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Occupy’s Growing Pains

February 12, 2012

Last year, I wrote approvingly about the Occupy protests in the Bay Area, New York and across the country, lauding them for refocusing the national discussion from the (idiocy of the) debt ceiling debate to the ever-growing income disparities in the United States and the inequitable political and economic structures that underly those disparities. However, recents events in Oakland show a protest gone awry. In order to continue to promote change for the better, the protestors need to renounce and refrain from violence and vandalism, no matter what the police are doing.

Two Sundays ago, 400 protestors were arrested after a march to protest police brutality turned into a clash between the police and protestors. The protest became violent when the protestors moved to occupy the vacant Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. Eventually, some protestors broke into City Hall and vandalized the building.

When asked about the vandalism, a member of the Occupy Oakland media committee said that, though it “wasn’t something [he] would have done”, he “understood that people were enraged by the brutality they had already seen.” Another protester had this to say: “I’m just saying that 99 percent of the time when violence happens, it’s police who start it. And you have to do what you have to do.” That is not a non-violent protest, and it is not the attitude that will enable Occupy Oakland to create whatever changes it desires. It doesn’t matter who starts the violence; for the protestors to be successful, and for them to enjoy the support of those in the community who believe in their message, they must condemn violence. While I would assume that the majority of protestors do not condone the vandalism and violence – all of the protestors charged with felonies were not from Oakland – that majority cannot escape the taint that those acts place on their movement. If the protest can’t be controlled in its current form, that form must be changed.

The violence is especially unhelpful in light of what else is going on. The protests are preventing Oakland police from protecting the residents elsewhere and costing the city money it can scarcely afford. There has been a spike in gun-related violence recently – 20 shootings and 5 deaths in the past week – and the cost of Occupy Oakland for the city has reached $3 million.

The movement is losing support among the Bay Area community and the violence has created a rift within the movement itself. Chip Johnson, the Chronicle’s East Bay columnist, said the movement in Oakland is “about anarchy”. Some of the protestors, such as Mike Rufo, understand this: “Beating up on each other with the city of Oakland, I don’t see where that’s going. They don’t have deep pockets, either.” Violence and vandalism won’t further the goals of the Occupy movement. They will only reduce the legitimacy and support of the movement. The protestors should recognize that and act accordingly.

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