Scott Olsen, nonviolence and violence: Where do we go from here?

by John McBeath Watkins

Scott Olsen, the Iraq war vet who police hit in the forehead with a projectile (probably a "beanbag" filled with 40 grams of lead shot, a type of "non-lethal" projectile that for a time was abandoned by police following a 1971 fatality) during the Occupy Oakland protest, is recovering but cannot at present speak, causing his family to worry that the speech center in his brain may have been damaged.

This is in part an outcome of the same sort of thing that resulted in the Battle in Seattle, when a black bloc started smashing windows and throwing things at police. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said that a small number of protesters threw rocks, bottles and paint at police, and some rushed banks while other protesters tried to restrain them.

Meanwhile, interest in Occupy Wall Street (also called the 99 percent movement) has increased to the point that internet searches for it far exceed any period in the Tea Party Movement, and unlike the Tea Party, OWS has inspired protests all around the world. Here's a chart of internet interest:

If there's a lesson from the Arab Spring, it is that where the rule of law has at least some currency, non violent protest can achieve things violence cannot. Where it doesn't, violence is the last resort.

But there have always been people who want violence, who want to battle their enemies in a more concrete way. As Prof. Gene Sharp has pointed out, when it comes to violence, the state has all the tools and the protesters have few. A monopoly on violence is part of the reason for the state to exist, after all.

There are always those who think the power of violence is the only real power, and sneer at the actions of those who shun it. It's a bit like the chicken hawks of the Bush administration who thought being the tough guy who would torture was the way to get information in interrogations, while the actual experts in interrogation said the opposite. Violence is the easy way to "get tough," a lazy way of seeking glory and catharsis while sabotaging your own cause.

That the asshole element has arrived tells us that it's time for the 99% movement to look for new ways of expressing itself. You can only be so articulate by camping in the middle of town. At some point, the movement has to find a way to get its goals expressed in the political process. The protesters have built some networks and a sense of community, but if they are to make real changes in society, they need to find a way to get our leaders to change their behavior.

For the Tea Party, this was relatively easy. They tended to belong, overwhelmingly, to the Republican Party, and were ideological conservatives who often were already politically active.They were, in fact, the Republican base.

An academic study of the OWS supporters found that 70% are independents. This is a very different kind of movement, in which only about 27% of the participants identify with the Democrats and less than 3% with the Republicans. This independence from political parties is part of what makes the movement attractive to people world wide. It's also the reason it will be difficult to translate the movement's popularity into political action.