After a beautiful day of marching and gathering in solidarity at Occupy Oakland, a small group of vandals set fires and destroyed property, some of them to local businesses who had offered support to the movement and participated in the General Strike. In the morning, many members of the movement gathered together to offer support and clean up the mess. I saw signs posted next to broken windows apologizing. A high school teacher who participates in Occupy Oakland said to me “I know who these kids are – and believe me they are kids – they’re the same students of mine who write in the text books.” Others say the worst of it was done by Agent Provocateurs.
One person who spoke to me on camera said that he witnessed a tire fire being started and tried to intervene, only to be assaulted, as were others. Once the fire was raging, the individuals who started it disappeared down an escape route. It’s always to difficult to find evidence of whether these kinds of actions were deliberately designed to undermine the movement, but investigations have revealed this in other protests, particularily in Europe. It is completely and utterly in the interests of the police for demonstrators to engage in property destruction. It justifies a militarized police crackdown, and distracts from the actual issues being expressed.
There is also a contingent of protestors who claim to believe that property damage is a viable means of protest. We’ve been struggling with this issue in our movements for decades. My most recent experience with this was in Toronto during the G-20 protests. A large, peaceful march ended in mass arrests – the largest in Canadian history – after a contingent broke away from the group and set a police car on fire and smashed store windows.
What happens in these cases is that conversation gets completely hijacked. It devolves into the not very interesting conversation of cops versus mobs. We lose our moral capital, and our broad base of support. As someone commented in a working group meeting at Occupy Oakland, “by doing this, they are dominating us, in the same way the 1% dominates us.” The camp was put at risk, and at one point it felt like a raid was imminent.
For those of you who saw the images on the mainstream media, please remember that these were the actions of a tiny minority – even the police recognize that – and is not representative of the hopes and dreams and love of the Occupy Movement. We have the world’s imagination. Let’s do something amazing!