Nearly a year after Occupy Buffalo protesters camped out in Niagara Square, they have discovered that the Coast Guard was monitoring their activities, according to documents obtained last week through a Freedom of Information request.
"Everybody thinks FBI, CIA, but no one thinks Coast Guard," said Michael Kuzma, a lawyer who has worked with the organization.
The Coast Guard, aware of the unrest in December in Oakland, Calif., where Occupy protesters targeted ports, was monitoring public websites for planned activities but found low or negligible threats to its interests, the documents show.
"Our concern was ensuring safety, ensuring the integrity of our infrastructure," Lt. David Connor, public affairs officer for the Ninth District, said in an interview Monday.
As part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard investigates domestic and international threats pertaining to coasts, ports and waterways.
"We're interested in anything that threatens America's maritime infrastructure, and those threats can come in any direction," Connor said.
Occupy Buffalo, inspired by Occupy Wall Street, which champions progressive policies and is concerned with economic inequity, filed a request for documents relating to the protest movement with the Department of Homeland Security, which passed the request on to its member agencies.
In response, the Coast Guard sent 13 pages of memos on surveillance of the group.
"I have detected no indication on the websites of any animosity toward the USCG," reads one memo, the date of which was redacted.
Another memo, dated Jan. 20, noted anticipated actions in Oakland, as well as Longview, Wash., where port activity already had been disrupted or halted. The author writes that there is no evidence for planning of "solidarity" actions in Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo and Rochester, or even that the groups were aware of what was being planned on the West Coast.
Though the Occupy Buffalo movement was centered in Niagara Square, its presence in a city such as Buffalo, a major access point to the Great Lakes, caught the agency's attention, Connor said.
"It is absolutely no surprise," Occupy Buffalo organizer John Washington said of the documents, speculating that other federal agencies probably have files as thick as "books" on some of the higher-profile protesters.
The encampment is long gone from Niagara Square, but for Occupy Buffalo, a form of the movement endures.
Monday, about 20 Occupy Buffalo protesters were in New York City for Occupy Wall Street's first anniversary.
Last week, about 16 Occupy members filled Common Council Chambers in City Hall to urge lawmakers to move city funds out of accounts owned by JPMorgan Chase. And last month, they made a plea for the city to develop a policy banning surveillance drones.
On Oct. 5, three days before Occupy Buffalo's one-year anniversary of its first encampment, protesters will return to Niagara Square.
The group has applied for a permit, but Washington doesn't have high hopes that it will be granted, given the hostile nature of the protesters' eviction by the city Feb. 2.
Other Occupy activities have included a protest at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station during a visit by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, calling for the base to be transformed into a solar array.
A lawyer for the group filed a lawsuit in late August seeking information about the FBI's surveillance of the group.
Washington estimates that the group has 30 to 40 active organizers and 100 people who are willing to show up to events. "Personally, I think we'll be active in Common Council, pushing the city to be a more progressive city," he said.
Washington cites the city's decision in May to transfer $45 million from JPMorgan Chase to First Niagara Financial Group as a victory, noting that it was something the group had been pushing for months.
Occupy Buffalo has been involved in economic and environmental issues, as well, registering its opposition to hydraulic fracturing and tax breaks for businesses. The group is arriving in Niagara Square three days before its one-year anniversary to honor the memory of Joe Fitzpatrick, a loyal Occupier who fed the protesters and recently died. Oct. 5 would have been his 26th birthday, Washington said.