Justin Elliott’s latest report on OWS deserves careful reading. He begins with a photograph that appears to show a protester tackling a cop. The photograph appeared on the front page of the Washington Post.
The photographer says the photograph was not representative of what he saw of the protest. Indeed, without knowing the context, we can’t say for sure what the photograph is showing us. And Elliott stresses over and over again that the enormous majority of OWSers are committed to nonviolent protest.
Iâ€™ve observed elements in Zuccotti Park who seem set on unnecessary confrontations with police in ways that go beyond civil disobedience. Around 11 p.m. on Oct. 10, for example, a small band of about 60 or 70 protesters set out on an impromptu march toward Wall Street. This was not endorsed by the general assembly; there didnâ€™t appear to be any plan. There was no apparent media presence besides myself and one other reporter.
The group seemed to be led by a few over-excited young guys wearing Anonymous masks or bandanas over their faces and included many people bearing red-and-black anarchist flags. (A couple photos from the march are here.) The marchers were much younger on average than those sleeping in the park. Some of them appeared to be well under 18 and simply along for the thrill. Marchers walked aimlessly through the streets around Zuccotti, banging on the roll-down metal gates that protect storefronts after hours. At one point, for no apparent reason, a young man wearing red and black broke a large wooden police barrier and threw it in front of a car stopped at an intersection on Beaver Street. No police officers witnessed this moment; Iâ€™m certain he would have been arrested had the NYPD been around.
Eventually the march attracted a large contingent of police officers who occasionally ventured into the crowd to threaten people with arrest for wearing masks. The group ultimately wound its way back to the park without any major incidents. But I could imagine these adventurist types causing problems for Occupy Wall Street down the line.
â€œWhen you have such a grassroots movement, those people are going to come,â€ said Ted Actie, one of the early participants in Occupy, when I asked him about the incident. â€œYou canâ€™t do anything about it. We can tell the media thatâ€™s not Occupy Wall Street. 99 percent of it is non-violent.â€
Yes, you can do something about it. You can have leaders. You can have ground rules. You can make it clear that those people who are unwilling to accept the rules will be expelled from the movement. It’s been done.
It’s always a minority of over-excited young guys, you know. That was true of most of the antiwar demonstrations during the Vietnam era. Most of the people in most of the demonstrations were nonviolent. It was just a minority of over-excited young guys (and a few young women, but mostly guys) who committed acts of violence, but the violence is what everyone remembers now.
This same unwillingness to take direction, to show respect to the cause and one’s fellow demonstrators by not being an attention whore, is also at least 60 percent of what went wrong during the Iraq war demonstrations.
I think OWS has been incredibly lucky so far. The media gods have mostly smiled on it. But, children, it’s not good enough to tell media “that’s not Occupy Wall Street” when you aren’t willing to draw any other parameters around Occupy Wall Street, other than being a bunch of people occupying a public plaza. And when the violent ones are identifiable as “elements in Zuccotti Park” even by someone like Elliott, who is sympathetic to the cause, don’t expect media or anyone else to believe you when you say “that’s not Occupy Wall Street.”
My suggestion is to at least ask everyone who is staying on the plaza to sign a pledge to take direction from the group and commit no acts of violence. Then, be willing to confront and denounce anyone who doesn’t abide by the rules. Otherwise, those few over-exicted young guys will sink OWS just as they’ve sunk nearly every other leftie demonstration since MLK died.