The Occupy Wall Street Movement, which started in September in New York’s financial district and has since spread to other cities in the United States and around the world, is strikingly familiar to anyone who lived through the years of protests against the war in Vietnam. I witnessed those anti-war protests up close and personally, which explains why the Occupy movement gives me a sense of deja vu.
This experience also gives me some foreboding. But first, I should note that I applaud and support the Occupy movement. I write this column only to alert demonstrators of a real danger the movement faces. Before explaining that danger, let me share the credentials that I think give me some knowledge of the ways of mass public protests.
My Experiences as a Protest Mediator
During the early years of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, when they were still relatively small and sporadic, I was in law school. But I attended several such demonstrations in Washington, DC, out of curiosity and empathy. Later, when I was working on Capitol Hill, the demonstrations I attended were still fairly small. And then, when Richard Nixon became president, and I was appointed to be an associate deputy attorney general (1969-1970) at the Department of Justice, I found myself in a unique role regarding the anti-war protests, which had grown in size and importance.
Because of my young age, plus my familiarity with past demonstrations in Washington, DC, I was given the assignment of representing the Justice Department in dealing with the leaders of the anti-war demonstrations for the government. (Attorney General John Mitchell was from New York City, and Deputy Attorney General Richard Kleindienst was from Phoenix, and neither had ever been involved with, or even witnessed, an anti-war demonstration.)
I would meet with the heads of various anti-war organizations—with their lawyers, if they had representation—to learn where and when they wanted to demonstrate, how many people they anticipated, how they planned for safety of those participating, and to address other, similar logistical matters. Typically, our discussions focused on where they wanted to march or assemble, and figuring out what permits would be needed in a city that had multiple law enforcement jurisdictions (including those of the Secret Service, Park Police, Capitol Police, and DC Metropolitan Police), and often conflicting regulations.
With this information in hand, I would present the protesters’ plans and requests to the decision-makers, typically led by Deputy Attorney General Dick Kleindienst—who, in turn, had assembled the heads of all the relevant law enforcement entities. For some of the massive demonstrations, the Departments of State, Treasury and Defense were involved.
It would fall to me to negotiate, on behalf of the demonstrators, the best deal that I could get them. It was an odd position, but I came to know many of the anti-war leaders, and their lawyers, and respected them and their efforts. They seemed to appreciate my work on their behalf. While I never got them everything they wanted, I typically got them most of it. During the demonstrations, it would frequently fall to me to stay in contact with the leaders if and when problems arose, which most always was the case. In short, I became a something of mediator between the government and the anti-war protesters.
This is about as close to the situation as one can get, for I could see both what was occurring on the streets, and what was occurring behind closed doors in the government, and I understood the problems on all sides.
My Experience as the Top Anti-War Protest Intelligence Analyst
When I moved to the White House to become Counsel to the President (1970-1973), I remained involved with demonstrations, but from a very different perspective.
President Nixon believed (correctly) that the anti-war protest movement was influencing the way he could handle the war, so he wanted to know the status of anti-war demonstrations throughout the country at all times. In addition, based on information that had been given to him by President Lyndon Johnson, Nixon believed (incorrectly) that the American anti-war movement was being underwritten, if not directed, by international communists, who were then considered America’s greatest enemy.
All the federal intelligence agencies collected information about the anti-war movement. The FBI collected it from state and local law enforcement agencies throughout the country, as well as from their own sources. The CIA collected it from foreign sources, including military sources like the Defense Intelligence Agency. The NSA collected it from foreign electronic sources. (While it was later clear that abuses occurred in the collection process, that was not clear at the time, based on the information reported to the White House, and that is a whole other story.)
My office became the top central clearinghouse for all anti-war movement intelligence, which we reviewed, analyzed and reported on a regular basis to the president, in written reports digesting large amounts of information. Indeed, during mass demonstrations in Washington, I would be called for written reports as frequently as hourly. While my Justice Department and White House superiors seemed somewhat frightened by the demonstrations, viewing them from top floor windows or roof-tops of buildings with binoculars, I typically went into the streets during the demonstrations to get a street-level feel for them, even when I worked at the White House.
