Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Memos, Conference Calls, and Police PR

In recent weeks, Occupy encampments around the country have faced numerous obstacles imposed upon them by local and municipal authorities. Major evictions have happened in nearly every metropolitan area that can claim an Occupation as its own, with many Occupiers alleging that their forceful evictions included instances of police brutality ranging from pepper spray to Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) use.

Many of these evictions happened within days of each other, leading Occupiers to speculate that widespread coordination on a national level had taken place. Mayor Jean Quan of Oakland, in a rambling radio interview with the BBC, was kind enough to confirm that some coordination had taken place, letting slip that an informal call between 18 city governments regarding Occupy had taken place on October 10th.

Thanks, Mayor Quan!

Curious about Seattle's possible involvement in that call, Alex-Jon (AJ) Earl, a dedicated Occupy supporter and sometime reader of OneAngryQueer, requested from Mayor McGinn's office all Occupy-related memos and e-mails that had been communicated between the dates of October 15th and November 16th. They released to him a huge batch of documents equaling hundreds of pages of PDF files. He scoured them, and came up with some interesting information. I was pleased to sit down with him last night and examine some of the documentation provided.

For instance, did you know that Mayor Sam Adams spent a considerable amount of time making phone calls personally to other cities in the country regarding the Occupy movement?

An e-mail from mayoral staffer Beth Hester to journalist Christ Grygiel.

Also, a survey that saw little-to-no publicizing was initiated by officials in Philadelphia in order to aggregate information regarding Occupy and the statistics related to each city's occupation:

Reviewing the survey, it asks questions regarding how many arrests were made, whether or not protesters had blocked bridges, and probes how homeless populations had moved in with Occupations. All in all, it was an interesting read. Why was the government of Philadelphia trying to get information about each Occupation? Were they forming a database?

This, as we dug deeper, is not in of itself a scandal. After all, they're just talking about past experiences with and observations of their Occupations, right?

Braden Pence, one of the members of Occupy Seattle's legal team, did further digging through the documents and turned up even more interesting information. After all, AJ requested the documents in order to further research telephone coordination between mayoral staffs addressing the Occupy movement. They asked, how exactly was Mayor McGinn's office involved?

That's when Braden and AJ struck gold: the Mayor's office, thus far, had told the press that they were not invited to participate in Mayor Quan's now-infamous "informal teleconference" coordinated by the United States Conference of Mayors (UCSM). Multiple press inquiries were met with repeated denials once the news broke on the 15th. Mayor McGinn's office, evidently, was swamped with media requests on that day regarding the teleconference:

Please note in this inquiry that Sean Whitcomb, who works in the Seattle Police Department's Office of Public relations, is referenced. He comes up later.

Again and again, the Mayor's office denied involvement with that conference call, and there is no evidence to indicate that they were, in fact, involved. The thing that astounded us, however, is that they made no mention that they were participating in another less-publicized conference call regarding unspecified topics related to the Occupy movements.

The story about Mayor Quan's story broke on the morning of the 15th of November. However, after dating the e-mails, it is now apparent that on the 14th (the day before) correspondence took place in the Mayor's office suggesting the Mayor sit in on a conference call on the 16th, a detail conveniently unmentioned when press inquiries were made.

Note that Shauna Larsen is the City of Seattle's federal liaison based in Washington DC. Tom Cochran is the CEO of the US Conference of Mayors. 

Larsen then recommended that someone from the Mayor's office attend the call:

Unfortunately, Mayor McGinn was unavailable. However, turns out one of his staffers was: 

Ethan Raup is the director of Policy and Operations. Allison Burson is the Mayor's Executive Assistant.

Yes. Ethan can take that call. No problem.

Keep in mind that the original invitation from the USCM to participate in an Occupy teleconference for November 16th was sent out on the 14th, two days prior. Mayor Quan's gaffe that revealed inter-city communications regarding Occupations nationwide was reported on the 15th, and the media requests above were received by the Mayor's office that day at the same time this conference for the 16th was being scheduled. 

Did they technically give the correct answer when asked about the November 10th call? Oh, sure. Did they blithely forget to mention that they were busily scheduling another call coordinated by the USCM to address the issue of the Occupy movement? Definitely.

So, at this point, we were intrigued by the documents buried in countless pages of what amounted to memo spam; letters about permits and sound ordinances that surrounded short communiques scheduling conference calls that had the potential to affect a large and attention-grabbing movement. Why didn't they mention it? 

Whatever their reasons, that wasn't the only thing Braden and AJ found.

Everyone knows who Dorli Rainey is. The 84-year-old former schoolteacher and mayoral candidate, on November 15th (the day everyone was busily calling the Mayor to get a clear story and only getting half an accurate picture), happened to be on-scene during one of Occupy Seattle's protests, and ended up getting pepper-sprayed while standing on a sidewalk. She had the misfortune to be observing the mounting tensions between OS and the Seattle Police Department that night and got a face full of pepper spray as a result. The iconic photo that resulted from that night's events can be found here

In response to the incident (which almost instantly garnered horrific press for the SPD), the mayor began circulating his official apology among staffers to get their input. What's remarkable is that one of the people involved in that chain of e-mails is Sean Whitcomb (remember him from earlier?), a Sergeant in the SPD who works in the Office of Public Relations.  The original, unaltered version of his apology can be found below: 

But Sergeant Whitcomb had some suggestions: 
The perfect person to amend the mayor's apology regarding police brutality: a member of the police department.

In the end, this is what the Mayor released:
I also called in Seattle Police Chief John Diaz and the command staff to review the actions of last night. They agreed that this was not their preferred outcome. Here are the steps we are taking in response, to achieve a better outcome next time: 
• Reviewing with our officers the deployment of pepper spray last night
• Developing a procedure to ensure appropriate commanders are on the ground at these kinds of events.
• Making sure that we have appropriate levels of police resources at protest events.
While the Mayor didn't exactly conform his statement to Whitcomb's advice, it is clear that Mike McGinn altered his apology for the indiscriminate pepper spraying of peaceful protesters by SPD at the urging of... a member of SPD. Who is working for who, exactly? Does the SPD work at the direction of City Hall, or does City Hall form its policy at the behest of the Seattle Police Department?

Unfortunately, we don't have documentation of further communications on these matters. We don't have any e-mails confirming that Ethan Raup actually attended the teleconference nor do we know his thoughts on the call. We don't know what further advice the Mayor's office received from the Seattle Police Department's office of Public Relations. AJ's request for information only covered communications up to November 16th.

Regardless of assumptions and speculations, it is clear that we don't know everything that passes between various departments and mayoral staffers regarding matters related to Occupy Seattle. What was spoken about in that conference call? Why is the Mayor apologizing for police brutality with talking points given to him by the police?

Sounds like it might be time to request more records.


  1. Thanks for the posting. You are on a completely higher level than i am, over at Will have to add you to my pages that I follow.

  2. I am loving this blog! I liked it begin with but now with Occupy this is actually my main source for updates. <3 I lovelovelove the info and also deeply appreciate the work and commitment this takes. You fucking rock.