Pepper Spray Incident Shows Why OWS Has Less “Staying Power” Than Vietnam War Protests

I have very little use for “Occupy Wall Street” and its far-flung imitators, but even so I found the image somewhat disturbing.  A UC-Davis police officer seems to be strolling along, casually emptying a can of pepper spray toward the heads of protestors seated on the ground.

Then I mentally shrugged.   Unfortunate optics, but no real harm done.  It may have been excessive, but no matter how the police break up a demonstration, they will be criticized for the inevitable injuries and indignities.  A YouTube video helps by putting the pepper spray in the context of a broader and more calibrated use of force.

Obviously, the left has a different storyline to offer.  If you Google “pepper spray” + “Kent State” you’ll get nearly half a million results.

To be fair, nobody seems to be claiming that the UC Davis incident is “another Kent State.” (Googling “pepper spray” + “another Kent State” yields 3,970 results, but the top result says “another Kent State is unlikely”, and other results express fears of “another Kent State.”)

The 1970 Kent State shootings may have been the tipping point of the battle for public support of the Vietnam War.  The episode inspired CSN&Y’s haunting refrain of “four dead in O-hi-o,” and was captured in an iconic photo of a 14-year-old runaway screaming over the body of a dead protester.

But the differences between the two incidents only start with the fact that nobody died at UC Davis.  Taranto, who evokes “Hoovervilles” by consistently referring to the OWS protestors as “Obamavillians,”  breaks it down:

Let’s say, heaven forbid, that the Obamavillians get their “Kent State moment”–a violent climax serving as the final tipping point that convinces the majority of Americans to oppose . . . well, you see the problem. To oppose what exactly? Private property? Public order? Personal hygiene?

Exactly right. To belabor his point: During the Vietnam War, there was a straightforward, easily defined, highly achievable course of action that would meet the demands of the protestors. All the government had to do was abandon our South Vietnamese allies and get out of Southeast Asia.  Rightly or wrongly (and I tend to think it was the least-bad option), the government eventually did precisely that.

But what can be done to satisfy OWS?  Raise taxes on “the 1 percent”? Fine, but even if you assume confiscatory tax rates and no change of behavior by taxpayers, taxing “the rich” won’t do much toward closing the budget deficit — and it certainly won’t create jobs.  And no level of taxation will ever be high enough to satisfy the tax-the-rich impulse.

I haven’t blogged much about the ongoing protests;  my entire OWS oeuvre apparently consists of a passing swipe at “the aimless juvenile antics of the Occupy Wall Street crowd” in a post on an unrelated topic.  The movement hasn’t interested me — I’ve always thought its enemy was capitalism itself.  I’m a big fan of capitalism, and OWS poses no real threat to it.

My priest, a thoughtful liberal who has tugged me back before from some of my more conservative leanings, gave me a new way to think about OWS in his Sunday sermon.  After carefully stating that he was taking no position on the specific messages and tactics of the movement, he said that Occupy Wall Street can be seen as “an expression of pain.”   His point, which I hope I am capturing adequately, is that the pain is real and needs to be acknowledged.

Fair enough.  The classic right-wing response to demonstrators is to snarl “get a job” — a phrase that bristles with cruel irony during a period when it sometimes feels like 9% unemployment is settling in as the new normal.  I have my own riches-to-rags story, although both “riches” and “rags” are exaggerations. I work at a church, making about what I made in 1985 — and I thank God every day that I have a job at all, let alone one that provides the privilege of laboring for a worthy organization.

I do think the OWS crowd would do well to channel its anger in more productive ways.  Say what you will about the Tea Party, but it certainly has built something out of its initial expressions of pain:  one out of every four Republican members of the House now self-identifies as a member of the Tea Party Caucus. Somehow I don’t expect there will ever be an OWS coalition in Congress.

(Unattributed photo snatched from Eschaton.)