Because of a scholarly research request a few years ago, I had occasion to look at many of the reports we had provided the president at the height of the anti-war movement, circa late 1970 to early ’71. With the benefit of hindsight, I now believe that the appraisals we provided were far less provocative than the contemporary press coverage, not to mention more accurate. We did a good job of keeping the protests in prospective, when they could easily have been inflamed. We made sure that the government did not overreact when efforts were being made by provocateurs (both by partisan print and television commentators, and by some of the anti-war activists) to force such a reaction.
While all social and political protest movements have their distinct and defining characteristics, they also have much in common. There were short-lived protests against the Bush II Administration’s invasion of Iraq, but until the Occupy Wall Street movement, there had been no protests of the scope of those that accompanied the war in Vietnam.
Based on my experience with the anti-war protests during Vietnam, it is clear to me that the Occupy Wall Street movement will grow in its magnitude and duration. (Unlike the top-down Tea Party movement, with its loyal authoritarian followers, which I addressed earlier, the Occupy movement is distinctly non-authoritarian and is totally bottom- up.) While I make no claims as a prognosticator, experience and history leave little doubt in my mind as to how this will unfold, and what I anticipate is not all pretty.
The Occupy Movement Will Be Protracted, and Will Grow Substantially in Size
There are strong signs that the Occupy movement not only will be as protracted as the Anti-Vietnam War protests, but may actually go on far longer than those protests did. The Occupy movement is still very young: As I write, we are only a few months into its development, yet it has already become a force unto itself. The protests against the Vietnam War ran (roughly) from the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1965 to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. The Occupy movement does not have a single focus, like ending a war. Rather, it presents even more difficult problems to solve, which involve far more people than did the war in Vietnam.
Nixon wanted to end the Vietnam War—as did the war protesters. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, is far less defined in its objective. It has developed because of the striking income and wealth inequality in America, all of which has been exacerbated by a miserable economy. These circumstances have been years in the making. While the economy may improve with time, and may improve in the short term with government help, the underlying inequality that exists will require decades, and some brutal political fights, to correct. There are no quick fixes.
During the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, most people were protesting because a member of their family, a close friend, or a loved one, had been, or could be, drafted to fight in Vietnam, which had become a senseless killing field in a war we were unwilling to try to win. While Nixon had campaigned in 1968 to end the draft, he could not actually accomplish that until 1973. Yet when the draft did end, and the Peace Accords were signed, the anti-war movement lost all of its steam. The Occupy movement’s issues affect so many more people than the Vietnam-era draft did—worldwide as well as in America. And many of those affected are rightly worried about not merely succeeding, but surviving. This fact will fuel the Occupy movement for a long time, and will potentially expand its ranks beyond those of any previous protest movement.
In short, we have on our hands a mass protest movement that is only at its very inception. Most troubling, that movement is, I believe, going to be accompanied by increasing violence.
An Unfortunate Reality: Protracted Mass Demonstrations Provoke Violence
Needless to say, the prospect of increased violence relating to the Occupy movement, or the policing of it, is one of the movement’s most troubling problems. But I believe it is inevitable.
Overwhelming numbers of those who are engaged in the Occupy movement want the actions to be without violence, and peaceful. They do not wish to start a fight; they want to make a statement. The same was true of the anti-Vietnam War protests, but mass demonstrations of all kinds seem to attract violent people who are only too willing to exploit the situation. Let me explain.
Below are news reports from just three (of many) anti-Vietnam War demonstrations that I personally attended, and at which I watched the violence escalate. The April 1970 event at the Washington Monument could not have been more peaceful, yet it made a powerful statement. By November 1970, I was dealing directly with the leaders of the movement, as a Justice Department representative, and I agreed with the lawyers who were understandably critical of the D.C. Police—the violence had been provoked by splinter groups seeking to bait the government to overreact, and they succeeded. Finally, by May Day 1971, large numbers of demonstrators had concluded that confrontational tactics were needed, so they arrived in Washington determined to shut down the government, and sympathetic to the perpetration of some violence. So when almost 100,000 angry demonstrators wanted to close down Washington, violence was inevitable. Here are a few snapshot news reports, showing this escalation:
April 5, 1970, The Washington Post: “The crowd, consisting of young, old and middle aged persons, many of whom carried American and Confederate flags, Bibles and placards, marched in subdued earnestness to the Washington Monument grounds . . . . The crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue was estimated at 10,000 to 15,000 . . . .” (Emphasis added.)
