The Man nowadays can be female — even a minority woman — or a black police chief or black mayor, and cops will always be cops: "I was only following orders." It's true about cops; that's what they do and have done since time immemorial.
All of that and more has been on display since the weeks-old Occupy Wall Street protests began. For six weeks the mostly youthful demonstrations against Wall Street greed essentially have been violence-free, except for unfortunate clashes with New York policemen (who should know better), confrontations that have since been tamped down a bit.
But cooling it on the part of officialdom changed last week in Oakland, Calif., and Atlanta. The demonstrators are occupying parks and public lands in a growing number of places across the nation, including Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and even smaller and unexpected cities such as Nashville and Lansing, Mich.
Police moves against the protesters in Oakland and Atlanta reminded me of how Gen. Douglas MacArthur, on orders from President Herbert Hoover, forcefully and brutally chased World War I veterans unceremoniously out of Washington after the men had set up camp to demand the bonus money due to them for military service in the Great War.
The actions against Occupy Wall Street protesters brought back for me chilling memories of cops unmercifully clubbing, and in too many instances killing, nonviolent demonstrators during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Back then, though, all the policemen in the South were white, as were all the leaders. They represented the Man, the establishment, also solidly white. To round out the picture, when the Oakland Tribune offered solid support for the police action in an editorial the other day, it echoed Southern media in the 1960s.
Actually, the nouveau "the Man" should not be too surprising to us. The civil rights movement was about getting the Man to take his foot off our necks so we could vote, use restrooms and other public facilities, and gain access to better jobs and education — and most of all, to get him to stop lynching and killing us. The fight was about changing the Man from all white to multiracial and female, with the hope that such change would bring relief. We fought to oust the old establishment and make people like us, the new establishment.
It worked, to some extent. We are now the Man in many places — yet protecting the establishment remains the primary focus. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (Asian American) said that she ordered the use of force to protect the public and the protesters, repeating the exact words we heard from the Man of the past, a group that included Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor, Albany Georgia Police Chief Laurie Pritchett and Alabama Gov. George Wallace, among myriad others.
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.
The president has to decide how he wants to be remembered: as Dwight Eisenhower, who was extremely reluctant to be drawn into civil rights activity but was forced to nationalize the Arkansas National Guard to prevent harm to black students integrating Little Rock Central High School; or as Lyndon Johnson, who was sensitive to the movement and to resistance by his fellow white Southerners, but who came down on the side of principle and eventually uttered the words "We shall overcome" during a speech at Howard University.
Many blacks feel that the civil rights movement is their exclusive franchise and do not countenance any comparisons and claims to it, so I will not go any further with rights examples in the Occupy Wall Street movement, if it is yet a real movement. Where the Occupy protest is going, I do not know, but we've traveled that road before.
Ed Shultz stated gruffly, "Who the hell knows where they're going now?" But the movement seems to be moving, and moving the country. And it will continue to put the beneficiaries of that earlier movement on the spot. That's the price of being the Man.
Paul Delaney, a former reporter and editor at the New York Times, is writing a memoir.