Occupy Wall Street is now by all accounts a global movement, but the center of media attention is now focused on the city of Oakland, where the limits and strength of the Occupy movement is being tested like no other place. The movement began as a simple act of peaceful occupation by protesters whom demanded solutions to the problems of income inequality and corporate unaccountability. However, at some point the flame known as Occupy Wall Street was bound to either die out naturally, be stomped out by other forces, or grow into a more potent force creating real change. Right now, Oakland is the crucible in which the Occupy Movement is, for better or worse, being formed.
A week ago the Oakland Police Department tried to effectively end “Occupy Oakland” by charging Frank Ogawa Plaza in riot gear. The protesters were cleared using tear gas and bean bags. The protesters also claimed that police used rubber bullets and flash bang grenades, a charge the police department denied. Over 100 protesters were arrested, and one of them, an Iraq War veteran, was seriously wounded after being struck in the head with some object.
While Frank Ogawa plaza was temporarily “unoccupied,” the police action actually backfired as the public rejected the harsh tactics. In the end, Occupy Oakland gained more public sympathy, and when thousands joined a demonstration for the wounded soldier local politicians relented and allowed Occupy Oakland more freedom.
This week, Occupy Oakland gained the support local unions and commenced to try and start a general strike within the city, having some success. Last night, thousands of protesters marched to the local city port, temporarily shutting down operations at the facility. In many ways this was a significant victory for the movement, as protesters showed that they could do more than just occupy a small piece of land in the middle of a city. Occupy Oakland was beginning to gain support from the larger masses, and flex some economic muscle. The Civil Rights Movement never really took off until it gained support from the larger public. Economic boycotts were key in gaining leverage over local communities to end segregation laws.
At the same time, there were signs that the movement lost discipline last night. Oakland city officials released a statement which read,
“Oakland Police responded to a late night call that protesters had broken into and occupied a downtown building and set several simultaneous fires. The protesters began hurling rocks, explosives, bottles, and flaming objects at responding officers. Several private and municipal buildings sustained heavy vandalism. Dozens of protesters wielding shields were surrounded and arrested.”
One of the protester lamented that the movement had descended into “chaos.” The lack of order presents a real danger for Occupy Oakland. After last week, Occupy Oakland has largely been protected by public opinion. Politicians and police were unwilling to use the same kind of tactics after the public backlash from last week’s incident. However, if the public comes to view Occupy Oakland as “riots” rather than “peaceful protests” then all kinds of police measures become, once again, acceptable. Even worse, the movement could be painted as “extreme” and lose the ability to appeal to a broader public that is ultimately necessary for any peaceful change to occur.