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Amid Security Concerns, Occupiers Wonder: Are Police Sending Troublemakers Our Way?

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Protesters have begun to tell media outlets that drinking and drug use have become a problem at Zuccotti Park and some have wondered if police are pushing troublemakers toward the site.

CREDIT: Flickr / shankbone

Activists and organizers at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park have been struggling recently with an influx of people not participating in the movement, some of whom are said to be known drug addicts, homeless, or have mental illnesses. And some reports, including an eyewitness account shared with Campus Progress, indicate that the New York Police Department may be encouraging some lawbreakers to go to Zuccotti Park.

Haywood, a prominent volunteer who serves on both the Information and Security working groups and has been with the movement for about a month, told Campus Progress that he’s seen police direct individuals who appeared to be causing trouble—or likely would—to the occupy site.

“In two separate instances within three blocks of Liberty Square, I’ve seen individuals get out of a standard-issue NYPD car, and on returning to the park, I’ve found them there,” said Haywood, who, like many others at Occupy Wall Street, won’t give his full name. The first-name-only practice has become common among long-term occupiers—including those who are tasked with speaking to members of the media—who want to avoid fame.

The first time Haywood says he saw such an incident was last Monday around 5 a.m. when he was at a cafe a few blocks from Liberty Square, not long after finishing up security duty. An individual exiting a nearby police car seemed to be schizophrenic and was making a scene, catching Haywood’s attention.

“An hour or two later, he was around the breakfast food line, yelling, screaming, grabbing tents,” Haywood said, adding that he and several other security volunteers had to escort the man out of the park. “After that, things started getting crazy around here, so I kept my eyes open.”

The next incident Haywood says he observed was the following Tuesday afternoon. He was again at a cafe just a few blocks away from Zuccotti Park, and he says he saw a teenaged male getting out of a police car there.

Haywood saw the same young person the next several nights in the park, and asked him if he was the kid he’d seen the day before. The teenager wouldn’t respond to Haywood and was observed hanging out with an individual who had been caught trying to sell heroin to some occupiers. Eventually, Haywood decided to leave the teenager alone, noting he wasn’t being violent or overtly selling drugs.

On his night-time patrols, Haywood says he’s talked to several people who told him that cops who caught them drinking in other parks suggested they go to Occupy Wall Street.

And other occupiers are beginning to share similar stories with Campus Progress and other media outlets, noting the safety concerns of such incidents.

Reporter Harry Siegel offered a first-person account in a recent New York Daily News article from his time at the site.

“Two different drunks I spoke with last week told me they’d been encouraged to ‘take it to Zuccotti’ by officers who’d found them drinking in other parks,” Siegel wrote, also sharing officers’ responses to incidents around the occupation:

“He’s got a right to express himself, you’ve got a right to express yourself,” I heard three cops repeat in recent days, using nearly identical language, when asked to intervene with troublemakers inside the park, including a clearly disturbed man screaming and singing wildly at 3 a.m. for the second straight night.

Siegel later reported that the NYPD sent a terse response to his allegation that police were both prompting troublemakers to go to the site and ignoring some incidents: “It’s false.”

And Josh Harkinson, a reporter for Mother Jones, reported via his Twitter account that Sharman Stein, a spokesperson for New York City’s Department of Corrections, told him that no special inmate drop offs are happening near Zuccotti Park, which some occupiers have also alleged.

Harkinson also spoke with a spokesperson from the city’s Department of Homeless Services, who he reports also denied activist allegations that homeless shelters are directing people to Zuccotti. “This is absolutely untrue,” the source told Harkinson. “On the contrary, Homeless Services has been sending street outreach teams to Zuccotti” to try to get homeless occupants into temporary housing.

The protesters occupying Zuccotti Park have an inclusive mission and said they try to avoid generalizing about issues like these, but those who spoke with Campus Progress acknowledged that non-occupiers are becoming a serious problem.

Members of the working groups devoted to security and community watch say they have been overwhelmed with incidents of drug dealing and drug use, fighting, theft, and sexual assault. Issues of women's safety, especially at night, are particularly worrisome. Police recently arrested one man for allegedly sexually abusing a female occupier inside of her sleeping bag.

Activists met on Tuesday afternoon to discuss security concerns, including how to support female assault victims and how to handle posting photos of known sex offenders.

After harassment and long lines caused by outsiders reached a breaking point, the kitchen scaled back its operations over the weekend in order to plan how to deal with these and other issues related to long-term volunteer food service.

And then there are other recent troublemakers whom occupiers suspect of being provocateurs.

Last Tuesday’s General Assembly meeting was interrupted by an older man who began ranting to the crowd about how he wanted his “40 acres and a mule.” The crowd drowned him out by repeatedly chanting "mic check," a common tactic for shutting down obvious disrupters, and a scuffle ensued when one protestor tried to escort him away. The man has been at the protest every day since and some activists told Campus Progress that the man seems to know exactly what he is doing—initiating fights with people, then standing back and watching the results.

And then there was the man who disturbed an occupying family sleepover by climbing a large statue near the park; he was not stopped by nearby police. Activists found his wallet, which indicated he was Canadian military.

Nonetheless, it’s unclear what role—if any—New York City police are playing in the growing number of non-occupiers hanging out and causing problems at the camp. Are they directing troublemakers that way? No, police spokespeople tell media outlets. Are they failing to respond to issues arising in the park? No again, they say.

But if such allegations do prove true, it’s a move that would make tactical sense for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spoken out against the protests and seemingly just wants the protesters to go away.

Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.

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