What Happens When 'the Man' Is Us?
The Occupy Wall Street protests show that today's leaders can be as reactionary as yesterday's.
Mayor Quan is the Man in the Oakland. So is her acting police chief, Howard Jordan (black). So is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (black). The clashes in those two cities last week resembled battlegrounds that, visually, may rival the notorious police assault on marchers crossing Selma, Ala.'s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. MSNBC's Ed Shultz said of the tear-gas smoke that wafted over Oakland, "Just like the good old days."
New York cops committed similar outrage when a senior official pepper-sprayed demonstrators, and if anyone should be better at handling crowds than New York, it would be Washington. But then, the NYPD has a notorious reputation -- cops themselves protested to support their brethren indicted in a ticket-fixing scheme, and minorities have called for federal help to stop officers from willy-nilly frisking nonwhite males.
Being the Man puts minority men and women officials in a precarious position. I cannot imagine any one of them wants to be compared to Bull Connor or George Wallace. But when they order cops to move in on demonstrators, the risk of being so labeled is there, especially in case of serious injury, as there was in Oakland when a protester, a Marine veteran who had served tours in Iraq, was hospitalized after being struck in the head by a tear-gas canister. That incident triggered a huge uptick in support of the growing movement among people around the country.
Mayor Quan has been extremely conciliatory since the incident. She apologized and visited the injured vet, Scott Olsen, 24, in the hospital, and she sought a meeting with the protesters. They refused to see her. And they have returned to the downtown plaza they had occupied. Chief Jordan promised a "full investigation," something the Man never did in the South, a concession that was unthinkable then.
Meanwhile, in New York City, the NYPD and demonstrators were playing cat-and-mouse games. The protesters outwitted the cops by calling for one march, then holding two, and by walking with and through the traffic on the city's one-way streets, thereby preventing the police from barricading and closing streets and making rush hour worse than it is already by attempting to arrest the scattered mass of people.