Occupy Oakland loses its encampment. Is it in a downward spiral?

For a second time, Occupy Oakland has lost its downtown camp to a police sweep, but how firmly the battle lines are being drawn, and what it means for the wider movement, is still not clear.

Paul Sakuma/AP
Police surround an encampment as a police helicopter flies overhead at a Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Oakland, Calif., Monday. Police in Oakland began clearing out a weeks-old encampment early Monday after issuing several warnings to Occupy Oakland demonstrators.
Ben Margot/AP
Occupy Oakland protesters block traffic as they sit in the intersection of 14th and Broadway in downtown Oakland, Calif., Monday. The Occupy encampment was evicted from Frank Ogawa Plaza early this morning.

Oakland police, acting early Monday morning, have now cleared the Occupy Oakland encampment for a second time. But it is still not clear whether the municipality and protesters are drawing up hard battle lines or if these local skirmishes have implications for the overall Occupy movement.

What is clear is that in Oakland, city and business leaders are on one side, with protesters and a variety of supporters, such as unions, on the other.

According to a city statement Monday morning, “lodging will be strictly prohibited” in the Frank Ogawa Plaza near City Hall, where protesters have been ensconced since Oct. 10. And, says Paul Junge, director of public policy for the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, “we are pleased with the action the city took.”

At the same time, the protesters Monday were convening an afternoon march in front of the Oakland public library, around the corner from their dismantled encampment, and an evening general assembly evening to discuss their next steps. “There are people who want to reestablish the encampment,” says Allan Brill, a media team member, adding, “but there are no official plans from the Occupy Oakland movement as of yet.”

The city has now weathered several violent clashes between police and protesters, from the Oct. 25 police sweep in which an Iraq War veteran was severely injured to the Nov. 2 general strike day of action that culminated in bonfires and vandalism.

But is a violent, downward spiral of confrontation and police action the only future for Occupy Oakland ­– and possibly the larger movement as well?

Not necessarily, says Sarah Sobieraj, assistant professor of sociology at Tufts University. “It is in both the city’s and the movement’s best interests to keep things calm,” she points out, adding, “it is not good form for Mayor Kwan to look like she is getting ready to unleash more police violence, nor does it help the cause of the Occupy movement to appear on the evening news looking unhinged and angry. That doesn’t do anyone any good.”

City officials are taking an important page from a media strategy playbook, says Scott Sobel, president of Washington-based Media & Communications Strategies. “Governments should reach out to the Occupy movement, try to understand better what they are all about and what they really want and channel that energy for something productive,” he says.

Indeed, moves to offer an alternative to the downtown park are underway, says an Oakland spokeswoman, Kristine Shaff. Police are working on a permit package that would allow protesters to camp overnight in a nearby spot, the smaller Snow Park.

“They are working out the details,” she says, but “we are still trying to allow peaceful expression of protest.”  In addition, the city has opened a number of homeless shelters for the protesters to use.

But, “for most, this movement is not about a place to sleep, but a place to speak,” points out Prof. Sobieraj, who says “this is classic co-opting.”  Efforts at placation by giving the protesters what she says is a euphemistic, legally permitted, “free speech zone” undermines the movement even as it allows police to move forward non-violently.

If the protesters are marginalized under a system of permits that allow police to decide their actions, then the purpose of the movement has been undermined.

However, she is quick to add, “this is historically so unprecedented that it’s hard to say exactly how this will play out.”

Oakland has the potential of being a sign of things to come for the Occupy movement as a whole in the United States, says Villanova University political science professor Catherine Wilson. However, after such violent clashes and the alienation of the small business community, she says, the burden is now on the protesters to prove their worth.

“Occupy Oakland has demonstrated that it lacks cultural salience for more moderate groups – like the Chamber of Commerce and local small businesses,” she notes via email, adding that with groups like this voicing concern, Occupy Oakland has shown that it has disrupted the business cycle, “and therefore the possibility for these businesses to thrive in an already adverse economic climate.”

“At this point in time,” she says, “the movement desperately needs to make appeals to the American mainstream in order to survive in the long-term.”

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