Police Crackdown Effort at #OccupyOakland Raises Bigger Questions About Movement Evolution

Most readers by now no doubt have heard about the aggressive police crackdown at Occupy Oakland on Tuesday, in which police critically wounded Iraq war vet Scott Olsen while using tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades to clear Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. The footage right before the tear gassing began does not show any signs of provocation by the protestors, but other reports say that a small group which most believe were anarchists rather than OWS members, had engaged in aggressive actions earlier.

Like many of the police efforts to rein in Occupations, this one seems to have backfired. The major of Oakland faced a difficult press conference earlier today and as reported by Mother Jones, backed down considerably:

It was a peaceful night in Oakland. At a press conference, Mayor Jean Quan promised a “light police presence” for the next few days, to allow an opportunity for “dialogue” with the protesters.

But there were still efforts at containment. Tweets indicate that the BART service to San Francisco was closed, blocking efforts of Occupy Oakland to join Occupy San Francisco. There was an effort to organize a march across the bridge, but that seemed to fizzle out. The GA did vote through a general strike for November 2. Given that no occupation yet has a large turnout relative to the local population, this call for a general strike may well produce an underwhelming follow through and could weaken the perceived clout of the movement. The flip side is that a one city event could also be seen as an outlier and may prove to be a useful learning experience.

The New York Times raises the broader issue of friction between some of the more entrenched occupations and local government. The cities do have some legitimate concerns, such as vermin and sanitary facilities (although the latter are often self-created by denying the protestors the ability to bring in enough port-a-potties). But at least in New York, the densely-packed Zuccotti Park now gets weekly cleanings thanks to the eviction threat by the owners, Brookfield Properties. But the flip side is that the New York City occupation illustrates how much it takes to run a city in a city. There are a large number of committees involved in running the encampment, and it is surprisingly bureaucratic for what would seem to be a relatively small operation.

But the bigger issues between the protestors and their reluctant municipal hosts is likely to be philosophical, even if the complaints are voiced in terms of the group’s impact on safety and the quality of life. OWS encampments are a visual poke in the eye of authority, whether or not that is their intent. They prove that the government has been forced to cede control of a patch of public space to citizens, and the order that they set up is not the sort that urban planners or city fathers would endorse (I really wish one of the Occupations would put up geodesic domes. They are quick to assemble, are a nice aesthetic fit with a lot of settings, and might make for some visual branding). Even though I find Zuccotti Park far more pleasant than street fairs, the “dirty hippie” branding comes less from the people themselves than from the inevitable clutter of camping in an urban setting. A report in the New York Times describes an almost comical annoyance by some mayors on being invaded by this group that plays by what they see as completely unorthodox rules:

Across the bay, meanwhile, in the usually liberal environs of San Francisco, city officials there had also seemingly hit their breaking point, warning several hundred protesters that they were in violation of the law by camping at a downtown site after voicing concerns about unhealthy and often squalid conditions in the camp, including garbage, vermin and human waste.

In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed ordered the police to arrest more than 50 protesters early Wednesday and remove their tents from a downtown park after deciding that the situation had become unsafe, despite originally issuing executive orders to let them camp there overnight.

And like many of his mayoral colleagues nationwide, Mr. Reed openly expressed frustration with the protesters’ methods.

“The attitude I have seen here is not consistent with any civil rights protests I have seen in Atlanta,” Mr. Reed said in an interview, “and certainly not consistent with the most respected forms of civil disobedience.”

And given the number of people involved, and the lack of internal policing, it’s easy for critics to take specific misdeeds and try to depict them as widespread. In NYC, Brookfield Properties complained of drug use. I did smell a whiff of marijuana in one pass through the park, but I smell that at least as often in my staid and not at all densely populated Upper East Side neighborhood. And at an earlier General Assembly, a earlier “no drugs” rule enforcement discussion came up, which I’m told precipitated a very long discussion with one party (I believe this very debate led to a change in the consensus threshold being changed from 100% to 90%).

