January 28th, 2012, from the streets of Oakland.
Update on the week after:
The local media backlash after last Saturday's mass arrests and acts of vandalism was scathing, and they painted the Occupy movement in an extremely bad light. Message of inequality? No, this has turned into a message about a war with the police, the roots of which go back decades in these parts. The media tallied up the cost to the city, they tallied up the 911 calls that the OPD couldn't answer right away because they were dealing with the Occupy people (this story in the NYT about a suicide at the Port of Oakland that wasn't attended to for 12 hours was a particularly chilling example), and, lost in all the drama are the questions about the way this was handled by authorities - which is disturbing on many levels.
Charges that at first ranged from "unlawful assembly", which strikes me as unconstitutional (is there such a thing?) turned into "failure to disperse" - and I can tell you first hand that there were NO cops around when that crowd left Ogawa and marched to the places they were "kettled". I even tweeted it because I found it odd at the time. They could have stopped them from taking the street in the first place; instead they swarmed in tactical manner that circled and trapped protesters on the way, and then they threw tear gas and flash-bangs at them. It's no wonder people would panic and turn hostile.
I would testify to this in court - I never, at any time, heard an order to "disperse". Not at Ogawa, not on the brief time I followed the street march down Broadway/Telegraph, not at the park on 19th, where protesters broke down the fence and escaped the kettle. The police were swift and silent, and the discipline at how they moved tells me that this was the plan all along - arrest as many as you can, doesn't matter what an individual is doing at the time. It was the act of a police force stretched thin, budget cuts and the recession taking its toll on the resources of the city, and someone in upper management has decided to deal with the citizens as if they were an invading army rather than members of the community expressing an opinion.
All that being said, there were acts of vandalism along the way on that night, but that was a minority of people that was moving with the crowd. There is a militant element that has taken up the banner of "Occupy" in their name, and now the things they are doing are labeled as "Occupy" - and that is where a leaderless movement falls apart. Various stories have seen this peaceful/non-peaceful debate come to the forefront now, and last night, the people who marched against the police told "peaceful" protesters to stay away - they mean to go to war with the cops. You've been warned.
So they did. About 70 of them. Sounds like the cops were ready this time, but then again, they didn't have thousands of people they needed to kettle.
Question now is: Will Occupy move to either reign in or denounce these acts that are being done in its name? Do they want Occupy to be about economic inequality and the excess of the 1%, or do they want the message to become about a war against the authorities? In a way, the defiance against the police does stem from inequality, but, you are going to lose the effectiveness of the ultimate message if the public thinks you're a bunch of young radical troublemakers who want to destroy property and spit on the flag. And then you've lost the war.
Not sure where this goes from here. Most people are not going to want to be involved with the violent element (myself included), and the numbers that show up for these things will continue to drop. But, if the national movement picks up in the spring when warmer weather comes, it could grow again in Oakland as well - and we do this dance all over again.
What is happening in Oakland goes a lot deeper than Occupy. The troubles that plague the city started well before it was wrapped in the Occupy name. I like this area, problems and all, and I hope that they resolve to work and heal the community in a peaceful and constructive manner. There is a lot of good here, and it would be a shame to see this wonderful place continue to be featured to the nation in such a way.
Update: The AP article on last night emphasizes the peaceful protesters, mentions nothing about the flag or the statements in the local media I mentioned above. Interesting.