Liberal lawmakers are continuing their support for the Occupy Wall Street movement, saying Thursday that images of tear-gas-filled Oakland streets and an Iraq War veteran bleeding from his head have deeply disturbed them.
The lawmakers, some of whom represent Oakland, Calif., and Atlanta, where protesters have been cleared by force, said Thursday that they think police in California overreacted by clearing Occupy Oakland protesters.
“I talked to the mayor and I told her I was gravely concerned about what was taking place,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D), who represents much of Oakland. “I support the occupiers. A nonviolent protest is the way we petition our government for a redress of grievances.”
Riot police in Oakland fired tear gas on the crowd in front of Oakland’s city hall Tuesday evening to disburse them, critically injuring a protester, Scott Olsen, when a canister allegedly hit him in the head.
“I hope that they move forward with an investigation. I’m very concerned,” Lee said.
Police have promised an investigation of the incident, and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan has apologized for the incident and visited Olsen, a Marine and Iraq War veteran, in the hospital.
But the confrontation cannot be undone, leaving lingering comparisons to police crackdowns on civil rights protesters in the 1960s, notably from Rep. John Lewis.
“Oakland reminded me of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., March 1965. Just seeing the amount of tear gas that was used, it was uncalled for,” said the Georgia Democrat, who was beaten and arrested in the famous civil rights protest. “You cannot put a demonstration and a sense of discontent out with force; you cannot stop it, especially in a Democratic society.”
Lewis said the violent crackdown has “added fuel to the fire,” pointing to protesters in other cities, including his hometown of Atlanta, who are marching in solidarity with the Oakland protesters.
Police in Atlanta also cleared protesters with force, although without the striking imagery of tear gas. Lewis said he will not question the mayor’s decision to do so but said that it will not end the protest.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D), who also represents Atlanta, said he agrees with the protesters’ cause as well, but added that they should not be given special treatment to infringe on curfew laws for public parks.
“If the rules say the park closes at 11 p.m. or 10 p.m., we’ve got to follow those rules,” Johnson said. “A public park should be a public park, and that means everyone who wants to come there should have that ability. So to that extent, police have to maintain order and allow for ingress and egress into that park.”
Lee said she thinks Tuesday’s events in Oakland will encourage the movement.
“It’s going to encourage people to say, ‘Look were going to raise our voices and we have a right to free speech and we’re going to continue with this movement,’” she said. “People aren’t afraid. People are sick and tired of what has taken place in the policies in this country.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) urged caution, however, warning that striking back with violence could undermine the movement.
“They have every right to protest. They even have a right to peacefully engage in civil disobedience,” Ellison said. “I urge them to not strike back or to ever allow themselves to be characterized as violent, and I urge the police to exercise restraint.”
Rep. John Garamendi agreed, saying the whole thing needs to be “toned down” on both sides.
“The point of the demonstrations across the country is right on target, but it does not help the cause when it gets out of hand,” the California Democrat said. “So the whole thing needs to be toned down. Go with the issues and protest peacefully.”
In New York City, the epicenter of the protests, police have allowed 24-hour encampments in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, a privately owned property with no curfew.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D), who represents the area, said he supports the movement but added that there must be a way to reconcile the rights of the protesters with those of nearby residents to keep the situation from getting out of hand.
“As long as the protesters observe basic sanitation rules, don’t have bongo drumming at 2 in the morning and conduct themselves so that local residents are OK, then there should be no problem,” Nadler said.
He said he’s working on a mutual code of conduct for protesters and residents with local officials but added that the protesters must self-enforce to a certain extent.
“One of the problems has been that the Occupy Wall Street movement is not cohesive in the sense that you can reach an agreement,” he said. “They’re going to have to have the cohesion so that if an agreement is reached to protect the rights of people in the area, that agreement is enforced. Hopefully it will be enforced by the protesters themselves, but if not, it’s possible that the police will have to do that. But I hope it doesn’t come to that.”