18 thoughts on “Pepper Spray Incident Shows Why OWS Has Less “Staying Power” Than Vietnam War Protests

  1. Thanks Kirk. That is the point I was trying to make. People crying out in pain rarely do it in an organized and acceptable fasion… unless, of course, they’re from New England. Organization comes later.

    I’ve never thought of Capitalism as the enemy, nor has that ever been a piece of any “thoughtful” liberal conversation I’ve been part of. The enemy is a cultural acceptance of the abuse of it, and the legal protections of those who abuse it. In the face of such an amorphous enemy, striking out in pain becomes more difficult and the symbols become targeted.

    It’s really not helpful to the conversation, rather like blaming Obama for the economic melt down he inherited. I saw a cartoon where deficit arrows accompanied the three recent republican Presidents in proportion to the deficits they created (while decrying spending) and only the “tax and spend” liberal actually created a surplus.

    I think part of the problem is having enemies at all. I thought we were all in this together.

  2. I enjoyed this Kirk. Good original thought Bernie on the “pain”! Just because OWS is protesting pain instead of policy doesn’t mean that their protest is invalid. It is actually fortuitous that society, through protest, communicates a message of pain and the need to change. We want a just society and to address the protesters, perhaps also the Tea Party, who after all, are protesting what? An inevitable multiracial society? And the real income separation of the rich from working classes over the last few years is highly evident. The research is conclusive. I see it when I know of families with 2 minimum wage jobs still having to go to food pantries to afford food and housing. Your conclusions about taxing the rich are baseless: it’s clear that the deficit arose from the wars, the tax breaks to the rich, and Medicare breaks in that order and could be reversed similarly. The numbers to this and the tax breaks are in bipartisan research site Understand also that these are individual tax breaks, not corporate tax breaks. Few of the top 1%, less than 2%, have businesses under a K-1 or a C. Job creation is irrelevant under the individual tax rate equation.

  3. Thanks Bernie. I’ve only got a moment at lunch, I may have more to say later, but I just want to clarify that I did not mean to imply that you personally consider capitalism the enemy — only that you had given me a new way to think of OWS.

    Glad you enjoyed it, Dan — I’ll take a look at the link you cite and respond later.

  4. Dan… Spinsanity went out of business in 2005. Could you post a link to the data you mentioned? And the Tea Party has nothing to do with race. The movement opposes excessive taxation and advocates for smaller government and adherence to the Constitution.

  5. This is sourced in a wiki, the Spinsanity site is difficult to search, I had read it in their book.

    The U.S. national debt grew significantly from 2001 to 2008, both in dollars terms and relative to the size of the economy (GDP),[1] due to a combination of tax cuts and wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Budgeted spending under President Bush averaged 19.9% of GDP, similar to his predecessor President Bill Clinton, although tax receipts were lower at 17.9% versus 19.1%.[2]

    Working on the rest…

    • George W. Bush was not a financial conservative, he was a big-government Republican. Both parties have a lot to answer for in creating the economic hole we’re in.

      Yes, wars are expensive. The deficits Reagan ran up while winning the Cold War represent money well spent. Bush ran up deficits while implanting still-fragile democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. If (and it’s certainly a big if) those two countries can develop into stable American allies, that will be money well-spent, too. Defense spending totals about 20% of the federal budget — entitlements are twice that.

      • Ha- The no-nonsense fiscal conservative who ended the Cold War was Gorbachev, in an orderly fashion, right after he came into office.

        To talk about the “deficit” allows that the whole argument was more than a power play to wrest control from Obama, but it wasn’t. I won’t make that my field of play. And its gallingly hyprocritical of Republicans since it was created by givebacks to the rich and a failure to fund the wars which was a historical precedent.

        What the country needs and wants now is jobs, but Obama is powerless alone to create a stimulus to fund them. And honestly, he is weak and misdirected, not my favorite either.

        • Gorbachev played a positive role, I’ll give you that — but only after the Soviet economy collapsed trying to keep up with America’s military buildup (which started under President Carter and accelerated under Reagan).

