by Dan Beucke / Bloomberg News / October 27, 2011
Depending on your point of view, the Occupy Wall Street movement may be 1968 — or 1970 — all over again. And this week may mark the point where the bank protests go viral — or take a dangerous turn for the movement and those who support them. Such is the struggle by both sides to assign symbols to OWS.
Police attempts this week to clear protesters from encampments in Oakland, Atlanta, and other cities, complete with tear gas and horse-mounted police, brought to mind images from 1960s and ’70s era anti-war clashes. Then, on Tuesday night, Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran, was seriously injured after apparently being hit in the head by a police projectile. (The San Francisco Chronicle reports this morning that Olsen has been upgraded to fair condition.) Soon images of the bleeding Olsen flew around the Internet and this Tweet went up from #OccupyWallStreet: #occupyoakland=New Kent State. The comparison with the 1970 shooting of students at that Ohio university by National Guard troops—which left four students dead—seemed to draw mostly derision (“Not even close. No one is dead.”) and caution (“Let’s hope we never EVER get to that again.”).
Two weeks before the Oakland mayhem, though, MSNBC analyst and ad executive Donnie Deutsch made a direct reference to Kent State in explaining why he thought the movement needed “a climax moment of class warfare.” And some right-wing critics of OWS have been happy to point to any violence and to link it to with the chaos of the Vietnam era — especially after President Obama said he understood the protesters’ frustration:
The most important thing we can do right now is those of us in leadership letting people know that we understand their struggles and we are on their side, and that we want to set up a system in which hard work, responsibility, doing what you’re supposed to do, is rewarded,” Obama said. “And that people who are irresponsible, who are reckless, who don’t feel a sense of obligation to their communities and their companies and their workers that those folks aren’t rewarded.
The larger struggle is to make the protests more or less sympathetic to mainstream America. Supporters point to polls showing widespread agreement with the movement’s views on the income gap, while critics hammer home images of sleaze: the Boston couple arrested for dealing heroin in an Occupy encampment, and the photo of a man defecating on a police car.
Little wonder that Republicans would be happy to see Obama tied closely to the protests. They recall what happened in 1968 when student protests threw the Democratic National Convention into chaos (photo above). That spawned the radical theatre of the Chicago Seven trial, with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale squaring off against the unbending force of Judge Julius Hoffman. As all of this played out on national television, many in Middle America were left with the impression of a nation—under a Democratic President—in disarray. Just more than two months later, Richard Nixon was elected president.
It’s too early to tell how OWS will evolve and whether it will have much of an impact on the 2012 election. There are potential dangers ahead for all sides. For opponents of OWS, as one commenter points out below, more violent crackdowns on protesters may just add to their support. For Democrats, Doug Schoen, a former strategist for Bill Clinton, points out that “the vast majority of Americans are centrists. While they may share some of the sentiments that some of the Wall Street protesters express, they don’t believe in radical redistribution of income.” And for protesters, Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle, as part of a post that questioned the need for the Oakland police raid, aptly framed the risks from the actions of a few:
If you want to ensure that every Occupy protest gets broken up by overwhelming force, while the rest of America applauds the forces of law and order, just try really hurting a few law enforcement professionals.