appropriate thing to do in a particular circumstance. While it may occur at the level of individuals, if a number of members of an organisation are exposed to similar ideas it can create a common cohesive ethos that acculturates within a bureaucratic culture making it seem like an officially held position. This is something that is by nature pretty hard to pin down, so it’s understandable that it might seem a bit vague. A telling example may help to add clarity to what this means.

Take for instance the link between the torture at Abu Ghraib and the television show 24. When Phillipe Sands QC went to Guantanamo Bay to investigate the operation of the chain of command – to see if orders authorising torture could be traced back to senior officials in the Bush administration – he found some evidence that could suggest this. But he also found a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the fictional character Jack Bauer had caused the Guantanamo torture. There are a lot of facts to suggest this. The producers of the show have publicly stated that they are in favour of torture being used to elicit information. The Dean of West Point military academy even visited the set of 24 to request they stop glorifying torture because it was making soldiers think torture was acceptable. The soldiers and employees at Guantanamo would even gather in the mess hall and watch 24. The episode that aired immediately prior to known instances of torture and abuse showed torture being used effectively to elicit information from a detainee. A number of soldiers accused of torture explicitly referred to Jack Bauer when explaining their actions. A single factor in this instance,  is not the sole explanation, but it is an important part.

For me there are many broader factors that can start to explain the co-ordinated crackdowns but they are complex and myriadic and not reducible to a single cause. A single blog post, that has admittedly become quite long, can’t speak to all of these but can I hope give a sense of a more complex explanation of causation at hand. Now’s not the time to cry Wolf.