          “Weak and misdirected” is a pretty good description of Obama, although I suspect we’re reaching that conclusion from different directions. We hired as president a FIRST-TERM Senator who had never managed anything bigger than his own campaign — we should not be surprised that he is an ineffective leader.

          And of course the Republicans are trying to wrest control from Obama. That’s what the opposition party does. I seem to recall the Democrats ran some guy named Kerry against Bush.

          • Ha, Gorbachev’s actions weren’t in response to Reagan’s or to a “collapse”, but were simply his own approach upon taking office. The conditions in the USSR and the competitiveness deficit existed since the 50’s. Experience is a silly topic. NO ONE has the experience to be president. And Bush’s as a priveleged idiot son wasn’t remarkable either. Neither was a hat salesman’s named Truman. It is just that Obama hasn’t led from the front with the people, and the Repubs are trying to wrest control rather than get relief for the people. We’ve gotta stop, or we’ll play the top 100 hits of Repubs vs. Dems.

  6. The group estimated that only 1.4 percent of small business owners with positive business incomes would pay the top rate in 2001. (Citizens for Tax Justice; Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy)

    -All the President’s Spin, page 78

    • It’s not just small business owners who create jobs. Capital formation of all kinds creates jobs. I’m not a no-new-taxes absolutist, I think tax increases inevitably will be part of any successful deficit-reduction effort. But marginal tax increases in the top rates should be thought of as coming dollar for dollar out of the pool of money that otherwise would be available for investment.

      • Our economy should be better than the 90’s now if the givebacks to the rich through tax cuts was such effective fiscal policy and had a high mulitiplier. It wasn’t, it was a cynical giveback. It’s the Repubs who now hypocritically require everything to be funded. It’s an EASY policy to take it back to get us back to the Clinton-era equation.

  7. Here’s a rough (and reasonably certain) picture of what has happened: The standard of living of the poorest 10 percent of American families is significantly lower today than it was a generation ago. Families in the middle are, at best, slightly better off. Only the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans have achieved income growth at anything like the rates nearly everyone experienced between the forties and early seventies. Meanwhile, the income of families high in the distribution has risen dramatically, with something like a doubling of the real incomes of the top 1 percent.

    What the Public Doesn’t Know Can’t Hurt Us, Krugman

    • Nonsense. Krugman is a well-credentialed, partisan pit bull, and he pulled that “poorest 10 percent” number out of his ear. The Left’s focus on income inequality encourages class resentment and distracts from the need for job creation. Don’t fight over dividing the pie — make a bigger pie.

      Do you really believe “the standard of living of the poorest 10 percent of American families is significantly lower today than it was a generation ago”? REALLY? There are some desperately poor people in America, and a humane, affluent society needs safety-net programs. But the poverty statistics overstate the problem. From a 2005 survey of U.S. households under the poverty line:

      While poor households were slightly less likely to have conveniences than the general population, most poor households had a wide range of amenities. As Chart 2 shows, 78 percent of poor households had air conditioning, 64 percent had cable or satellite TV, and 38 percent had a personal computer.

      • I don’t disagree with your points. Everyone is better off today. But I think the real income gap is a way to measure a direction in tax policy. Again, the givebacks were unnecessary and were cynical and unconnected to any kind of policy goal on earth.

  8. Kirk, i would say the OWS caucus in Congress consists of 75 percent of its Democratic members. Take a couple of special-interest caucuses, mix in Frank, Sanders, Pelosi, Franken, Kerry and some others and voila!

  9. Van, I understand where you’re coming from metaphorically, but I’m making a LITERAL point — one out of four Republican Congressmen SELF-IDENTIFIES as a member of quote “the Tea Party Caucus” unquote. They wear it like a badge of honor. The Tea Party was born out of anger, but organized itself into what appears to be a sustainable political movement.

    After all the coverage of violence and sex crimes and lice, the incoherent Occupy Wall Street movement isn’t going to survive under that name. Ain’t gonna be no OWS Caucus.

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