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.

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    Sorry, old chum, but this biz about striving to “effect real change” is hopelessly bourgeois liberal. As Mirabeau and Kerensky, not to mention countless others in Egypt and Syria today, sadly found out, Moderation and Reason are the first casualties of social upheaval.

  • Elwood

    “brutal police department”?

    A black Oakland police officer I know calls east Oakland the jungle. If you worked among the animals in the jungle every day you might become brutalized too.

    I’ve already picked out my seat for the Saturday night riots which will commence at 7 pm in Frank Ogawa plaza.

  • John Seal


    Tonight’s FTP march is a ‘clean up downtown’ march. Bring your broom and help–it’s a big job.

    Josh Richman,

    1) The corrugated metal shields are for defensive purposes. Have you seen the weapons at OPD’s disposal? People need protection.

    2) Why are you and other liberals so obsessed with property rights? The Henry Kaiser Center is owned by the City of Oakland and has been vacant and unused for over five years. Why NOT occupy it and make it useful again?

    3) Though I think the City Hall vandalism was pointless, there is absolutely no proof that ‘art exhibits’ were damaged or destroyed. The City claimed the children’s art in the lobby had been attacked, but they have released no photographs or other evidence of the resultant damage. Until you can provide incontrovertible proof that damage was done to the children’s art, don’t use a City press release as the basis for your report. You are, after all, a reporter.

  • Mayor Quan has no one to blame but herself. Having attacked and destroyed the encampments twice, trashing medical supplies and burning library books, what in the world did she expect? She had the option of providing a safe place for #OO to gather, instead of trying to emulate Auguste Thiers and the 1871 Paris commune. She has shown herself to be the enemy of democracy; #00 has shown remarkable constraint in the face of her provocations.

  • Elwood

    “On the Occupy Oakland website, information about a protest scheduled to start at 7 p.m. Saturday discourages peaceful protesters from participating.

    The website says, “It is not a march intended for people who are not fully comfortable with diversity of tactics.”


    Clean up downtown, eh? Bullpucky!

  • Sandra Smith

    A society which can’t find gainful employment or affordable housing for its young people, and makes college or other training available only to forelgn students who can pay the huge tuition necessary to pay massive administrative costs, does not deserve to exist without massive noise and disruption. US wants the UN to change the regime in Syria. What do our kids need to do to get similar consideration?

  • Elwood

    “What do our kids need to do to get similar consideration?”

    Move to Syria.

  • Amy L

    Dear Josh,

    Your concern for those you’ve “offended” is puzzling. Why are you so eager to explain yourself to representatives of “the movement”? The statement that you “enjoy and learn from” the tired cliches recycled here by OccupyDavis, marg1nal and Dylan20, is kinda scary. Apparently you identify with the notion of eliminating “economic injustice”, whatever that means. You whine about wanting more: more staff, more pay, more resources. Guess what? You’re not serving a life sentence at the “enormous media corporation”. Nor are you starving in the gulag that is North Korea. Or languishing in a Cuban dungeon because you had a lending library in your home. Or sentenced to death by stoning on charges of “adultery” brought by religious police. Okay, I get that your beat is Bay Area politics, but you’re the one invoking ideas (economic injustice, property rights, “lasting” social movements). You can because, and only because, you’re free to do so. You also are free to use your own time, energy and resources to fight “injustice”. PS drinking beer with Occupy Davis doesn’t count.

  • Elwood

    List of Justice League members
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The Justice League is a team of comic book superheroes in the DC Comics Universe. Over the years they have featured a large number of characters in a variety of combinations.

    The JLA members are listed here in order of their first joining the team. None are listed twice. No retconned members are listed (except where they historically took part in the stories). No associates and unofficial members, or members of the Super Friends (except when they are also Justice League members in the mainstream comics) are listed.

    Non-full members and staff are also listed below.

    Characters in bold are current Justice League active members.
    [edit] Members

    A new Justice League of America was formed following the case entitled The Tornado’s Path. Every hero who participated in the case was offered membership.
    Character Real name Joined in Notes
    Original team: Justice League of America

    These members were featured in the team’s first appearance (The Brave and the Bold (vol. 1) #28, February–March 1960), with the incarnation they founded lasting until the mid-1980s.
    Superman Clark Kent / Kal-El The Brave and the Bold #28 Founding member.
    Batman Bruce Wayne The Brave and the Bold #28 Founding member.
    Wonder Woman Princess Diana / Diana Prince The Brave and the Bold #28 Founding member.
    Flash Barry Allen The Brave and the Bold #28 Founding member.
    Green Lantern Hal Jordan The Brave and the Bold #28 Founding member.
    Aquaman Arthur Curry The Brave and the Bold #28 Founding member.
    Martian Manhunter J’onn J’onzz / John Jones The Brave and the Bold #28 Founding member.
    Josh Richman Josh Richman BANG

  • Josh Richman

    Re #8 Amy L.: Whenever someone misunderstands or misquotes what I said or wrote, I try to explain myself and continue the dialogue – that’s why I wrote this post, and why I’m answering your comment now. And it’s part of my job description to enjoy and learn from talking to people of many different viewpoints. (Even you, Elwood.)

    What I identify with is immaterial. I’ve been involved in covering Occupy, by necessity, for months; it was clear that many people here in the uber-liberal Bay Area supported the movement and its ideals for some time, and it’s equally clear that support is decreasing now as people become confused about what it stands for. That was part of the discussion on Friday’s show, and I blogged to follow up on that.

    Yes, I wish my newspaper had more staff, pay and resources; I think everyone should wish so. More of that means more and better coverage of our communities. A lot of great journalists from my companies and others have lost their jobs in recent years, and I think our coverage suffers for it. But I love my work and am glad to still be doing it after 20 years – I’m a lucky guy.

    Not sure how you got from my statements to North Korea, Cuba or (I presume you’re talking about) parts of the Middle East and South Asia. Is this some sort of “love-it-or-leave-it” logic? And if so, is it directed at me and my industry, or Occupy and the U.S., or both?

    Re #9 Elwood: DC sucks. I’m a Marvel guy through and through.

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    Re Sandra Smith: Yes, you’re right. The world (and Uncle Sam) owes these sensitive youth a living, and a nice apartment.

  • Amy L

    Dear Josh,

    I believe that what I wrote is clear and have nothing to add. Best, Amy L

  • Elwood

    “it’s equally clear that support is decreasing now”

    That’s because the “movement”, if that’s what it was, has degenerated into thuggery.

    It should be renamed “Let’s riot and F with the police”

    All that’s left is ragtag anarchist street criminals. And their commie National Lawyers Guild lawyers of course. But I repeat myself.

  • John W.

    Elwood kinda beat me to the punch, but my thoughts during the past weekend were that the thug brigade needs to take on a new challenge — Occupy Damascus. As for flag burning, Bill Clinton’s comments about abortion come to mind. “It should be rare, safe and legal.” Except in the case of the flag burning, I would go with just the rare and legal part.