Civil Society, Economy & Trade, Financial Crisis, Headlines, North America

U.S.: Divide Emerges over Bounds of Occupy Protests

Judith Scherr

OAKLAND, California, Nov 13 2011 (IPS) - On Nov. 2, the day of Occupy Oakland’s General Strike, the streets were filled with chants and music and the sounds of people speaking in the many tongues of Oakland residents.

A member of Occupy Oakland attempts to defuse a confrontation with police on Oct. 25, the afternoon after the first eviction. Credit: John Jernegan/IPS

A member of Occupy Oakland attempts to defuse a confrontation with police on Oct. 25, the afternoon after the first eviction. Credit: John Jernegan/IPS

There was poetry, a children’s brigade, uplifting speeches and triumphal marches that shut down banks, major downtown arteries and the nation’s fifth-busiest port.

Protesters almost believed the 99 percent could triumph over the greedy one percent.

The day was mostly peaceful.

But in the afternoon, black-clad protesters wearing bandanas shattered bank windows and spray-painted storefronts, and late in the evening they built bonfires in the streets and tried to occupy an empty building. There were arrests; one protester was hospitalised from what he said was a police beating.

Though relatively few demonstrators took part in the vandalism, next- day news stories featured smashed windows, graffiti, and protester stand-offs with police.

No individual or group has taken public responsibility for the vandalism. Many believe agent provocateurs are responsible. Whether these are government agents or young people who believe destroying property builds the Occupy Wall Street Movement – or both – the question discussed since the General Strike is key: how should the movement respond to acts of property destruction and violence by those in its ranks?

A sharp disagreement exists among those who say there’s no room in the movement for people who won’t protest peacefully; those who want to embrace protesters who destroy property and at the same time encourage them to behave “responsibly;” and those who say they meet police violence with their own, while building a movement.

One group of people responded by writing a resolution to present to the Nov. 9 general assembly that says: “Those who launch physical attacks on people or property are not welcome to do so at or near Occupy Oakland events and encampment.”

The resolution, however, was withdrawn at the general assembly by its author, Allan Brill, who told the gathering of more than 900 in the open-air amphitheater adjacent to the occupation site that he feared putting the question to a vote would exacerbate divisions within the movement.

“Let’s solidify; let’s protect occupy Oakland,” Brill told the assembly, later explaining to IPS that the decision to postpone the resolution was tied to threats to the encampment and the critical need for the movement to be united.

The threats came from five city council members who held a press conference in the afternoon before the general assembly – a press conference interrupted by chanting demonstrators – to announce that they would close down the camp at some unspecified time.

Oakland housing activist James Vann was disappointed that Brill didn’t bring the resolution to the body. People who espouse violent or destructive tactics should be expelled from the movement, Vann said.

“If this tendency that exists within Occupy Oakland isn’t dealt with in some fashion, it stands to split the movement and to destroy all credibility that the movement has,” Vann said. “We can’t justify the destructive actions being carried out by a splinter group.”

The rules that govern Occupy Oakland include prohibitions against police or other government officials entering the encampment. There is no Occupy Oakland liaison with police or city officials.

Rules excluding police don’t sit well with John Murry, a member of Occupied Oakland’s media committee, who spoke to IPS on his own behalf. Police are needed inside the camp when there are thefts and fights, Murry said, criticising activists who see the police as part of the “one percent” of wealthy, greedy elites.

They are “a collection of individuals who have jobs”, he said, contending that police who made “unconstitutionally illegal attacks on demonstrators” are not from Oakland.

Murry said the future of the movement turns on resolving the issue. “I think (the vandalism) is absurd,” he said. “I think that this movement will fail completely unless someone condemns it.”

He said that supporters of the vandalism call it “militant non- violence”. He characterises that view as “an utter oxymoron”.

“To smash a window when other people are inside is terrifying,” he said. “It’s a violent act.”

Things are different at Occupy San Francisco, where there’s an official police liaison. According to Jason McArthur, a member of the Occupy SF Communication Team, “The major rallies are peaceful.” He credits social pressure placed on those who may want to destroy property.

An Occupy San Francisco security committee has formed to step in if problems arise similar to Oakland’s, he said. The team will surround people that look like they want to destroy property and ask them to remain peaceful. If they won’t, he said the security team will “non- violently” detain the disruptors and call police.

Occupy SF also calls police to the camp when necessary. The reality is that “we’re not our own country,” McArthur said. “We can’t pretend we’re the judge and jury.”

Lynx, an anarchist and musician, says people who smashed windows and attempted to occupy the building are misunderstood. They use “black bloc” tactics, he said, defining black bloc as a group of people who take action in a group without revealing their identities. He criticised the media for looking only at the property destruction carried out by those using black bloc tactics, which, he said, becomes an excuse for police brutality.

He said that some people acknowledged to him that they were responsible for damage at Whole Foods grocery and a couple of banks. Lynx said they told him that damage was justified by the actions of police who had destroyed protesters’ tents and belongings.

However, “People came forward saying they weren’t responsible for damage to small businesses,” he said. “They had specific targets, but were not responsible for others.” He said they believe police infiltrators were responsible for damage to small businesses.

Unlike some of his anarchist friends, Lynx said he disapproves of the property damage during the General Strike, because the tactic could destroy ties with friends. “You can’t be an ally if you don’t listen to your allies,” he said. “You have to be accountable to your allies.”

Lynx said the movement could police itself by training people to use shields to protect the camp. This “occupy bloc,” as Lynx called them, would “physically put themselves between the police and pacifist comrades or vulnerable allies to directly counter the violence that police habitually direct against resistance movements,” he said.

Laura Turiano, a physician assistant and medic at Occupy Oakland, is not a pacifist, but also disagrees with the protesters’ decision to vandalise property. Turiano, however, said a general assembly resolution would not get people to change their tactics. She said she’s been told that the group will go ahead and destroy property even if the general assembly passes a resolution against it.

She said a better idea would be to engage with those who want to destroy property.

“There’s a lot of discussion going on behind the scenes with people involved in tagging, property destruction and all that kind of stuff,” she said. There are “older anarchists talking to younger black bloc people, trying to give them a little bit of perspective on the relationship of tactics to responsibility of others.”

Turiano summed up the thinking of many, saying, “I think strategies and tactics need to be thought out and you need to use the ones that are going to work to achieve your goal.”

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