Tear gas and mayhem at Occupy Oakland: help or hindrance to the cause?

Media zeroed in on Occupy Oakland protesters and their clash with police. Such confrontations could bolster the Occupy movement, some say. But they may also be a sign the protests are winding down.

By , Staff writer

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    Occupy Wall Street protesters run from tear gas deployed by police at 14th Street and Broadway in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday.
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Do confrontations and clashes with police – such as those on the nightly news Tuesday that showed tear gas drifting across Oakland, Calif. – egg on the Occupy Wall Street movement or choke its momentum?

That's the question protesters and their sympathizers are asking themselves as cities put greater pressure on them to end or curtail or clean up their Occupy encampments. So far, the movement and its message of rage against economic inequality have won a measure of public support, according to polls. But there's little doubt that protesters are riding the tension between peaceful protest and civil disruption – and different Occupy encampments are making different decisions about what to do.

But even as the protest turned violent in Oakland, police in Atlanta broke up an Occupy protest with little ado early Wednesday. Several dozen demonstrators were carted away and charged with misdemeanors for violating city codes on camping in parks. In Little Rock, Ark., protesters on Tuesday agreed to move from a downtown park to a city-owned parking lot, to abide by a no-camping rule.

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But there's a risk to the "occupiers" of fading peacefully into the night, note those who study social movements and civil unrest, and perhaps an incentive to forcefully resist authorities.

"In places where there aren't as many people, if you arrest half or all the people in the camp, then you've taken kind of the heart of the movement out," says Fordham University sociologist Heather Gautney, an expert on US protest movements. "But ... in the real centers of the Occupy movement, places that give it national presence, police are now playing into the narrative and actually giving life to the movement. The kind of show of force that we saw in Oakland is going to incite the movement and push it to another level where it's not just a movement about the 99 percent, but it's a movement about … people's rights to express themselves."

Officials in Oakland and elsewhere – often under public pressure to maintain law and order – say they've become more frustrated by what they call deteriorating safety and sanitation in the Occupy camps. Such concerns are becoming the legal justification for mayors to start squeezing the protesters in places like Atlanta and even Boston, which plans to start inspections of a major Occupy tent city this week.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, in a statement explaining the decision to send in police, said, "The protesters ... moved from conducting an initially peaceful demonstration to increasingly aggressive actions." He cited protesters staging an unauthorized hiphop concert, using coat hangers to tap into power sources, and storing propane tanks inside tents as examples of "dangerous disregard for safety" that led to the order for police to shut down the camp.

At the same time, calling out riot police to scatter protesters and destroy their tent cities plays neatly into a key Occupy message: that corporate interests are subsuming basic rights and are now dictating orders to police forces. Protesters say some police officers agree. They pointed to an incident in Albany, N.Y., Friday in which police refused an order by Mayor Gerald Jennings to scatter 700 Occupy Albany protesters from a public park after police found they weren't breaking any rules.

"If law enforcement engaged in a preemptive strike and started arresting people, I believe it would lead to calamitous results, and the people protesting so far are peaceful," Albany District Attorney David Soares told the Albany Times-Union on Sunday, backing the police department's decision.

The story in Oakland is more complicated. The city has seen violent protests during the past several years tied to alleged incidents of policy brutality, which eroded trust between the police and parts of the local populace. In fact, protesters dubbed the park outside City Hall that police broke up Tuesday morning "Oscar Grant Plaza," after a man who was fatally shot while resisting arrest by Bay Area Rapid Transit police in 2009.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg made "a statement" by stepping up police presence during a Times Square protest two weeks ago, says Fordham's Ms. Gautney. But the situation is different in New York, the epicenter of the protests, where many residents are sympathetic to the rights of the protesters to squat, she says.

The increased police presence is giving protesters in Oakland and Chicago a new point to rail against: over-policing. In Atlanta, former City Councilor Derrick Boazman, who was among the 57 arrested Wednesday, called Police Chief George Turner a "Bull Connor" character, in reference to the civil-rights-era police commissioner who ordered police to crack heads in Birmingham, Ala.

Though many protesters have vowed to continue their "occupations," they are being tested by mayors' loss of patience and more robust police oversight.

"It's a very delicate balance when you're in a situation like this," says T.V. Reed, an expert on social movements at Washington State University, in Pullman. "You can be dismissed if you're negotating with authorities, because then you're not protesting anymore. But I've been impressed so far by the discipline and intelligence of protesters in coming up with viable solutions to each problem they face. It's a vast movement that has many differnet ways to deal with issues that come up, and to keep the movement going."

Certainly, protesters are not giving up. Zuccotti Park in New York, gathering place of the original Occupy Wall Street protesters, remains a protest site, with organizers working with city officials to clean the area and keep the park open to others. In Denver, protesters remain undeterred, even as the season's first major snowstorm approaches.

And the anticonsumerist Adbusters magazine, a Canadian publication credited with sparking the Occupy protests, this week released a specific goal that it hopes protesters will rally around: A "Robin Hood tax" to "slow down some of that $1.3 trillion easy money that's sloshing around the global casino each day," as the magazine's editors wrote.

In Oakland, however, authorities have gained the upper hand – at least for now. They arrested nearly 100 people, mostly during a predawn raid on the tent city. What began as about 1,000 demonstrators clashing with police on Tuesday night dwindled with each tear-gas attack, with the protest petering out at about midnight with a few hundred protesters, some of them riding bikes, still taunting police.

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