Wednesday night, at the same time tens of thousands were tweeting, blogging and packing forums to share their sorrow at the death of Steve Jobs, protesters in #OccupyWallStreet movement were scuffling with police, getting pepper-sprayed and igniting a secondary storm of protest from their fans and audience online.
The conflict was a surprise considering the company protesters had been keeping. The usual gang of polite, countercultural refuseniks that make up the bulk of the long-term protesters were reinforced by mainstream unions for a joint march from Manhattan's Foley Square to Zucotti Park, the usual center of the protest.
Almost 40 organizations signed up to lend support to the OccupyWallStreeters, including the AFL-CIO, Communications Workers of America, United Auto Workers and United Federation of Teachers as well as more political organizations such as the Coalition for the Homeless, MoveOn.org and Common Cause NY.
The addition of unions and other organizations – not to mention new marches and protests in Los Angeles and elsewhere swelled by the support of their own local unions and mainstream political organizations – marks a sharp move toward legitimacy for a movement characterized by opponents as anarchistic, fringe-living radical, unconventional-lifestyle fuzzy minded liberal yo-yos.
The first march yesterday in what might be a long protest put 500 demonstrators on the streets of Los Angeles – a city in which it might take a year to count 500 people in motion voluntarily without cars.
The backing of labor and political groups who are left of center but still far from the radical fringe wasn't popular with everyone among "the 99%," as the group calls its membership to distinguish it from the "1%" of people wealthy and connected enough to take advantage of everyone else.
The unions and other organizations lent an air of legitimacy and thousands of bodies to the #OccupyWallStreet protests in New York, though not without warnings from supporters that involvement with even liberal "establishment" political groups could divert attention from the goals and demands articulated by the groups that make up #OccupyWallStreet.
(#OccupyWallStreet hasn't articulated those goals or demands, either, except to say they're all opposed to the financial oligarchy they charge with ruining the economy, running the country and taking advantage of everyone who can't out-Geco Gordon Gecko, out-manipulate Karl Rove or outdo Dick Cheney in cynically profane, ruthlessly self-interested political puppet-mastery.)
The union-supported part of the march went went almost without incident, despite a late change in plans that shifted the starting point from City Hall to Foley Park, though its destination remained Zucotti Park, which protesters have used as a base and gathering point due to its semi-private stature and the willingness of police to not roust them out at the first sign a crowd was gathering.
Breaking bad: The AfterParty
Where things turned a little ugly was after both the official march and the follow-up milling-about-amongst-the-revolutionaries was finished.
Just before 8 p.m. – when most of the union reps had gone home and the area around Zucotti Park was still filled with overexcited protesters and lines of police standing behind the barricades that have been in place to isolate the two-week protest – some of the protesters decided they'd go to City Hall after all.
According to a report in the NYT, one group gathered itself into a scrum, may even have counted down to D-second, and rushed the police barricade, where they were shoved back, pepper sprayed and, in some cases, whacked with batons.
They were shoved back, but the attempt set off an exodus from the park that was partly a proto-protest march toward City Hall, partly wilding to let off steam.
It looked a lot more serious to supporters outside the gory zone.
The clashes – which were isolated to a few busy corners where protesters coagulated and police often took the initiative to shove them off the street and onto sidewalks, or to try to break up small crowds and move them along, was broadcast live from handheld video cameras and cell phones, that showed the maximum chaos and minimum hard information.
Seeing only snippets of the action, the protest's online audience was outraged. Messages posted to Twitter and to the protest's live videoblog scrolled by so fast they were impossible to read.
Posters begged moderators to thin out the traffic or make text from certain posters sticky "so any actual facts being posted don't roll offscreen in just a couple of seconds." Several made the request more than once because the requests also scrolled offscreen too fast to read.
So many of the videos, Tweets and texted updates came from marchers or semi-participants among the crowd that cartoonist Alison Bechdel summarized it as "I'm watching the Wall Street protests on MSNBC. Everyone is looking at their iPhones."
It was all very meta and self-reflective as marchers within the crowd reported bits of news (a convoy of paddy wagons headed downtown, phalanxes of riot police waiting to"kettle and arrest" everyone still marching (Link goes to an example from a Sept. 24 march.) that the volume of disconnected, anxiety-amplified information made the situation more tense rather than less.
(Kettling, btw, is a police crowd-control tactic in which riot police use the intimidation and physical barrier of police vehicles, barriers, or lines of riot police with shields to maneuver and trap groups of marchers in areas small enough to stop any rioting and arrest marchers more easily. The link above goes to video from a march Sept. 24.)
The police turned out not to be kettling anyone.
They did arrest a few – 23, according to police spokesman Paul J. Browne, including five who rushed a police line at the corner of Broadway and Wall St. just before 8 p.m. One was charged with "second-degree riot" which, despite the name, is a misdemeanor.
Most of the others, were charged with disorderly conduct.
There were some injuries; YouTube videos show police striking protesters with batons, pepper-spraying anything that moved or smelled of patchouli and threatening protesters with arrests, beatings or "else."
One man was treated in Zucotti Park for a broken rib; several others were treated for cuts and bruises on the face and arms.
Most were not seriously injured, or struck directly by police, even while being manhandled away from their track toward City Hall, which the mini-protest never reached.
"I basically fell down, but with a lot of help from NYPD," one of the fallen complained on-camera.
Grudge match after Saturday blowout
The march Wednesday may have been a more mainstream, with traditional political groups joining the ad hoc-ish "99%," but it was also the first opportunity protesters and police had to meet in large numbers since Saturday, when more than 700 were arrested for marching in the streets across the Brooklyn Bridge, rather than staying on sidewalks and pathways where police would leave them alone and where organizers tried to keep them.
OccupyWallStreet spokespeople charged that the arrests were as much a setup by police as offense by marchers.
Rather than prodding marchers back aggressively when they wandered off legal walkways
violating police warnings to remain on walkways, which led to the mass arrests.
Police deny they did anything to draw the protesters offsides. The march Saturday was simply rowdier and more disruptive than previous events, police spokesmen said.
The character of each march or event is a little different, because only a small core of protesters stays on site all the time. For special events, like Saturday's march, or Wednesday's, people crowd in to participate, often having traveled from several states away to participate. Newcomers almost never understanding the delicate balance organizers and police negotiate each day between the desire of protesters to remain and desire of police to keep the streets clear or arrest anyone who disrupts them.
Keeping protesters from tying up traffic or becoming a danger to themselves or others in the road has been a primary excuse for police to intervene in marches, speeches and other gatherings during the two weeks of the protest.
Wednesday's minor violence and major chaos wasn't part of the scheduled, organized, union-supported march. It was ad hoc idiocy – hijinks more like game-day rowdiness at a big football school than the more orderly events OccupyWallStreet has been scripting to try to walk the line between enough disorder to get noticed but not enough to get everyone arrested.
It's a narrow line in Manhattan, but perhaps a bit thicker in some of the other cities the movement has gained some momentum – Boston, Washington and elsewhere.
Considering how rarely people walk in Los Angeles, it's anybody's guess how police will handle the site of a lot of them doing it at once, whether on sidewalks or in the street.
In New York organizers vow to continue the protests and stick with their careful tactics, though it was the police-line-charging rogue protest scuttle that got all the attention, not the one with thousands more people and the support of organizations accustomed to long protests and opposing traditional centers of power.
The question for Occupy is whether orderly protest with mainstream support will make the movement more powerful or undercut its countercultural roots and leave it to die of thirst.
Some among the throng complained they didn't like the scent of Establishment power politics that came with support from big unions. I wonder how long they'll prefer the scent of fool scented with pepper spray.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.