NEW YORK-From New York City to Oakland, Calif., the Occupy Wall Street protests have increasingly come to represent more than opposition to big banks and fiscal dishonesty. In the past few weeks, the protests also have had the unintended consequence of increasing conflict concerning civil freedoms and public safety.
In Oakland, protesters faced off with police officers in a heated protest on Oct. 25 in an attempt to reclaim as a campsite a plaza in front of City Hall. Bay area police officers launched beanbags and sprayed tear gas at protesters who tried to re-enter the Frank Ogawa Plaza, which was closed on Oct. 25 for sanitary cleaning. Police said they responded defensively to protesters who threw rocks, bottles, and cans of paint at them. They arrested more than 100, with one serious injury reported.
Mayor Jean Quan authorized the raid after thousands of protesters continued camping and cooking overnight despite the city's warning a week before. Tensions in Oakland escalated on the evening of Nov. 2 as 3,000 demonstrators succeeded in temporarily closing down the Port of Oakland, while others broke into a downtown building and set fires. When police came, demonstrators threw rocks, bottles, and other items.
In Atlanta, police shut down Woodruff Park and arrested 52 Occupiers after they refused to leave. Occupy Atlanta criticized Mayor Kasim Reed for restricting their freedom, but Reed told The New York Times: "The attitude I have seen here is not consistent with any civil rights protests I have seen in Atlanta, and certainly not consistent with the most respected forms of civil disobedience."
The protests also are taking a physical toll on participants. During the Oakland clash between protesters and police, an object fractured the skull of Scott Olsen, an Iraq War veteran, who remained hospitalized at the end of October. Although it's not clear whether the object came from police or protesters, Olsen became a symbol of resistance and of what some consider police brutality. But police have casualties of their own: New York City's Downtown Express reported that at least 20 police officers have been injured due to the protests.
In New York City, police tried to manage the 24/7 occupation of Zuccotti Park, some say at the expense of protecting other boroughs. A high-ranking officer told the New York Post that the protests are to blame for the increase in shootings this year: "Normally, the task force is used in high-crime neighborhoods where you have a lot of shootings and robberies," said one source. "They are always used when there are spikes in crime as a quick fix. But instead of being sent to Jamaica, Brownsville, and the South Bronx, they are in Wall Street." The Post reported that the Occupy Wall Street marches can require up to 3,000 officers-10 percent of the force.
When they aren't marching, the protesters hold meetings at "General Assembly" where they try to solve through democratic discussion problems of food distribution, community relations, and internal crime. The campsite has become a magnet for the city's homeless who come for free food. In protest, the irate camp's kitchen crew served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to send the General Assembly a message: No fancy meals until someone gets rid of the free riders.
Contributions of food and money have made life easier for Occupiers but also raised questions about use and management of the $500,000 in the Occupy Wall Street account and smaller amounts in other cities. Thefts of money and MacBooks alternate with on-going discussions of solidarity and America's economic future: "We are daring to imagine a new socio-political and economic alternative that offers greater possibility of equality," explains the website.
Technology is crucial to this movement. Self-promoted as an imitation of the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement depends heavily on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube, and Tumblr. The General Assembly website hosts various forums for discussion ranging on topics from where to use the bathroom to how to survive the approaching winter. These resources and the General Assembly are supposed to provide a sense of organization and progress that sympathetic mainline media bulwark.
New York magazine, though, reported that an emphasis on equality is leading to faction among protesters. For instance, a policy that all belongings in the camp are communal bothers some attendees who want to keep their things separate. Others have complied and never seen their belongings again. Situations like these fuel criticism about the movement's emphasis on equality and horizontal leadership: How exactly will anything be accomplished and what exactly will that be if no one is ultimately responsible? How long will the movement be able to sustain itself? What's to keep protesters from breaking off into separate factions or sub-protests?
Sub-protests and counter-protests of sorts are emerging: A Tea Party group in Richmond, Va., is demanding the city refund an $8,000 fee it paid for permission to use the same grounds that Occupy Wall Street protesters have used without charge for several weeks.
What about religion at protest sites? Occupy Boston has a "Sacred Space" where individuals from diverse religious backgrounds can come to pray or meditate. At other Occupy sites "protest chaplains" are praying with protesters. Catholics Online in an October editorial concluded, "If the movement focuses on authentic human and social ideals, while avoiding the seductive pitfalls of the very secularism that has created so many of our problems in the first place, then an opportunity may be at hand."
Case McCarty and Charles Wang in Los Angeles, though, believe the protesters' focus on social and economic restructuring is misdirected. The two members of Reality, a local nondenominational church, have spent hours at City Hall handing out homemade brochures with "Where is our hope?" in front and quotations from Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and others interspersed within, along with Bible verses such as Deuteronomy 15:11, Romans 3:23, and Ephesians 2:8-10. "We wanted to ... let them know that they are loved and that there is one hope that we are all looking for and that's Jesus," explained McCarty.
They've received mixed reviews. Some Occupiers have laughed. Others shoved the fliers into their back pockets. Others stopped by their table to talk. One man even went with them to church. So far, they do not have a lot of company in presenting the gospel. "A lot of churches are backing away from the political movements," said Wang. But McCarty notes, "We couldn't have orchestrated a better opportunity to minister to people on a personal level. ... It's a group of people who are sick and tired of what the government has promised them and of being lied to. ... They're at that place where we all were before we became Christians ... where Jesus [met] us."
So far, most church support for the protests comes in social and economic terms, but Wang and McCarty are striving to listen to protesters and offer deeper answers. They take the position that human suffering is an issue of the heart, not social organization. They have the support of their church and are trying to get more people to come out with them, but not as a publicity stunt: "We're less concerned with what our particular church can do ... but more with how we can encourage the church everywhere to know what's going and how they can contribute in this way," Wang said.
Some protesters are hostile to evangelism, but McCarty believes that others aren't. He told a story of a man at L.A. City Hall who sat next to him and expressed disappointment because he thought there would be more churches out there. "It doesn't help that they don't believe in church in general," McCarty said. "[Now] they see the church is turning the back on them too. ... It broke my heart that some of them were looking for that when they came out there."
-With reporting from California by Mary Jackson; the Associated Press also contributed to this report