Off Wall Street and onto the police

A demonstration’s organizers win when media cover their issues as well as their events.  As the events in New York reach a broader audience, they also focus increasingly on policing.  Is this a victory?

Occupy Wall Street has inspired support across the country and drawn locals to events elsewhere in New York City, but the visible focus, always fuzzy, has moved from economic inequality to the police.   On Friday, more than 1,000 people marched on police headquarters in New York, protesting the videotaped pepper spraying of several demonstrators earlier in the week.

Yesterday, more than 1,500 set off across the Brooklyn Bridge; more than 700 people were arrested for blocking traffic when they veered into the traffic lanes.  The demonstrators say they were following the police.  There’s some credible suggestion that they were entrapped.  The New York Times (one of its freelancers was among the arrested) reports confusion, with some demonstrators thinking that the police were protecting them, while others wanted to claim the bridge:

There were no physical barriers, though, and at one point, the marchers began walking up the roadway with the police commanders in front of them – seeming, from a distance, as if they were leading the way. The Chief of Department Joseph J. Esposito, and a horde of other white-shirted commanders, were among them.

After allowing the protesters to walk about a third of the way to Brooklyn, the police then cut the marchers off and surrounded them with orange nets on both sides, trapping hundreds of people, said Mr. Dunn. As protesters at times chanted “white shirts, white shirts,” officers began making arrests, at one point plunging briefly into the crowd to grab a man.

With no authorized leaders, police can’t broker deals with the group, and the mass of demonstrators make their own choices about where to go and what to say without much in the way of guidance.

In the bigger picture, the Occupy Wall Street group, which includes considerable diversity in terms of goals and approaches to social change, can all agree on protesting pepper spray and mass arrests.  The question is whether this focus is good for an emerging movement?

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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