Occupation is a tactic; violence demands innovation

Police and Occupiers in Atlanta and Oakland have engaged in violent confrontations, with the protesters getting the worst of it.  What’s all this mean?  What happens next?

Arrests at Occupy Atlanta

Let’s start at the beginning.  Protesters are occupying Wall Street–and hundreds of other public spaces around the country–to try to get something, although they differ on what.  The original call from Adbusters asked for Occupiers to focus on one demand, and to stay until it was met.  Now supporters suggest a variety of goals, ranging from drawing attention to economic and political inequality (score a check mark) to building a new kind of democratic political life from the ground up (more elusive).  Regardless, the Occupation was a means, not the end itself.

Local officials have varied motives for wanting to end the Occupations.  Surely, some don’t like the politics.  They also may not like the mess, the wear and tear on public facilities, the increased costs for police overtime, and the seemingly omnipresent threat of disruption.   But clearing them out isn’t simple or easy.  When New York’s Mayor Bloomberg gave notice of intent to clean Zuccotti Park, thousands of people, including members of several unions, poured into the site to defend the Occupation.  Brookfield Office Properties and/or the mayor backed off, and someone must have realized that the costs of using police to clear the area with mass arrests were just too high.

Officials in Oakland and Atlanta watched and learned something: they didn’t give much notice.  Late last night in Atlanta, police gave Occupiers who didn’t want to be arrested time to clear out, then hauled off the 50 plus demonstrators who remained.  Occupy Atlanta massed at the Courthouse, where the protesters were released on $100 signature bond.  Meanwhile, Woodruff Park is blocked off and Occupy Atlanta is planning a response.

Oakland was worse.  Early yesterday morning, well before dawn, police in riot gear cleared a few dozen Occupiers and their tents out of Frank Ogawa Plaza.  They set up a chain link fence around the park, and kept people away from the vigorous cleaning effort that started afterward.  Some of the protesters remained throughout the day, parking across the street, and a wide range of people and organizations issued statements condemning the closure of

Tear gas at Occupy Oakland

the Occupation.  By late afternoon, large numbers of people began to mass in an effort to take back the park, with at least 1,000 demonstrators assembling.  Police used tear gas, batons, and bean bag rounds (at least) in dispersing the crowd, and the demonstrators fought back, reportedly throwing rocks and breaking windows.  Occupy Oakland wants to take the park back.

The Occupy effort now enters a new phase.  All along, it’s been clear that police in most cities have the capacity to clear the Occupations whenever they were ordered to do so.  The demonstrators everywhere have consistently espoused an ethic of non-violence, but certainly not quiescence.  They’re not equipped to fight police effectively, even if they wanted to do so, but savvy public officials have been wary of …well, exactly what happened.

But what’s next?  While Occupiers have committed to resurrecting their camps, focusing on the Occupations now appears as a distraction from the claims that animated the movement in the first place.  Police action will intensify the commitments of some of the demonstrators, but some large portion of the 50-60 percent of Americans who express support for the movement are going to be reluctant to go to their downtowns and fight the police who, by many accountings, are part of the 99 percent anyway.  Meanwhile, be assured that critics of Occupy are downloading images and videotape furiously to deploy in their ongoing efforts to marginalize the effort to talk about inequality.

Occupy, or at least the broader emergent movement, needs to find new tactics for advancing its efforts.  I suspect some Occupations will remain for quite some time, but activists have to offer supporters other things to do in support.  The movement needs to innovate and diversify.  A few weeks ago, I noted the necessity of having an “exit strategy”, so that Occupy could continue as something larger than the Occupations.  This is how a movement grows, and it means bringing the core issues, inequality and justice, back to the front of the discussion.  Police action in Atlanta and Oakland has forced the issue: an effective movement can’t be only about building encampments in urban parks.

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About David S. Meyer

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