Police crackdowns in Atlanta and Oakland, Calif., to disperse protests affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement could mark a turning point in the tactics of both the demonstrators and the authorities dealing with them, experts say.
Oakland police equipped with riot gear fired tear gas and, according to demonstrators, used rubber bullets and flash grenades on Tuesday to clear Frank Ogawa Park in front of City Hall. In Atlanta, helicopters circled over a small city park just after midnight Wednesday as officers moved in to arrest about 50 protesters.
The aggressive new police tactics have focused attention on the ongoing protests against economic inequality that began in New York City last month and have spread to several U.S. cities.
But the confrontations present new challenges to both sides in the standoffs, beginning with a battle over perceptions.
Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan justified his department’s actions as a direct response to the crowd “pelting us with bottles and rocks.” But OccupyOakland.org characterized the police response as unprovoked, saying protesters were met with “flash grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets.” The police have denied using stun grenades or rubber bullets.
A Difference Of Perceptions
While video of the confrontation has flooded YouTube, it may do little to settle the question of who did what to whom, says Pamela Oliver, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin.
“It’s often the case that people looking at the same footage see different things,” Oliver says.
“How you are going to view the situation is always up for grabs,” she says. “Police and protesters will both try to shape perceptions in their favor.”
Whoever is perceived as the victim — either the peaceful protesters on the receiving end of a police baton or the authorities attacked by an unruly mob — stands to win hearts and minds from the encounter, Oliver says.
The violence could have a galvanizing effect on the movement, but it’s also possible that if the protesters are perceived to be in the wrong, the clashes with police will only add fuel to the movement’s critics.
“They will point to the most extreme incident and try to generalize it to the whole movement,” says David Meyer, a professor at the University of California at Irvine.
An Opportunity For Both Sides
Meyer says the violence is an opportunity for both the protesters to re-evaluate their tactics and for authorities to decide how best to deal with a protracted sit-in.
“There’s going to be a search for new kinds of tactics that will definitely intensify,” he says. “I think there will be conversations in these ‘Occupy’ groups all around the United States about what’s the best way to get what they want.”
Meyer says the diffuse nature of the movement will make it more difficult for authorities to deal with the protesters and for the demonstrators to decide on a next course of action.
“The fixation on grass-roots, participatory democracy provides advantages and vulnerabilities,” says Meyer, who is author of the book The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America. “The advantage is that nobody can sell you out. Nobody can go meet with the mayor and say, ‘Everybody’s going to leave.’ By the same token, if nobody’s in charge, nobody can make deals.”
An Impact On Police
The police also don’t have much experience with these kinds of open-ended protests.
“Protesters may come and go. As a few thousand leave the original group, others come in,” says Jon Shane, a professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of the City University of New York.
“Policing that as a long-term endeavor is a lot different than policing a given situation where someone is expressing their anger over an isolated incident,” Shane says.
He says that even the largest police departments, such as New York’s, can’t afford to commit hundreds of police officers for months on end to a single protest.
Mayors in other cities that have Occupy protests also have something to learn from the way the situation was handled in Oakland and Atlanta, says Meyer.
“They’ve got to be asking whether we want to risk this kind of outbreak of violence and severe strain on the police force just to clear a space,” he says. “If not, how do we manage this?”
Meyer says ultimately, the Occupy protesters can’t let their tactics get in the way of their message.
“My own take is that the issue can’t be, ‘We should be able to have encampments in parks.’ It’s got to be more substantive than that,” he says.
But Meyer says the movement’s anger at economic inequality has registered in the U.S. political dynamic.
“Already, you have the proposal for a millionaire’s tax, and now President Obama is proposing something about student loan debt. I think it’s also going to wind up affecting the way everyone talks about health care in the upcoming presidential campaign,” he says.