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UC Davis pepper spray, smear tactics: 'Occupy' protests face rougher response

A pepper spray incident at UC Davis and reports of a smear campaign by a PR firm with ties to the financial industry indicate that the Occupy Wall Street movement is meeting an increasingly tough response from opponents and from police.

By Staff writer / November 19, 2011

University of California Davis police officers, Ryan Terry, left, and Manny Guerrero, right, watch as students remove their tents from the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Davis, Calif., Friday, Nov. 18.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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Two months after the Occupy Wall Street protests began, the movement's nationwide expression appears to be meeting an increasingly tough response from opponents and from police.

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Two cases in point:

• In an incident Friday, police at the University of California, Davis, appeared to use pepper spray on a group of protesters seated quietly on a paved area on the campus.

• On Saturday, MSNBC reported that a Washington lobbying firm with ties to the financial industry has proposed an $850,000 plan to promote "negative narratives" about Occupy Wall Street and politicians who might express sympathy for the protests.

MSNBC said it had obtained a memo in which the lobbying firm pitches the negative campaign to the American Bankers Association, saying it could help the industry avoid fallout if the protests result in a Congress that is less friendly to Wall Street.

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The pepper-spray incident was not the first involving police and the Occupy protesters, but it stirred immediate public outrage.

"Shame on you," onlookers shouted as one officer displayed a bottle and then sprayed its contents toward the faces of activists who appear in video footage to be seated passively with arms interlocked. Officers then moved the protesters off the pavement.

Calling the video "chilling," UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi said on Saturday she is forming a task force made up of faculty, students, and staff to review the events surrounding the protests a day earlier. Ms. Katehi made the announcement in a message to the campus.

Police have said protesters were warned repeatedly beforehand that force would be used if they didn't move.

The incident comes as officials are weighing how long to allow protesters to camp on city lands – and the related question of police tactics. The U.C. Davis video added fuel to media coverage critical of authorities.

"I may be a critic of Occupy Wall Street, but the police are public servants, and public servants have no business treating the public this way," wrote blogger E.D. Kain at Forbes.com on Saturday.

As to the apparent "opposition research" proposal against the wider Occupy movement, MSNBC producers Jonathan Larsen and Ken Olshansky wrote on the station's website Saturday that the memo  came from the lobbying firm Clark Lytle Geduldig & Cranford.

They quote the memo warning about the impact the protests could have on the financial industry, if Democratic and Republican lawmakers become less sympathetic to Wall Street firms (major campaign contributors) as a result.

“This would mean more than just short-term political discomfort for Wall Street," the producers quote the memo as saying. "It has the potential to have very long-lasting political, policy and financial impacts on the companies in the center of the bullseye.”

One focus of the letter's proposed opposition-research efforts, MSNBC said, would be to find information on people or groups providing financial support to the protests, and perhaps show "cynical" political motives behind the funding.

In the 2011-12 election cycle, financial firms (including insurance and real estate) are listed by the website Open Secrets as donating more to political campaigns than any other industry. The amount totals some $123 million as of Oct. 31, with Republicans getting 55 percent of the funds.

Anger at banking bailouts is one point of apparent common ground between the Occupy movement and the tea party on the political right.

Reuters reported that the lobbying firm did not respond to requests for comment, but that a spokesman for the American Bankers Association said the group, after receiving the proposal, "chose not to act on it in any way."

In the pepper-spray video footage, it was not immediately clear what agency the officer who used the pepper spray represents. Officers from UC Davis and other UC campuses as well as the city of Davis responded to the protest, according to Annette Spicuzza, UC Davis police chief.

Protesters were apparently warned on Friday that their tents, set up Thursday, violated university policies.

Katehi said she is asking for a review of the university's policies regarding encampments to see if they allow students enough flexibility to express themselves.

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