Thomas K. Fowler/AP
In this image made from video, a police officer uses pepper spray as he walks down a line of Occupy demonstrators sitting on the ground at the University of California, Davis on Friday, Nov. 18, 2011. The video - posted on YouTube - was shot Friday as police moved in on more than a dozen tents erected on campus and arrested 10 people, nine of them students.
One of the central problems with understanding the Occupy Movement is that, in America, we have no real recent experience with large-scale protests. It's not like police, mayors, members of Congress, university presidents, of even President Obama himself have been studying the country's last major protest movement, again the Vietnam War.
Some of these leaders have no excuse. They lived through Vietnam. Some were on the protest battlements themselves. Some were in the actual war.
The result is that the country is dangerously unprepared for what has suddenly morphed into an increasingly violent showdown between Occupy protesters and the authorities.
Last week, I suggested that another Kent State shooting is unlikely. "Kent State" is popular shorthand for a 1970 massacre at Kent State University in Ohio, when national guardsmen killed four students and wounded nine, prompting a national outrage and signaling the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War, as well as much of the romance of the countercultural 1960s.
I might have blogged too soon. Last Friday at UC Davis, a group of Occupy student protesters were pepper sprayed by campus police after the students nonviolently refused to disperse. The videos blew up all over YouTube. It was like a miniature version of the firehoses during the Civil Right movement on the 1960s.
Nobody was killed or seriously injured, thankfully, but it was the most alarming indication yet that Occupy will be dealt with by force, if necessary.
But will that force ever turn lethal? This is what administrators such as UC Davis' Chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, now have to prepare themsevles to avoid. Katehi herself endured an eerie student protest while walking to her Buick Enclave after the pepper-spray incident and calls for her resignation. Apparently, she — and the rest of the UC system's leadership — got the message. The cops who brought out the pepper spray were suspended, and UC has decided to review all procedures going forward.
Given that places like Berkeley were ground zero of the Vietnam War protest, UC should be able to look to its past for guidance on what to do about its present. Of course, at UC Berkeley, police recently went after Occupy protestors with batons, so it's clear that those memories of the '60s and what went down then have gotten pretty foggy.
It hasn't helped that some of the most violent protests in the Occupy Movement so far have happened in the Bay Area. The place is already on edge. But you'd have to basically have missed all media for the last four decades to not see the images from this latest Occupy phase as exactly like those from the Vietnam period. Except that there are iPhone everywhere.
What's struck me about all this is how fast Occupy has gone from an ad-hoc complaint about Wall Street and the indiscretions of the Fat Cats to full-blown national, and really international, argument against financial inequality. It took years for the Vietnam War protest movement to go from isolated events to its high point in 1967-68 — the march on the Pentagon, captured in Norman Mailer's "The Armies of the Night"; the Summer of Love; and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, with its street violence — then enter its decline through Woodstock and its evil twin, Altamont, in 1969 and Kent State in 1970.
That's about three years. Occupy has covered similar ground in less than three months.
The pace of the protest movement mirrors the financial crisis and its lead-up. Financial innovation blew away regulators' ability to keep track of what Wall Street was up to. In 2008, the entire global economic system looked to imploding at high-speed. And now each new week brings news of a new European country chucking its leadership in an effort to staunch the eurozone crisis.
I woke up this morning and found out that Spain had jettisoned its socialist government, following similar changes in Greece and Italy. Meanwhile, young Egyptians are telling us that "freedom from tyranny" doesn't mean "the army is running the show."
Occupy has taken overt the national consciousness even more quickly, and taken to the streets. When Vietnam was raging, the protest cry was "end the war." Now Occupy wants to end the inequality. Various members of the pundit class have argued that Occupy doesn't stand for anything, but that's ridiculous. Occupy is angry that a small portion of Americans have stolen the prosperity that was promised to them.
This would make anyone mad. But especially college students who are going into deep debt to fund futures that may very well not be there when they graduate.
The authorities are woefully ill-equipped to deal with a protest movement of this agility and magnitude. And that means they may suspend tolerance and bring out the big stick, more than they already have.
I sincerely hope there isn't a true tragedy right around the corner. But to avoid one, it's time the people who run things started learning about the long but of late mostly forgotten history of American protest. So here's Neil Young performing "Ohio," a song he composed in response to Kent State. The year was 1989 and the tragic events in Tiananman Square in China were fresh on his mind.