Fringe movement 'Occupy' faces challenge from violent fringe...What?!
November 13th, 2011
By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
As winter closes in on its open-air encampments and public attention prepares to move on to the next big thing, the Occupy movement faces a dilemma: Conflict and confrontation, which have helped make it a national phenomenon, also can derail it.
The scene this month in Oakland, where a fraction of protesters fought with riot police, trashed stores, set barricades and started fires, reminded activists and historians that a movement suffers if conflicts with authority turn violent.
"For the past century, violence has almost always been counterproductive in American politics. The anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements were strongest when they were faithful to their non-violent roots," says Maurice Isserman, a veteran of both efforts and co-author of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s.
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Political analysts and historians — and many Occupy adherents — agree that violence usually eclipses a movement's message and alienates potential mainstream support.
But they say that while public opinion condemns violence's initiators, it sympathizes with its victims. And conflict that stops short of violence creates cohesion within a movement and attracts attention outside it.
The trick is to go only to the brink, according to Tom Juravich, a labor activist and historian: "If militancy stays within bounds, there's mileage to be gained. But not if you hurt people or destroy property."
Occupy Wall Street, the encampment that started it all on Sept. 17 in New York, was ignored or derided by much of the news media until a police commander was videotaped pepper-spraying two female protesters, and about 700 protesters were arrested for allegedly trying to block the Brooklyn Bridge.
Suddenly, all the talk was of income inequality and "the 99%" without clout on Wall Street or in Washington for whom Occupy claims to speak.
Similarly, Occupy Oakland got noticed more a last month after protester Scott Olsen, an ex-Marine and Iraq War veteran, suffered a fractured skull when hit by a projectile as police and protesters clashed.
"Conflict gets people's attention," says Caroline Pincus, a 53-year-old San Franciscan who marched in Occupy Oakland's non-violent "general strike" that briefly closed the nation's fifth-busiest port. "It's put the story on the front page. It's given permission for much more coverage of income disparity."
In Oakland, a splinter group that included some masked anarchists broke off from the main protest Nov. 2 after a day of peaceful protests. Police made more than 80 arrests.
Violence undercuts public sympathy for the protesters' cause, says Terry Madonna, a polling expert at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. He wonders whether Occupy, a movement that has no publicly identified leaders or hierarchy, can stop such violence within or outside its ranks.
Although there have been other clashes — dozens were arrested last week during Occupy demonstrations at the University of California-Berkeley campus, as authorities twice clashed with protesters trying to set up encampments — the vast majority of Occupy members have been non-violent.
But Occupy Oakland's slow, consensus style of decision-making hampered its ability to promptly and definitively rebut the violent fringe's claim that it was merely protecting protesters from police. Some Occupiers argued or fought with the violent protesters.
Scott Older, a Machinists union organizer at the march, says he told young men trying to break a bank window to stop. And some Occupy demonstrators protected a Whole Foods store from attack — even though many regard the company as anti-union.
For all its pitfalls, confrontation could prove increasingly alluring to the Occupy movement. Encampments will be hard to maintain as the weather gets colder; the news media's focus will shift; and the public's attention span is short.
But Isserman and Juravich say a movement that becomes addicted to conflict to advance itself is doomed.
"What makes a movement is the slow, steady work of organization and education," Isserman says.
"Occupy Wall Street is an act of political street theater, and at some point it has to go to the next level," he adds. "But it can't get there with violence."