Thursday, November 3, 2011

Oakland and Chicago Occupations

Reading about the violence in Oakland, which was apparently initiated by some of the police and joined in by some of the occupiers, I have been pondering whether the occupations in Chicago and other cities can expect that they will also experience more violence, either by the police or by others. Because protests in both cities were inspired by the occupation of Wall Street in New York, news reports about them make it seem as if they were all part of one movement, and many of the protesters like the idea that they are part of a nationwide movement. In many respects they are. Most notably, they share many of the same concerns and some of the same tactics.

But there are differences. One difference is that the people in Oakland are different from the people in Chicago. Not necessarily different races or income levels or ages – just different people. It seems obvious, but the reporting on the occupations seems to have overlooked this difference in the protesters, the reporters, the politicians, and the public.

People in Chicago have to deal with Mayor Rahm, a man who was elected despite the fact that just about everyone who had ever dealt with him described him as a bully. When he had the police roust the protesters from the park where they were encamped, it came as no surprise. People in Oakland knew what they could expect, too. It is a city with its own history of police brutality and resistance to that brutality. This is not to say that the police in either Oakland or Chicago are worse, it is just to say that the protesters in each city know their own police and politicians, and they have developed their own strategies for dealing with them over the years.

Besides the people, there are huge differences between the two cities. Different industries, different histories, different geography, different neighboring cities, different climate, different everything. Chicagoans take pride in their El, the way they garnish hot dogs, the thickness of their pizzas, their jazz, their sports teams, their corrupt politicians, and their accents or lack of accents. People in Oakland have their own sense of pride-of-place, too. It shouldn't come as a surprise if the way they protest is different from ours, or if they have fringe groups among their occupation that we don't have here. When the police in Chicago get out of control, we chant, “The whole world is watching” because of what happened here in 1968. I don't know what they chant in Oakland when their police go on the attack.

The press in Chicago has been doing a pretty good job reporting on the Chicago occupation, and the press in Oakland has probably been doing a pretty good job, too. But a reporter in either city would have to do an awful lot of homework to be able to really understand the situation in the other city. Some news outlets try to overcome this problem by having local reporters cover each city and write joint stories. But with deadline pressures, even this collaborative approach has severe shortcomings. So the stories we get really don't give us much basis for drawing any conclusions about whether the activities in one city will be duplicated in another. Social and political scientists can theorize about what will happen, but their predictions usually look backward into history, and they have the same problem the reporters do of not being familiar with the differences among the occupied cities.

Probably anyone can guess what will happen next, but no one can make reliable predictions. The future will depend upon so many things. Oakland ain't Chicago, politics ain't beanbag, and things ain't always the way they seem to be. To date, Oakland is the only city among dozens in this country that are occupied where there has been any level of serious violence. The violence may be more about Oakland than it is about the occupations.

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