If there ever was a time the leaderless Occupy movement needed leadership, it’s now.
The news and images from Oakland, Calif., unsettle. City hall, pillaged. An American flag, burned. Sure, it’s too early to know who is behind this or what prompted it. But it’s not too early for those who built the Occupy movement to take a stand for non-violence, to say that such ugly acts don’t have a place in their quirky quest to change the economic realities of this country.
This fall Americans largely embraced Occupy’s message that the economic disparities in this country had become egregious. Sure, the protesters were a bit kooky, a bit grimy, too. But their message — “we are the 99 percent” — reverberated, shedding light on problems that don’t require a PhD in economics to recognize: That the wealthiest 1 percent — particularly the wealthiest .1 percent — control a grossly inequitable and growing portion of the nation’s income, that politicians of both parties had lost track and lost sight of the pain inflicted by our extended recession.
Unions signed on. Liberal politicians issued sympathetic statements. The decentralized movement gained remarkable traction in just a few months.
When police shut down Occupy encampments in cities around the country as winter moved in, I thought it could work to the movement’s advantage. Winter would give time for thought and planning. Would the springtime bring urban theater or political protest? Would the disparate forces that had joined together forge a somewhat more coherent message? Whatever the answer, I assumed the movement would resurface with the crocuses of spring, stronger than before.
Instead, on the temperate West Coast, Occupy protesters have stayed active, simmering and then boiling in the City of Oakland, a place of long-time tension between demonstrators and an overzealous police force, a place in which an Occupy protester, a former Marine, suffered a fractured skull this fall.
Still, none of that is an excuse for vandalism and disrespect. Not in the public’s eye. Unless Occupy’s most active members find a way to loudly and consistently condemn such actions, the fallout from this weekend’s vandalism and flag-burning could be substantial.
If more incidents like it follow, the sympathy of middle-class America will vanish as fast as a puddle in the mid-summer Sahara. Labor support will disappear. And politicians who showed even measured sympathy for Occupy — from the president to city mayors — will be pilloried by a rising tide of law-and-order outrage.
Is that what those who camped in New York’s Zuccotti Square and those who followed suit in cities across world want to accomplish? To rejuvenate the law-and-order crowd? I don’t think so.
Leaderless movements are by nature amorphous. But even a leaderless movement can back a code of conduct.
No, we don’t yet know exactly who or what sparked the violence in Oakland. I would encourage the news media to look closely. (I’m no conspiracy theorist but if one billionaire casino operator can dump $10 million into Newt’s Super PAC, imagine what a few well-placed millions could do to discredit a national movement arguably more appealing to the left than the right.)
And yes, we do know the city hall break-in and flag-burning involved a relatively small subset of protesters. But we also see the images from Oakland, images leaders of other Occupy enclaves across the country can’t let pass in silence.