The politics of deflection; Occupy and local politics

While most of the physical confrontation of the nearly two months of Occupy protests has been between demonstrators and local governments, particularly police, the conflicts aren’t very well connected to the substance of the grievances.  It’s not clear that mayors and city councilors can do much more than allow the demonstrations to continue.  And many local authorities say they support the broad claims about inequality.  Maybe the blame lies elsewhere.  After all, Congress has stalled a bill that would have helped local governments keep teachers and police on the job, even as states and cities endure ongoing budget crises.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has dismissed the Occupy Wall Street effort as misdirected, arguing that the activists should blame Congress for pushing lenders to expand home ownership by granting mortgages to people with poor prospects for paying them off.  Even after you dismiss Mayor Bloomberg’s analysis of the financial meltdown (see Mike Konczal for help with this), it’s hard to argue that regulation isn’t a better remedy for corporate greed than moral suasion directed at Wall Street.  The federal government has a much greater capacity to respond to concerns about inequality and injustice than the City Halls in New York, Irvine, or …Oakland.

So Occupy Oakland and Mayor Jean Quan may be taking each other off the hook in cooperating on today’s general strike.  Mayor Quan made allowances for city employees to take time off and participate, and announced, “I am working with the police chief to make sure that the pro-99 percent activists — whose cause I support — will have the freedom to get their message across without the conflict that marred last week’s events.

As Mayor Quan has tried to align herself with the protesters, allowing the Occupy protest to return to Ogawa Plaza, the police think they’ve been hung out to dry.  On the eve of the strike, the Oakland Police Officer’s Association issued an open letter:

…We, too, are the 99% fighting for better working conditions, fair treatment and the ability to provide a living for our children and families….

As your police officers, we are confused.

On Tuesday, October 25th, we were ordered by Mayor Quan to clear out the encampments at Frank Ogawa Plaza and to keep protesters out of the Plaza. We performed the job that the Mayor’s Administration asked us to do, being fully aware that past protests in Oakland have resulted in rioting, violence and destruction of property.

Then, on Wednesday, October 26th, the Mayor allowed protesters back in – to camp out at the very place they were evacuated from the day before.

To add to the confusion, the Administration issued a memo on Friday, October 28th to all City workers in support of the “Stop Work” strike scheduled for Wednesday, giving all employees, except for police officers, permission to take the day off.

That’s hundreds of City workers encouraged to take off work to participate in the protest against “the establishment.” But aren’t the Mayor and her Administration part of the establishment they are paying City employees to protest? Is it the City’s intention to have City employees on both sides of a skirmish line?…

Meanwhile, a message has been sent to all police officers: Everyone, including those who have the day off, must show up for work on Wednesday. This is also being paid for by Oakland taxpayers. Last week’s events alone cost Oakland taxpayers over $1 million.

The Mayor and her Administration are beefing up police presence for Wednesday’s work strike they are encouraging and even “staffing,” spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars for additional police presence – at a time when the Mayor is also asking Oakland residents to vote on an $80 parcel tax to bail out the City’s failing finances.

If Mayor Quan has lost the police, it’s doubtful that it’s helped her gain the support of the Occupiers, who will remember last week’s bloody evacuation.

There are a lot of problems here.  The most obvious one is that the officials who are responding to the Occupy campaigns around the country, with more and less sympathy and skill, can do very little to address the issues the animate the protests.  Local activists work hard to get control of city governments, and then find that their hands are tied in all sorts of ways.

The federal design of American governments produces numerous units of governance to rail against and to absorb the wrath of citizens, but gives them precious little capacity to respond in meaningful ways.  Activists face a shell game, looking under government seals for levers actually connected to power.

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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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