On Occupy Oakland, the media & what’s next

After spending 21 hours on the street covering the Occupy Oakland general strike Wednesday and early Thursday, I’ve talked to a few other media outlets about what happened.

On Thursday, it was BBC Radio 4’s “The World Tonight;” the pertinent segment starts at about 36:25. On Friday, I talked with Scott Shafer of KQED’s “The California Report.” And on Friday night, I was on KQED’s “This Week in Northern California.”

Even as “This Week” was ending, a viewer e-mailed me with a critique.

On KQED this evening, you said how unfortunate it was that the powerful message was being lost with the Occupy movement because of the actions of a vast minority (the midnight vandalism). But then, with valuable television time, having a real opportunity to discuss this fundamental unbalance in our society you, what do you do?

You lay an egg.

An opportunity to relay the message of the majority (aka the 99%) and to provoke a real debate, you continued to focus on the fringe.

You’re right Josh, it is unfortunate. Next time I guess.

I understand Gary’s disappointment, but I disagree. We made it abundantly clear – as our Bay Area News Group coverage this week consistently has – that most of Wednesday’s strike was peaceful and powerful, with a cross-section of the community united in voicing its frustration over income inequality, lack of economic opportunity and a dearth of resources for education and other public services.

But it only takes a few dozen morons to muddy the water. Anyone who thinks the media (or the world) can ignore their deliberate provocation of police action – by invading and defacing private property, by building and burning barricades on public streets – and the resultant damage to property and civic reputation is being disingenuous at best.

Civil disobedience entails accepting consequences. Breaking the law to make a statement with a peaceful but defiant sit-in or camp-out may still lead to arrest; if protesters are truly nonviolent and police are brutal anyway, it only lends more credence to the protesters’ cause. But you’d have to be a fool to think that burning things in the streets and hurling things at police won’t get you tear-gassed, as well as alienate the majority whose hearts and minds you were trying to win. Nonviolence worked for Gandhi. It worked for Martin Luther King Jr. Oughta be good enough for this, too.

Yet Gandhi and MLK were leaders, of which Occupy – by design – has none. A leaderless movement that can’t define specific means to its general ends is ripe for co-option by interlopers, be they “anarchists” eager to strike a blow at tyranny by smashing Tully’s Coffee’s windows, or be they juvenile morons who get off on tagging up on any available surface.

We – on the show last night, and in our ongoing coverage – have tried to communicate that the Occupy movement knows what it wants, but can’t seem to decide how to get there. To truly tap into the widespread frustration out there, they should be thinking of Lennon (and McCartney) instead of Lenin. “You say you want a revolution, well, you know, we all want to change the world.”

The big “Death to Capitalism” banner stretched across 14th Street at Broadway won’t help keep a cross-section of the nation engaged in this movement. 99 percent of America doesn’t want a Marxist revolution; those who do constitute a 1 percent that’s scarier to the rest than the 1 percent that everyone has been smack-talking recently. “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.”

“F— the police” rhetoric, barricade burning, window-smashing and graffiti won’t build a movement, either; making downtown Oakland look like an old-school New York City subway car wasn’t a deft rhetorical statement. “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.”

You know what brings about change? Hard work, painstaking organization and incremental progress. Years of it.

The Occupy movement’s ideological opposites learned this long ago. Read Thomas Frank’s 2004 bestseller What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a study of how arch-conservatives took over that formerly moderate state’s politics from the ground up, conquering the GOP one county at a time until the entire political landscape had been dragged to the far right.

Or consider the Tea Partiers. They got some people elected, not by smashing windows and spray-painting graffiti, but by walking precincts and getting out their votes. Now the Speaker of the House – hardly a moderate himself – has trouble wrangling them.

The lesson is: If the party you’d counted upon to represent you has betrayed you, let you down, hung you out to dry, then go take it over and make it your own. Camping outside city hall sends a message; running city hall – and then the state legislature, and then Congress – lets you make the message a reality. Calling attention to problems is good – finding practical ways to fix them is better. “You say you’ve got a real solution, well, you know, we’d all love to see the plan.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Jim B.

    Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mr. Richman. The cabal of violent anarchists is impairing the Occupy message, as have the calls by some for an anti-capitalist/pro-Marxist revolt. But some of the “brand tarnishing” was remedied by the efforts of the more “adult” Occupy protestors who tried to stop the property damage and who showed up the following day to help clean up the damage. Some of these Occupy people have a misguided fascination with the 1968 Democratic National Convention protest in Chicago, conveniently forgetting that the entire incident so disturbed Middle America that Richard Nixon was elected president in the following close election; Nixon then expanded (not ended) the Vietnam War. The protestors recall the romance; the level-headed people remember the long-term consequences. If the person on the street in communities like Walnut Creek, Dublin, Tracy and other middle-of-the-road suburbs cringe, you know that your cause is lost in the wider electoral arena. Many of these same extreme Occupy morons decry the George W. Bush presidency, yet proudly insist that their advocacy for Nader for President in 2000 had absolutely nothing to do with Bush’s election. Yes, Lennon not Lenin.

  • Elwood

    Good piece, Josh.

  • Josh Richman

    Thanks, Elwood.

  • Fatima Peter

    Well said. If the movement needs people to believe in their message and prove themselves and their message credible. That is not going to happen through vandalism and graffiti. They need to organize themselves better and find leaders among themselves who can organize better.

    Thanks, Fatima

  • John W

    Excellently expressed, or something like that.

    Much has been said about how nice and peaceful the general strike was, until the goons took over. Sorry, the “good strikers” don’t get off that easy. Setting up a camp city, refusing to leave and wrecking the ability of small busineses and their employees to make a living is violence. And what has shutting down the port, denying truckers access in and out, got to do with anything? If they wanted to really accomplish something, they could focus on a single issue — forcing Congress to pass the proposed constitutional amendment empowering Congress and the states to pass laws governing campaign finance (i.e., negating Citizens United), then forcing state legislatures to ratify, then pushing federal and state legislators to enact appropriate laws.

  • Milan Moravec

    Every qualified California student should get a place in University of California(UC) system. That’s a desirable goal for a public university. However, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau displaces Californians qualified for education at Cal. with $50,600 tuition Foreigners.
    Paying more is not a better education. UC tuition increases exceed the national average rate of increase. The UC Board Of Regents jeopardizes Californians attending higher education by making UC the most expensive public university.
    Self-serving tuition increases are used by UC President Mark Yudof to increase the pay of 80,000 eligible faculty & others. Payoffs like these point to higher operating costs and still higher tuition for Californians. Instate tuition consumes 14% of Ca. Median Family Income! UC is hijacking our kids’ futures: student debt.
    I agree that faculty in higher education and senior management, like Yudof and Birgeneau, should consider the students’ welfare & put it high on their values.
    Deeds unfortunately do not bear out the students’ welfare values of campus senior managements and the UC Board of Regents.
    Opinions to UC Board of Regents, email marsha.kelman@ucop.edu

  • Elwood

    Hey Josh, I don’t think you’ll be getting a Christmas card from Jaime Omar Yassin this year.

    I thought I knew someone else who is the world’s foremost authority, but apparently I was wrong.

  • Nathalie Guyol

    Hi, Josh —

    Good piece, pretty well summarizing my take on it from way back here in Texas. I support OWS in general, but the clowns who love anarchy ruin it. Thus has ever been the case . . .

  • Josh Richman

    re #8: Yeah, Elwood, I saw that. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion; I guess time will tell which one of us was correct.

  • C.J. Hirschfield

    Excellent piece, Josh. I’m bookmarking your blog so I can get some thoughtful coverage of the Occupy situation.

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    A statement from an OWSer: I graduated from a prestigious university with a degree in Global Poverty/Mental Health with a minor in 2nd-hand smoking science. I should be employed with a progressive NGO or think-tank with a salary commensurate with my knowledge and energies. But this country’s screwed – up values reward greedy bankers and sellouts in politics, not people like me. Of course, I shouldn’t complain too much. After all, I am much better off than homeless LGBT persons or bipolar teens in Gaza. Just the same, if this society doesn’t reward people who care about vital issues, we’re headed down the drain.

  • Elwood

    But what about bisexual bipolar teens in the West Bank? Don’t they need love too?

  • John W

    Re #13

    Is there something you’d like to share with us, Elwood? It’s okay, you’re among friends.