Wounded veteran Scott Olsen has become a symbol and rallying cry for the “Occupy/We Are the 99 percent” movement. Far from intimidating protesters, the Oakland police attacks have incensed and mobilized them.
The police have temporarily pulled back, a political victory for the occupiers, although the pressure to close down camps remains. Following large demonstrations on Wednesday and Thursday, Oakland mayor Jean Quan declared that protesters could stay indefinitely and would face minimal police presence.
In These Times reported that: “just days after the large show of force in Oakland, many officials, courts and city councils are now changing their hard-line tone and offering an apparently more concessionary approach. … Across the country, anger for recent actions is being expressed and, apparently, being heard. In Cleveland, occupiers won the court’s permission to demonstrate 24 hours a day on Public Square. In Orange County, Cali., a late-night city council meeting granted the occupiers license to occupy public space overnight. In addition, the Orange County city council passed an emergency motion to add ‘the needs of the 99 percent’ to their agenda, possibly leading to tents being accepted as a form of free speech.”
However, the biggest danger to the occupations is the liberal concern with safety and order, which can be manipulated by police provocations. Michelle Gross commented in the Guardian: “One agent provocateur, whom organisers at Occupy Minnesota had been watching carefully, planted a box labelled ‘Riot Equipment. Needs: bricks, large but throwable stones, gasoline.’ As soon as he set the box down, sheriff’s deputies ran over and photographed it before organisers could remove it. Organisers pointed out the man to the deputies, then watched in disgust as the deputies spoke briefly with him and let him leave.”
More importantly, the fusion of middle class political protest with long-standing issues in urban communities has led the Occupy movement to take on board resistance to foreclosures in neighborhoods and a serious discussion about multiracialism in America. Occupy Wall Street will march through the predominantly African-American and immigrant community of Jamaica, Queens, on Saturday to protest bank foreclosure practices and symbolically reclaim foreclosed homes. “As we pass by foreclosed homes we will visually reclaim them with banners and signs in windows and yards, and by tracing a map of the foreclosed homes of Jamaica, Queens using our bodies,” OWS said in a statement. ‘There are five thousand homes in Queens that are being foreclosed upon. This is a pandemic. Jamaica is ground zero for foreclosures in New York,” said Patrick Bruener, a volunteer with Occupy Wall Street.
The New York Times reported that soon after the start of Occupy Wall Street’s takeover of Zuccotti Park, a group of Bronx community organizers visited to check it out and found that the crowd was mostly white. “ ‘Nobody looked like us,’ said Rodrigo Venegas, 31, co-founder of Rebel Diaz Arts Collective a center for political activism and hip-hop run out of a warehouse in Mott Haven. ‘It was white, liberal, young people who for the first time in their life are feeling a small percentage of what black and brown communities have been feeling for hundreds of years.’ … In recent weeks, though, minority leaders have begun to rally for wider participation of people of color, and groups like ‘Occupy the Hood,’ started by a man in South Jamaica, Queens, have begun to boost their presence … Associated protests like recent ones in New York against the police’s stop-and-frisk policy, at one of which the black author and activist Cornel West was arrested, have also drawn their energy from Occupy Wall Street and forged ties across color lines.”
When the general assembly of OWC drafted its first Declaration of the Occupation, Sonny Singh, a Sikh musician from Brooklyn, said that “he and a few other ‘brown’ people at the assembly were appalled by what was going to become the first paragraph of the declaration: ‘As one people, formerly divided by the color of our skin,’ the document began, ‘we acknowledge the reality: that there is only one race, the human race.’ ‘That was obviously not written by a person of color,’ Mr. Singh said, calling the statement naïve. ‘Race is a reality in the lives of people of color, you can’t put out a statement like that without alienating them.’
“Mr. Singh and others pushed back, and eventually got the phrasing changed to be more sensitive to racial realities within the movement. They also kept returning to the protest, and started the People of Color Working Group, which states as one of its goals working toward ‘a racially conscious and inclusive movement.’ The group’s meetings have been ‘the most multiracial, people-of-color space I’ve worked in since I’ve lived in N.Y.C.,’ Mr. Singh wrote in an e-mail. Between 50 and 100 people have consistently attended, he added, with 170 people at the largest meeting.”
Together with discussions about race, there are intense debates about the role of the police and whether police attacks should be met with nonviolence or physical resistance. “Cops were clearly the most controversial topic of the evening [at Wednesday night’s Occupy Oakland General Assembly],” reported Salon. “When a speaker shouted, ‘Police are not the enemy,’ he was booed. This question of whether police are an adversary has arisen at other Occupy protests, but it’s especially potent in Oakland, where anger and outrage has long brewed against law enforcement. … Tuesday’s skirmish with police has already mobilized a whole new faction — in Oakland and several cities nationwide that held protests in solidarity — of people whose anger goes far beyond Wall Street.”
In her Guardian comment, Michelle Gross noted: “As a movement made up primarily of new activists, many occupiers are quite surprised by the conduct of police, the endorsement of that conduct by elected officials, and the lack of meaningful disciplinary procedures for police. However, this situation is not new to communities of color, which should be in solidarity with a movement taking on economic unfairness. … The failure to hold police accountable for brutality and misconduct leads to the troubling realisation that police are acting without accountability but with the assent of elected officials.”
The Occupy movement can only resolve these questions through experience gained by collective action, not from textbook theories. The exciting thing is that they are making connections to communities struggling with entrenched social problems and energizing them with a new political orientation.