A local Occupy protest of the Verizon store in Pantops, planned as part of a national day to “Shut Down the Corporations,” turned into a police exercise Wednesday, thanks in part to a federal initiative to share information between law enforcement agencies.
At least 20 members of the Albemarle County Police Department were on site as 25 local members of Occupy protested Verizon’s contributions to the American Legislative Exchange Council.
“We were setting up on the sidewalk there on the corner, and three officers and a corporate security guard came over from the Verizon building,” explained Tim Davis, one of protest organizers. “The lead officer, Lieutenant Todd Hopwood, informed me of the rules about staying off the property and such, but then went on to tell me that we shouldn’t be alarmed if there were lots of extra police, and fire personnel, and several other entities present. He said it was all part of a training exercise against possible future ‘civil disturbances.’”
Sergeant Darrell Byers, spokesperson for the ACPD, said his department got word of the Occupy protests–which were held in over 70 cities across the country on–from the Virginia Fusion Center, before deciding to use the event as a way to train its officers to deal with large scale civil disobedience. The Virginia Fusion Center is a partnership between the Virginia State Police and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management created in conjunction with a federal initiative led by the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to share information relevant to the National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan.
According to Byers, two officers, including Lieutenant Hopwood, made contact with the protesters gathered outside the Verizon store, while the rest remained removed from the action. Members of the Albemarle County Fire Department and Emergency Management also participated in the training.
“We did try to coordinate this as a regional effort, so we did invite members of the fire department and emergency management, because we wanted to practice should we run into a large scale situation to make sure we were properly trained and would have a proper response to civil disobedience,” Byers said.
Davis said the officers he made contact with told him they had monitored the protesters’ Facebook page and arrived with detailed information about their plans. He expressed dismay at the level of police involvement in an exercise of free speech.
“The protest was a success, but I find the scale of police involvement at such an innocuous event very troubling,” Davis said. “Why are we paying taxes not only to be spied upon, but also for the excessive display of the cities’ resources, and all for the benefit of this corporation who hasn’t paid a single dime in federal taxes for three years? Why do we let the Albemarle police become Verizon’s corporate security guards? Let them hire their own. With all these kickbacks from the government, I’m certain they can afford it.”
Byers called the training a success and said the ACPD officers on site were there to protect the protesters, Verizon, and the owners of the property.
"More importantly we were there to ensure that they were peacefully assembled, that they weren’t bothered in that regard, and that Verizon would be able to conduct business along with their demonstration,” Byers said.