November 14, 1970, The Washington Post: “A committee of Washington lawyers strongly criticized the D. C. Police department yesterday for what it called police mishandling of mass demonstrations, including excessive use of force, illegal mass arrests and prolonged detention of prisoners.” (Emphasis added.)
May 11, 1971, The Washington Post: “Atty. Gen. John Mitchell, drawing a parallel between the antiwar demonstrators here last week and Hitler’s brownshirts of the 1920s, said yesterday he hoped other cities would follow Washington’s example of ‘decisive opposition to mob force.’ . . . Referring to the four day arrest total of more than 12,000 demonstrators, 7000 of whom were arrested in one day, Mitchell said, ‘nothing else could have been done unless the police were to let the mob rule the city.’” (Emphasis added.)
Today, events move faster, given our much more sophisticated communications technology, so I fully expect that the escalation toward violence will happen faster as well. Indeed, it is already happening. The national news media (whose ranks have been thinned by the bad economy) are only reporting the most visible violence at Occupy events, although local news organizations in cities and towns throughout the country (and around the world) are also reporting violent Occupy events that the mainstream media does not cover, as revealed by the Internet.
It is going to get worse, notwithstanding the fact that neither the protesters nor the government officials involved want that to happen. (It is easy for demonstrators to assume that the police want to provoke violence, and blame them for the ensuing melee. It is also easy for the police to assume that demonstrators are looking for a fight, and to blame them when fighting breaks out. Both are wrong, for close examination shows that this is virtually never the case.)
Unfortunately, mass protests provide large platforms for the small numbers who do want violence. There are bad cops, just as there are hell-bent anarchists, who want violence. Similarly, as the violence increases, both sides will have their sympathizers and empathizers: there will be some citizens who want protesters to use more violence, and others who want police to be more forceful in cracking down.
The problem will confront Presidents, Governors, Mayors, Police Chiefs, and city counsels. All those charged with the responsibility to maintain order in our country’s various venues will become increasingly exhausted and exasperated with the disruption that will be caused by protracted protests, and that is already happening with the Occupy movement. Troublemakers, the devoted anarchists who want nothing short of a bloody revolution, are already exploiting peaceful crowds. No one is happy with this reality.
I have talked with police officers during past demonstrations, and understandably some of them are frightened during these encounters, so it should be no surprise when they occasionally do stupid things. Also, they acknowledge that some of their law enforcement colleagues are not always people with the sweetest temperaments, and among them are some who actually enjoy a brawl. Ultimately, and even when substantial majorities of citizens support the protest’s cause, they will with time grow weary of the protests when it disrupts their lives, and they will demand a return to order and peace. Thus, law enforcement will prevail, but a lot of people can get hurt, and even killed before that happens.
Modern technology does provide a tool to help deal with this situation. Because the violence come from anarchists or bad cops, if you attend a protest, have your smart phone camera ready, and record the events. This has already proven to be an effective tool to find and deal with the troublemakers. But if you do so, be sure to be careful. And I hope that my prognosis of violence proves very wrong.
The Good News From the Occupy Movement
Repeatedly, over the years since the war in Vietnam ended, I have been asked if the anti-war protest demonstrations made any difference: Were they worth the effort? My answer has always been they made a great difference. Public protests in the streets are public opinion polls on steroids and on stilts. Such demonstrations are, by their very nature, disruptive and disquieting. They are designed and intended to be so, so that they attract added attention to issues. They send a message to political leaders that is loud and clear, and political leaders hear and understand that message.
For example, President Nixon once had his press secretary announce that he was watching a football game when 15,000 people were marching in Washington, outside the White House—although, in fact, I was sending the president the hourly reports he had requested during that time. It is my experience that those who are the subject of the protest are acutely aware of the message that is being sent, and that, while it is unlikely that those in power will ever admit it, such protests do influence, sometimes dramatically, their behavior.
But violence does not work. It stiffens resistance. The Occupy Movement will succeed if it can keep the violent elements isolated and identified. And for the nation’s sake, we should all hope that this movement prevails, sooner or later.