What's the Matter With Oakland?

Cards on the table: y'all know that the Occupy protests and I don't agree politically.  Nonetheless, I've been basically supportive of their right to protest, sympathetic to their frustrations with the system, and interested in their problems (and solutions) of self organization in a rather chaotic and fluid situation.  Unless there were clear and dramatic harms to the community, I figured the cops should leave them alone until the protests dispersed naturally.


I thought the Oakland police overreached in clearing out the park, and overreached when protesters tried to retake it.  But while I have ongoing questions about the behavior of the police, the Oakland protesters are rapidly losing whatever moral high ground they gained during that confrontation.  The correct response to overly enthusiastic crowd control is not "using homemade bomb launchers to fire M80s at the police" who are trying to stop you from blockading the port, seizing city-owned buildings, and setting fire to things in the downtown Oakland area.  Some of the protesters in Oakland seem to think that a wounded veteran somehow gives them moral and political license to engage in . . . well, it's getting perilously close to the point where the correct word is indisputably "rioting".

Then there's the group of 500 people who surrounded Jamie Dimon's hotel in Seattle and promised to make a citizen's arrest.  I assume they were looking for a stunt, not trying to invoke echoes of a lynch mob--but citizen's arrest is for people who have been caught in the commission of a clear violation of the law.  Muttering "There oughta be a law" doesn't count. And having a large, angry group gather for the proclaimed purpose of taking a single person into physical custody is creepy--yes, even if it's impractical.  Plus, it affords obvious opportunities for something to go spectacularly, catastrophically wrong.  

As I said to the tea partiers who carried guns to protests: this sort of thing should stop.  Not because you don't have a right to it, but because it frightens people.  And large political protests should strive to avoid things that make others afraid for their physical safety, even if you know in your heart that you mean no harm.  Whoever organized this should have known better.

Remember all the paranoia about the "violent undertone" at tea party protests?  Some of the things happening at a few of these protests is starting to seem like more than an undertone.  I would far rather have my neighbor stand outside his house with a gun, then have him lob fireworks at my house, or get a bunch of his friends to cordon off my house so they could "arrest me".  The tea party were demonstrating in a combined space and making life a little hot for legislators.  These people are roaming around in mobs, damaging property and repeatedly clashing with the police.  And no, I'm afraid I don't think that this is because the police are biased against left wing protesters; I think it's because the tea partiers stayed within the law.

Perhaps I am overreacting, but the events in Oakland seem to suggest that some faction of that group, at least, is not trying to work change within the system; they're trying to take over bits of it by force.  Camping in a public park is a harmless extension of one's public rights.  Barricading ports, shutting down streets, breaking into buildings, and setting bonfires . . . these are not.

I think that goes too far for most people.  It certainly does for me.  And the latest poll from Quinnipiac seems to indicate that the growing public disorder is costing them the high levels of support they once enjoyed.  A few weeks ago, a Time poll showed that Occupy Wall Street had about twice as much public support as the tea party.  Now their unfavorables are higher than their favorables, and both are only a few points better than the tea partiers.  Among independents, they're indistinguishable.

And that poll was taken before things got really out of hand in Oakland.  How will those numbers look a few days from now?

I don't want to minimize the things that have been done to protesters--I think the police should have exercised far more restraint, and if it's true that a man deliberately ran his car into jaywalking protesters yesterday, he deserves to be in jail.  But that's not an excuse for rioting.

At this point, the movement is hurting itself more than it's helping--at least, if you think their goal is to peacefully and democratically push for changes in the laws, a task for which they are going to require some support beyond the committed left.  If you don't, of course . . . well, that has all sorts of implications.

If I suggest that the movement, and the left, needs to control this before the public really turns on OWS, I'll be accused of concern trolling.  So I'll just say that despite our substantial disagreements, (and doubts about the effectiveness) I've been broadly supportive of the  OWS project of organizing for change.  However, if events continue to go in an Oakland direction, I'm going to become rather hostile to the movement.  And I doubt that I'm the only one.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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