Yet the New York Times reports that reports of illegal substance use are being touted to depict the occupiers as criminals:

On Tuesday, for example, the National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated a report that two people living in the Occupy Boston tent with a young child had been arrested for selling heroin, and paired it with comments from Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic contender for Senate from Massachusetts, in which she said that her work as a consumer advocate had helped inspire the Occupy movement.

“She’s not only standing with those breaking the law and being arrested,” the committee’s release read, “She’s actually taking credit for them.”

It isn’t surprising that the Democrats’ efforts to take advantage of OWS are getting awkward. I’m not sure what they were thinking. Perhaps they assumed they’d die out or be coopted fasted. But the early police incidents in New York that helped put the movement on the map, the macing of a group of women and mass arrests on Brooklyn Bridge, were proof of friction with the authorities virtually from the get go from a group that is generally pretty tame in its behavior. How did they fail to anticipate that rough encounters would increase disproportionately as the number of participants grew? And that’s before you get to the issue that the New York Times raises, of provocateurs (some aggressive leftist groups as well as probable plants) who aren’t representative of regular OWS participants:

Protest organizers said many of the troublemakers in Oakland and elsewhere were not part of the Occupy movement, but rather were anarchists or others with simply with a taste for mayhem.

“The people throwing things at police and being violent are not part of our ‘99 Percent’ occupation,” said Momo Aleamotua, 19, a student from Oakland. “They’re not us, and they’re not welcome.”

Even if this is true (likely), I’m not certain how OWS can say someone is “not us” with what amounts to an open membership policy.

So OWS appears to have matured quickly from a disruptive, novel phenomenon to what at least some cities see as a cancer-like challenge to their authority. So it should not be surprising that the ongoing power struggle sometimes escalates into open hostility.

The real danger to OWS will come when there is an eruption that can clearly be pinned on the movement rather than the police, particularly if bystanders are hurt or private property is damaged in a serious way (say a fire breaks out or windows get smashed). That will play into well established stereotypes and be far too easy for media outlets to amplify. I’m sure the OWS leadership is well aware of this danger but awareness may not be sufficient to prevent it from happening.

Update 6:50 AM. Hhhm. The danger of being tagged with violence or the threat thereof may come with the act of assembling in a large enough mass. Mother Jones (linked at the top of the post) reported the evening just past in Oakland as peaceful. The New York Times, in a 4:23 AM update to the story (I had pulled up the earlier version and drafted my post from that) gives a very different account. The Times lays its claims to post official protest actions but I am curious as to whether the aggression was as strong as it is depicted here:

The official protest broke up around 10 p.m. local time, peacefully, with protesters dancing, carrying American flags and generally celebrating what seemed to be a well-attended demonstration of some 3,000 people.

Shortly after the end of that protest, however, hundreds of demonstrators began to wander down Broadway, Oakland’s central thoroughfare, in an unplanned march. The Oakland police, who had been noticeably absent during the protests at City Hall, began donning protective riot gear as demonstrators upped their rhetoric and attempted to board San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit trains. Several entrances to the BART system were closed, agitating protesters and adding to an increasingly tense atmosphere in Oakland, which had exploded in violence a mere 24 hours before.

The impromptu march continued west toward Oakland’s waterfront as it became more apparent that there was little central organizing structure.

About 10:25 p.m., a crowd of a thousand protesters arrived at Oakland’s police headquarters and began milling about. Some attempted to put garbage cans in the street, while others beseeched the crowd to remain peaceful. The Oakland police manned the front door of their headquarters and maintained a loose perimeter.

I looked at #OccupyOakland on Twitter and saw only the report of the frustration at the BART stations being closed and a plan that never came to fruition to march to San Francisco. Any reader reports related to the later New York Times account (which considerably ups the danger quotient of the story) very much appreciated.

This post originally appeared at naked capitalism and is reproduced with permission.