Occupy Oakland and the militant wing of a movement

Occupiers burn flag

Occupy, like all large and successful social movements, includes people with a broad range of political viewpoints and a very diverse range of action strategies.  While some activists are working to move inside the political system by lobbying or contesting elections, others are trying to escalate the disruption and the conflict.

Occupy Oakland activists tried to take control of a vacant convention center, pledging to move-in to the unused building and turn it into a functioning social center.

Erik K. Arnold reports at Oakland Local that activists envisioning re-establishing an Occupation indoors that could serve as a center for activism and service:

Organizer Adam Jordan outlined the vision of what Occupy Oakland had hoped to accomplish. “The move-in day is hypothetically and hopefully going to be a multi-use center with free school workshops, free food, free meals, and a meeting place to have for Oakland, for the people, by the people. We see the need to help other people. Going through the system has not been working for a lot of people.”

Mayor Jean Quan and local officials ensured that police, wearing riot gear, were prepared to respond quickly and in full force, and avoid the erratic management that had characterized the City’s approach to the first Occupation.  The police were quick to respond with force and arrests (more than 400), and the confrontations continued as activists redirected their efforts to City Hall.  Several Occupiers broke into City Hall and, according to the City, burned flags, broke glass, and damaged property.  Mayor Quan estimated the damage from the Occupation since its onset in millions of dollars.

Mayor Quan has, for months, voiced her support for Occupy’s goals, even as she has been increasingly willing to use police force to counter their efforts.  The Occupiers focused on police conduct, criticizing the City for wasting money on stopping the activists from putting a vacant building to use and doing some good.

The Occupiers staging direct action face the same sorts of challenges as those trying to move into more conventional politics.  First, no organization has exclusive control over an Occupy trademark.  Anyone can claim to be acting in the spirit of Occupy, and whether or not either the people who supported Occupy or actually stayed in the encampments will sign on is an open question.

Second, different tactics demand different resources and appeal to distinct constituencies.  Occupiers running for office need to appeal to majorities, but don’t necessarily demand much of them.  This means a moderation in rhetoric and tactics.  Occupiers who want to seize buildings don’t need such broad support, but depend upon intense commitment and partisans who are ready to take serious risks.

Third, Occupiers trying different strategies for influence encounter authorities in very different ways.  There are clear rules for running for office that channel activists in fairly predictable ways.  They need to collect signatures, can participate in debates, and put poll watchers at voting sites.

Direct action engages another element of government power: the police, who are better armed and better trained than the activists who challenge them.  While the police are bound to rules of engagement and the law (and activists and their lawyers will try to hold them to those strictures), they are not committed to nonviolence.

Fourth, activists compete to define the movement and its concerns to a much broader audience.  Running for office doesn’t usually generate powerful images for the media, and it is often easy to ignore.  Burning a flag, to take another example, makes for a powerful image and projects a vision of Occupy that most Americans are likely to find, uh, unappealing.  While Occupiers will blame Mayor Quan and the police for brutality, they know that many who watch the same videos will blame them instead.

And here’s something else: Social movements do best when there is a connection between the margins and the mainstream, between direct action and institutional politics.  Such connections are extremely difficult to maintain.  Candidates for office and civil disobedients will have to make statements on each other, and it’s hard not to criticize other activists with alternative strategies for being naive or out of touch.

Meanwhile, Occupy Oakland has called for sympathy demonstrations across the country, spreading their message and extending the activist dilemmas far beyond the Bay area.

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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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