Violence Gone Viral and the Lessons of Occupy Oakland

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Civil disobedience is easy to embrace from a distance. Few Americans condemned the thousands who gathered peacefully in violation of the law across the Arab world this spring. But when it starts happening on your doorstep, clogging up your streets or bringing drum circles to your place of work, it’s another matter altogether. And so mayors and police departments across the U.S. now face a dilemma. What do they do about the encampments—symbolic Hoovervilles of a kind—that have sprung up in city squares across the country, in violation of local ordinances?

First, they should learn the lessons of Oakland mayor Jean Quan.

If you have not already heard, something went horribly wrong on the streets of Oakland on Tuesday night. Police ordered the Occupy Oakland protesters to disperse from a city square, threatening chemical agents if their orders were ignored. The crowd there was not entirely peaceful. A touble-making minority threw projectiles at the police—paint, vinegar, possibly glass. But the response from Oakland’s troubled police department was a disaster. Below is a video, made by someone at the protests, of the low point of the night. A protester, who happened to be an Iraq War veteran, was bleeding from the head, having been hit by a projectile of unknown origin. (In addition to rocks being thrown at the time, the police fired non-lethal beanbag rounds and tear gas canisters.) Other protesters ran to his aid. A police officer tossed an explosive deterrant into the crowd. It detonated near to the wounded protester’s head.

The effect has been devastating for the local mayor, who was already facing a nascent recall effort. In the age of social media, such incidents have enormous viral potential. Nearly a day after the event, Quan, who has gone through several police chiefs in recent months, issued a statement of near complete contrition. “We have decided to have a minimal police presence at the plaza for the short term and build a community effort to improve communications and dialogue with the demonstrators,” she wrote. “I want to express our deepest concern for all of those who were injured last night, and we are committed to ensuring this does not happen again. Investigations of certain incidents are underway and I will personally monitor them. We understand and recognize the impact this event has had on the community and acknowledge what has happened. We cannot change the past, but we are committed to doing better. Most of us are part of the 99%, and understand the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. We are committed to honoring their free speech right.”

The violent response on Tuesday night, however, is likely to be long remembered in the Bay Area, where support for the protests, already substantial, has noticeably grown since the encounter. The rally on Wednesday night in the same square, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, numbered as many as 3,000. A general strike has been called in Oakland for Nov. 2. This sort of response has happened before, of course. Early in the Occupy Wall Street protests, a video circulated showing two young, female protesters, peacefully contained within a police barricade, being sprayed with pepper spray. The New York police officer responsible for the incident has since been transferred to another post.

The lesson of both incidents is clear. While other municipalities have succeeded in clearing protesters from their streets with few incidents, any violent response to protesters will spread quickly through the media and online. Thursday morning, on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown, Chuck Todd asked White House adviser Stephanie Cutter for President Obama’s reaction to the violence in Oakland. She dodged, saying she had not spoken with the President. But that will not be the last question asked.

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