Oakland, Calif. Occupy Wall Street protesters had just a few hours to celebrate what they saw as their biggest victory so far: the peaceful shutdown of the nation’s fifth-busiest port. Then the rioting began.
A day after some protesters clashed with riot police, set fires and shattered windows in Oakland, Calif., demonstrators across the country condemned the violence and wondered whether it was a turn that would destroy their cause.
“They don’t speak for the majority of people who were here yesterday,” said Hadas Alterman, a college student who was gathering trash at a tent camp near Oakland City Hall. “That was an hour of action, and we were out here for 12 hours and it was peaceful.”
The protest outside the port, which reopened Thursday, represented an escalation in tactics as demonstrators targeted a major symbol of the nation’s commerce with peaceful rallies and sit-ins.
The violence that followed, however, raised questions about whether a movement with no organizational structure and no high-profile leaders can do anything to stop those they called troublemakers.
So far, few cities have reached the level of Oakland, a unique place with a long history of tensions between residents and police.
Bob Norkus at the Occupy Boston camp said the riots didn’t represent the broader movement and likely wouldn’t have a lasting effect on it, either. The movement is still evolving and mistakes are inevitable, he said.
It “has to be nonviolent, or else it will just end. We won’t get the support,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t agitate people. But you can’t also be breaking windows and burning.”
Police in riot gear arrested more than 80 protesters in downtown Oakland, where bands of masked protesters took over a vacant building, erected roadblocks and threw chunks of concrete and firebombs. Five people and several officers were injured.
Chris Hedges, who was demonstrating at Goldman Sachs’ headquarters in New York, said the clashes in Oakland are a reminder to protesters that they should only respond peacefully to police actions.
“It’s awful. But police want people to break windows and set cars on fire, because it’s the kind of thing they know how to master — with force,” he said before being led quietly away in handcuffs.
Raymon Curtis, who was protesting in Portland, Ore., said he doesn’t believe the police in his city are seeking violence.
“I looked in their eyes and at first I thought it was a hard look,” Curtis said. “Then, I realized it was the same look I had when I went to prison for the first time. They’re terrified.”
Some protesters said violence can bring attention to the cause.
“This thing has to escalate so people see the violence and who is protecting the interests of the corporations,” said Denver protester Dwayne Hudson, standing next to a grill with logs burning over charcoal to stay warm after a snowstorm.
The far-flung movement challenging the world’s economic systems and distribution of wealth has gained momentum in recent weeks, with Oakland becoming a rallying point after an Iraq War veteran was injured in clashes with police last week.