Police use of tear gas to scatter occupying protesters in Oakland last night exhibited the dangers of a law enforcement option that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has managed to avoid. It also serves as an unfriendly reminder of what could have been in New York — and what could still occur if matters are not handled delicately.
Faced with the possibility of a clash between protesters and police on the morning of October 14, Bloomberg called off the scheduled cleaning of Zuccotti Park. The last-minute nature of the decision and deferral of authority, according to the mayor, to park owners Brookfield Properties indicates Bloomberg's confusion about how to respond. Nevertheless, with thousands of demonstrators gathered and vowing not to leave, further clashes with law enforcement, which fueled media coverage of Occupy Wall Street in its early days, were avoided.
While he's never quite shown sympathy for those gathered at Occupy Wall Street, the mayor — himself a proud member of the 1 percent club — has evolved some, from arguing initially that the protests aimed "to destroy the jobs of working people" to last week praising the First Amendment and insisting, "We just want to make sure that people have the right to protest."
Things are different in Oakland, where Mayor Jean Quan has evolved in the opposite direction from Bloomberg. The death of Oscar Grant, shot dead in 2009 by a public transit police officer later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, still casts a pall on the city and has sparked protests and riots at least once a year since. Knowing the ongoing anger and instability (and 9.7 percent unemployment rate), Quan (a student activist in the sixties) initially chose to act deliberately. She cited public safety and health concerns, and was supportive of the protesters, saying sometimes "democracy is messy."
Raids were eventually ordered nonetheless, with the mayor's assistant insisting the decision was made as a group: "We have the mayor, the City Administrator, the police chief, and the fire chief," she said yesterday. "They cannot occupy our parks."
Similar action was taken last night in Baltimore and Atlanta, where dozens were arrested in a crackdown on local occupations. Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed is fortunate that most eyes were on the other side of the country, but is still facing heat over the decision, with one state senator claiming that SWAT squads in riot gear were "overkill." The critic added, "This is the most peaceful place in Georgia. At the urging of the business community, he's moving people out. Shame on him."
Bloomberg's buddies on Wall Street might not be happy that he's allowed the protests to continue, but since the reversal on October 14, he's been doing better in the PR war. Presiding over the most media-conscious city in the world, the mayor knows full well that tear gas (or even pepper-spray) is the quickest way to invite unnecessary attention and scrutiny, while simultaneously conjuring sympathy for protesters. Mass police action all but guarantees incident, and in the age of YouTube, outcry is unavoidable.
A cynic could argue that Bloomberg is holding an ace, one Oakland doesn't have: a brutal winter. It's unlikely that protesters can last it without breaking some rules, and then the mayor will be left with another enforcement decision. If the snow doesn't do it, Bloomberg's job gets harder yet again. Everyone will still be watching.