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What I was trying to say about Occupy Oakland

I was on KQED’s “This Week in Northern California” last night to talk about Occupy Oakland:

As I expected, some within the Occupy movement weren’t happy with what I said. Here’s a few of the many tweets sent last night by @OccupyDavis:

To change the behavior of the young, we must 1st change the conditions which lead to their frustrations!

Some role models —> @Josh_Richman @dylan20 & @cmarinucci are! 😛 They would rather disparage the young than listen 2 young voices #ows #oo

Hey @Josh_Richman @dylan20 @cmarinucci & other #MSM talking heads! Our children & grandchildren are fighting 4 freedom on U.S. soil! #ows

@Josh_Richman We are not afraid to stand in solidarity with our young sisters & brothers. The movement is not dead. You are Wrong! #ows #oo

To this last one, I replied that I hadn’t said the movement is dead, but I’d tried to convey that it’s at a crossroads. @OccupyDavis agreed with that, and we resolved to continue the conversation today. I’d prefer not to do so in 140-character bursts, so here we are.

I was on Oakland’s streets covering Occupy soon after police rousted the camp for the first time; for about 21 hours on the day of the general strike; during the West Coast port shutdown; and at other times. I thought it was amazing – especially at the general strike – how much support there was, across age and socioeconomic lines, for Occupy’s complaint against economic injustice. I think the widespread support for that movement is still out there; I think actions like that which targeted banks in San Francisco’s financial district a few weeks ago are still building upon that momentum.

But I think that support disappears when the movement’s priorities become taking over vacant buildings and deliberately provoking police into a severe response – which were the only priorities on display in Oakland last weekend. And you can’t build a movement by alienating more and more people.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You can’t tear down fences, try to take over a building, throw things at police, and march toward police lines with reinforced corrugated metal shields without expecting police to respond with force. It’s asinine. It’s juvenile. It’s pointless.

Most people I’ve talked to don’t want Occupy to be pointless. Most of the blogs, many of the tweets and a lot of the other sources I read online say it. The polls say it. People – even self-identified liberals who are sympathetic to Occupy’s original focus – are not down with this. I’ve found precious few who thought breaking into a money-starved city’s City Hall to smash art exhibits and burn a flag was wise.

So Occupy must choose, which isn’t an easy task for a leaderless movement. It can let itself be coopted by those who are consumed by the need to break the law in order to communicate, by those whose only aim is to bait an undeniably troubled and occasionally brutal police department into further transgressions. That’s a path for which Oakland taxpayers – not the 1 percent – foot the bill, and which many believe will guarantee fewer and fewer people rally to the movement’s name over time.

Or, it can find ways to reach out to existing community entities – nonprofits, unions, student groups, whatever – to find new, creative ways to keep hammering home the message of economic inequality that gave the movement its momentum in the first place. This is the path that many believe will eventually benefit Oakland and all other cities in which the movement has manifested itself.

It’s a difference between some vandalism, provocation and cheap headlines now, and a lasting movement that will effect real change. It’s all up to those who call themselves Occupy.

UPDATE @ 6:26 P.M.: Well, I’ve really put my foot in it this time – the tweets have been coming hot and heavy today from those I’ve offended. Thanks to those of you who talked to me instead of yelling at me; I enjoy and learn from dialogue like this, and I hope it’ll continue. To the rest: I don’t have time or the inclination to respond to junior-high locker room taunts.

Here’s another way of expressing what I was trying to say earlier: Every social movement needs a mixture of idealism and pragmatism, and I think a lot of people have come to feel that Occupy Oakland has lost that balance. Put simply, if you’re interested in building a social movement that will effect real societal change and yet fewer people are supporting you as time goes by, you’re doing it wrong, no matter whether your heart is in the right place. Either you’re no longer communicating the message clearly enough, or the message you’re communicating isn’t resonating with people.

Lots more, after the jump…

If you read back over stories I’ve written during my time at the Tribune – or if you were to ask certain members of the Oakland Police – you’d see I’m certainly no apologist for OPD’s past and present abuses. In fact, I think it’s widely known that the department needs more oversight and reform. But going out and deliberately provoking a response by breaking the law isn’t going to build widespread public sympathy and support for such reform.

John Seal: I’m sorry it took a few hours for your comment to appear here; first-time commenters are automatically sent to me for moderation as a spam-prevention measure, and I was out and about this afternoon for a while before I saw it. Let me reply to your three points:

1.) People don’t need protection if they’re not tearing down fences and trying to take over property; throwing things at police; and – most of all – marching directly toward a line of riot-gear-clad police from a department that you know perfectly well has crowd-control problems.
2.) Let me answer your question with one of my own. Why are you and others so obsessed with ignoring property rights? Public property isn’t your personal property; it belongs to all of us. You and your cohorts wanted to occupy it, but – if the polls are to be believed – far more people don’t want you to. We elect government to decide how to administer such property. If you want to use it, go petition that government. If you don’t like that government, go out and elect someone new – how about an Occupy-backed city council candidate? But don’t think for a second that you’re entitled to take whatever you want, and expect that police will stand down to let you do it. That’s not democracy – it’s anarchy.
3.) I’m relying on eyewitness reports from trusted colleagues as well as photos and videos that I viewed regarding the City Hall vandalism, not a city press release. It’s true that I didn’t see it myself; I don’t work seven days a week, and while I’ve been at many Occupy events in recent months, I was off last Saturday.

And, in response to some of the tweets:

@OccupyDavis: If there’s an opportunity for me to come up there and meet with 10-20 of you over beers for a friendly, constructive conversation, I’d welcome that. (I love Davis, actually.) But I’m less interested in driving 70 miles each way just to be the whipping boy for a few hundred angry people at a GA.

@marg1nal & @Dylan20: Sorry to contradict you, but actually, I do work for an enormous media corporation of the type that Occupy dislikes. The fact is, the vast majority of daily newspapers in this country are owned by such corporations – a situation that’s far from ideal, but also not what many make it out to be. I’ve never had an editor or publisher order me to do a story I didn’t think was news, or kill a story that was, or have me change a story to suit a particular political vantage point. I’ve always said that the true bias of corporate media isn’t a particular ideology, but rather that of economics: We are not staffed, paid and resourced to the point that we can cover everything we should.

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.