Posted by: Mark Gimein on October 27, 2011 at 6:20 PM
The aim of this blog is, as for all of Bloomberg Businessweek, to give readers an understanding of business and the economy. Its title is “Occupy Wall Street: The Wealth Debate,” and that second part is just as important as the first. In general, I am most comfortable writing about economics. To some people details about Singapore’s GDP or financial transaction taxes are dull; to me they are important.
I disagree with many, or even most, ideas of the Occupy movement. This week I questioned the “Robin Hood tax”. In earlier articles—ones I wrote before coming to Bloomberg this month—I’ve objected strenuously to some of the witch hunts on Wall Street.
What, though, is a writer on business and economics to do when things turn violent? In the last entry, my colleague Dan Beucke considers the events in Oakland, and gives an insightful analysis of what images of disorder do for the perception of the movement. It seems to me, though, that this is jumping the gun a bit. Before moving on to how these things are perceived, it’s worth getting clarity on what happened.
As Megan McArdle has written at the Atlantic, there’s not a good reason why a protest like the one in Oakland should be broken up at all. The need to keep traffic moving and maintain the upkeep of public spaces are truly trivial compared to that of allowing public debate and assembly.
McArdle, though, couches her views in terms of advice to both protesters and police to avoid violence. That sounds reasonable enough, but the fact that the police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades at a crowd of protesters is not really debatable. It’s documented on video, and the resulting injuries are documented in photos, too.
The police assert the response was prompted by violence on the part of protesters. In one video of the arrests I watched, a cop’s helmet is marked with splattered paint. In at least one interview, a protester confirms that things were thrown. The police have mentioned plastic bottles, and rocks. For the rocks, there is so far no direct evidence—not a video, not a dent. And that leaves aside whether one protester throwing a rock is a justification to bombard others with tear gas and rubber bullets.
If there is information yet to be presented that the response by the police was provoked, or that the demonstrators injured were guilty of anything but refusing to move, the police should offer it. So far it hasn’t materialized.
Most economics bloggers (McArdle is an exception) have steered clear of directly addressing Oakland’s response to the protests. Part of me wants to do the same. I am a nerd.
But it seems to me that if largely non-violent demonstrations are broken up with aggressive police force, the idea of public debate is threatened. That is bad for policy, bad for politics, and in the long run very, very bad for those like me who make a living from analysis and commentary. And those who are in the business of contributing to that public debate, whether in economics or any other subject, have a responsibility to point that out.
Photographer: Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images