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After Occupy’s demise, the Left apparently has learned nothing


Like you, I’ve been watching the demonstrations over the past year, following the death of George Floyd. But unlike you, perhaps, I experience a bit of post-traumatic stress syndrome, for I have my own, unpleasant experience.

It was ten years ago, in October, 2011. Occupy Oakland was then at its height: a people-powered movement that sought to regain political and economic power from “the 1%” and transfer it to the 99% of us who were tired of seeing America’s wealth siphoned off to billionaires, with the connivance of a corrupt Congress.

I immediately sympathized with Occupy. Ground Zero for them at that time was Frank Ogawa Plaza, the large public square outside City Hall, which is just a 15-minute walk from my home. There, Occupiers were living in hundreds of tents that had been hastily set up on the grass. Food venues, Porta-Potties and clothing donations made their lives easier. It was a peaceful, beautiful, mellow scene. People would meditate together.

Large crowds marched peacefully in downtown Oakland.

Michael Moore visited one day, to lend his support.

The signs were fun and touching; I liked this one especially.

But then came the night of October 25, 2011, when my perception of Occupy Oakland changed radically. This was the now-infamous night when the young Iraq-war veteran Scott Olsen was hit in the head by a projectile fired by an Oakland Police Department officer. Olsen was critically injured but survived; the city later paid him a settlement of $4.5 million.

I was in the crowd of several thousand that night, in the front ranks, perhaps 100 feet from Olsen. The crowd was moving closer to City Hall. There were police everywhere.

Through a loudspeaker, one of them repeatedly warned the crowd to back up and disperse, or else, he said, the police might be compelled to use force. I remember being a little frightened—not much, but telling myself to keep my wits about me. The warning was repeated at least five times. That’s when a little voice told me to remove myself from the front ranks. And then all hell broke loose.

Olsen had been hit, although I doubt that one person in 100 in the crowd knew that. All that we knew was things had turned south and it was time to scatter. The immense crowd ran in all directions. I found myself in a group of about 100, running northeast, away from downtown. We got to around 17th Street when things finally calmed down and I stopped running to get my bearings. There were many people wearing black face masks—they were called the Black Bloc. Next to me, I noticed a young kid with a mask, dressed all in black. He reached inside his pants and pulled out a crowbar and then he started smashing everything in sight: store windows, car windows, mirrors on parking garage ramps.

I was aghast. I’d had no reason at all to think that anyone in the Occupy movement was at all violent, so the kid’s actions came as a complete shock. I approached him and asked him why he was vandalizing “our town, Oakland.” His answer was to punch me in the chest.

In the following days, Occupy Oakland held mass open-air meetings to discuss their policy and practices. I’ll say this for them: they really tried to be a democratic (small “d”) group. The topic of the vandalism and associated arson and looting arose. I made my way to the microphone and said that Occupy needed to purge itself of its violent fringe if it wanted to keep the support of moderates, without whom there can be no meaningful change in America. But other speakers demanded that Occupy allow “a variety of means,” by which they meant: If some of us choose violence, we must not oppose it.

That’s when my attitude toward Occupy shifted. In recent years, after Occupy died (the victim of a self-inflicted suicide for precisely the reason I warned them about) and was replaced by BLM and other movements, my conviction has only strengthened. Peaceful protest is a wonderful, beautiful thing. But when things turn violent, the vast majority of Americans, who would otherwise love to support these movements, turns against them. Nobody wants to see their hometown burned, ravaged and pillaged, in the name of “justice.”

As I watch events unfold in Brooklyn Center and Minneapolis, these memories return to me with pain. I loved Occupy. I believed in it and in its transformative possibilities. For the first time since the 1960s, I felt part of a genuine, national movement for progress and fairness for all. When the violence broke out, and Occupy refused to repudiate it, they lost me. How many Americans are similarly being lost by the violence of the past few years in Portland, Milwaukee, Seattle and so many other cities? For that matter, it’s my firm conviction that Democrats lost so many Congressional seats last November precisely because of the violence and the disastrous “defund the police” slogan invented by what I can only describe as cop haters.

I truly hope and pray we can form another movement for civil rights and equity that will resist violence in all its ugly forms. But somehow, I doubt it.

  1. Jack Saunders says:

    Terrific story, Steve.

  2. Thanks Jack.

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