Occupy Wall Street’s Law-And-Order Problem

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Mary Altaffer / AP

Police officers disperse Occupy Wall Street protesters near the encampment at Zuccotti Park in New York, early Nov. 15, 2011. Protesters were told they could return, but without sleeping bags, tarps or tents.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg left no question about his reasons for ordering a surprise overnight raid on Zuccotti Park to clear protesters after weeks of occupation. “The park was becoming a place where people came not to protest, but rather to break laws, and in some cases, to harm others,” Bloomberg said in a statement. In other words, law and order trumped the protesters’ First Amendment rights.

Historians might see some striking echoes to this line, which has been used in recent weeks to justify the clearing of protesters in Oakland, Berkeley, Atlanta, Denver and other cities. Though most of the Occupy protesters are too young to remember, law and order was once a dominant–and winning–rallying cry in national politics. And if history follows familiar patterns, progressives and Democrats have reason to worry about the current path of the protest movement they have championed.

On October 3, 1966, The New York Times ran the following headline: “GOP Will Press Racial Disorders As Election Issue.” The story that followed noted a recent national poll by the Republican National Committee that found, GOP officials believed, clear evidence that “concern over riots and racial disorders” were riling the American electorate. “I think the Republicans ought to take the strongest possible position and pledge to remove this curse,” former President Dwight Eisenhower was quoted as saying in the piece, in reference to increased civil unrest and crime.

Historians argue that concern over the turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s–the Watts riots in California, the Democratic convention in Chicago, the shootings at Kent State–gave a boost to Richard Nixon’s victorious presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972. As Nixon said publicly at the time, “Our judges have gone too far in weakening the peace forces as against the criminal forces.” Rick Perlstein’s excellent history of the era, Nixonland, contains another nugget of what Nixon was doing behind the scenes. In 1966, Nixon confided in his protégé, Robert Finch, then running for Lieutenant Governor of California, “I want everyone in California to believe that Glenn Johnson [Finch’s Democratic opponent] was responsible for Watts.”

Which brings us to the present day. Democratic leaders and progressive institutions have rushed to voice support for the Occupy protests around the country. But in recent weeks, the news from Occupy has dimmed, as radical elements have turned peaceful demonstrations violent. In other cases, as in Berkeley last week, baton-wielding authorities have used violence against non-violent protesters to prevent the establishment of new encampments. This week, the UC Board of Regents cancelled a meeting in San Francisco after police advised that potentially violent activists were planning a disruption.

Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, who is as responsible for starting Occupy as anyone, has recently issued a call for protesters to switch strategies as winter approaches by abandoning the permanent camps in favor of other forms of protest. “The other side is owning the narrative right now. People are talking about drugs and criminals at OWS,” he said in a recent interview.

How will the narrative be used to hurt Democrats? Take a look at this spot from Crossroads GPS, the independent conservative group working to elect Republicans. It was released last week.

It is a gross miscasting of the Occupy protesters, anchored in an easily discredited opinion piece by pollster Douglas Schoen. But the imagery and language may prove effective, especially if the violence continues to spread. It is, after all, the imagery and language of another era of American politics. And it has worked before.

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