Occupy Oakland Police Clash Inspires Solidarity, Debate

After the Occupy movement started last fall, Michele Horaney, a public relations consultant who lives in Alameda, Calif., joined a small local group of activists who called themselves the 99 Percent Solution. Horaney was excited about the burgeoning movement, but she and the others in her group said they felt its real mission -- addressing the problems of Wall Street greed and economic inequality –- was getting lost in all the noise about police brutality, arrests, and the right to camp out in public parks.

Intent on bringing more attention to economic issues, the group took out a full-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle criticizing super PACs and proposing a solution to economic inequality that involved increasing taxes on the wealthy and cutting government spending. There were reasonable solutions to the problems at hand, Horaney believed. The challenge would be getting Americans across a wide range of views and backgrounds to support them. So when Horaney's neighbors in Oakland entered City Hall this weekend, trashed a historical model of the building and burned a flag on the lawn, Horaney was disappointed.

Violence, she said, casts "a real cloud on the efforts of everybody else, and that's very, very difficult to accept. I hope there are people who are still out there who don't use this as a reason to just give up on the movement."

The violent scene in Oakland grabbed media attention at a time when the Occupy movement has mostly slipped from the spotlight, and it has triggered a wide range of reactions within the movement, from disappointment to sympathy to a call for solidarity.

To begin with, there's disagreement over what exactly happened. "The dust hasn't settled on this yet," said Bill Cobbs, a member of the media committee in Occupy Wall Street. What's known is that the police reacted swiftly after protestors attempted to take over a vacant city building on Saturday in hope of both turning into a community center and making a statement about the foreclosure crisis. The police blocked them from entering the building, fired tear gas and made more than 400 arrests. Amidst the commotion, protesters broke into City Hall (some say the door was left open) and trashed some property.

In New York, said Dobbs, there was a feeling among some that the protesters brought the harsh police response upon themselves. But others have argued that the police force was so disproportionate to the protesters' actions that it constituted a police riot, he said. "In general," said Cobbs, "the question of how aggressive to be is a matter of ongoing debate, because the default is usually vote or put your feet up, and anything beyond that sends up sparks."

Graham Feller, a member of Occupy Atlanta, said that he and his associates were generally supportive of the Oakland protesters and, after looking at the YouTube footage, came to the conclusion that "the police had oppressed them and not the other way around." But he added that the militant nature of the Occupy scene in Oakland sets it apart from its Atlanta counterpart. "I think people here would have handled it differently based on different historical events. People here admire Martin Luther King and non-violent tactics. I think that's the staple of resistance here. I don’t the oppression is different but I think the reaction to the oppression is different."

Indeed, as Feller suggested, Oakland has long stood out as a place where activist movements and the police response to them have run to violent extremes. Oakland had some of the highest rates of violent crime of any city in 2011, averaging three shootings daily, according to the police chief, Anthony Batts -- and the police force has stretched itself thin. Mix that with a West Coast, left-wing culture that tends to be more angry and radical than its equivalents elsewhere, and the results can be disastrous. In 2003, Oakland police fired wooden pellets and rubber bullets at demonstrators at an anti-war rally and badly injured several protestors and bystanders.

After Saturday's clash, protesters in some 25 Occupy groups organized solidarity marches. Among them was Eli Feghalia of Boston, who watched the events in Oakland unfold while meeting with a group of New York occupiers who'd stopped in Boston on a tour of the Occupy cities of the Northeast. Together, the Boston and New York occupiers called other Occupy members around the country and organized their "multicity Occupy response." The Boston march drew over 100 people, Feghalia said.

"They were trying to take their energy and do something positive for the community," said Feghali of the Oakland protesters. "And the state responded by defending the rights of the 1 percent over needs of the many. I think all of the occupations around the country can relate to that."