When the gods dance...

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Occupy Oakland protesters split over violence

Occupy Oakland protesters split over violence

Kevin Fagan,Justin Berton, Chronicle Staff Writers

A masked protester joins the march through downtown Oakland before the demonstration turned violent Saturday.

For many Occupy activists outside Oakland and San Francisco, the violent clashes with police and destruction that attended protests in those cities over the past two weeks not only went against the Occupy message - they've started to undercut its essence.

Even within the cities, there is a deepening split between those who accept violence as a tactic and those who oppose it.

The conflict is turning into a wrestling match for the soul of the Occupy movement in the Bay Area. And it's become so pronounced that many who started out calling themselves Occupiers now refer to themselves as "99 percenters" instead.

"When I started to see what was happening Saturday, my heart just broke," Michele Horaney of Alameda, a member of the 99 Percent Solution activist group in the East Bay, said of the Occupy Oakland protest that devolved into an hours-long street battle with police. "There is so much good to be gotten, earned and kept from really solid, sincere efforts to make things change for the better.

"But now," Horaney said, "we've got this group that pretty much just wants to destroy things and make trouble."

Not their fault

For others, though, it's not a matter of protesters committing violence. Any destruction is in reaction to police repression of their efforts to seek economic equality, they say - and if violence happens, it's not really the protesters' fault.

"In any struggle for social justice, the people have been told to shut up and sit down," said Cat Brooks, an active Oakland Occupier. "I believe in a diversity of tactics. If you are fully aware of the risks, then you have to do what you have to do.

"I'm not condoning violence, and I'm not condemning it," she said. "I'm just saying that 99 percent of the time when violence happens, it's police who start it. And you have to do what you have to do."

Occupy roots

Occupy began last fall on Wall Street as a crusade against economic inequity, shrinkage of the middle class and what its backers perceived as corporate greed. As tent cities sprouted throughout the country, the leaderless movement gathered adherents from many stripes of protest, and today one of the more vigorous contingents advocates taking over empty buildings and resisting police.

This is particularly true in Oakland, where protesters protecting themselves with shields tried to take over the vacant Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center on Saturday. The confrontation turned into another melee with police firing tear gas, protesters flinging objects and people getting hurt on both sides. Activists eventually broke into City Hall, burned a U.S. flag and trashed parts of the building.

The week before, on Jan. 20, Occupiers broke into the abandoned Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco after a peaceful day of marches in the Financial District, and were ejected after they threw bricks and other items at police.

Occupy San Francisco's General Assembly has voted to oppose violence as a tactic, but in Oakland - where there have been weekly "F- the police" marches - such proposals have fallen short of the consensus vote needed to pass. At protests in both cities, those who commit vandalism and throw rocks and other objects at officers are often opposed by other protesters who try to calm them down.

Other goals

Outside the two cities, there is little such debate among the 30-plus Occupy organizations from Santa Cruz to Concord and up to Santa Rosa.

There, the tactics have generally settled into marches and rallies to drive home a few central themes that include banking reform, making the rich and corporations pay more taxes and granting foreclosure relief.

Ellis Goldberg, a marketer who has staged Occupy-inspired rallies against banks in Dublin and San Ramon, has become so frustrated he now calls himself a "99 percenter" instead of an Occupier.

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