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Occupy the Right Language



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Across the Internet, in descriptions of yesterday’s violence in Oakland, sentences like the following are ubiquitous:

“An estimated 400 demonstrators were arrested during the protest, with some activists breaking into City Hall and vandalizing it.”

That was from the Los Angeles TimesCan you spot the problem? If not, how about in this Reuters report:

Riot police on Saturday night fought running skirmishes with protesters, injuring three officers and at least one demonstrator.

The scuffles erupted in the afternoon as activists sought to take over a shuttered downtown convention center, sparking cat-and-mouse battles that lasted well into the night in a city that has seen tensions between police and protesters boil over repeatedly.

Those who took part in the Oakland riots were not “demonstrators” or “activists” or “protesters.” They were rioters. I know it is unfashionable to speak plainly in this age of post-modernism, but the truth is no more glamorous or complicated than that. Oakland’s police did not randomly start firing on people exercising their First Amendment rights, but stepped in to prevent the law being broken. That is their job. Again, from Reuters:

Violence erupted again in Oakland on Saturday when protesters attempted to take over the apparently empty downtown convention center to establish a new headquarters and draw attention to the problem of homelessness.

Taking over a convention center is against the law. One can append an “awareness” intention to almost any illegal act, but it doesn’t change the facts. Were I so minded, I might break in to a nuclear power plant “to draw attention to climate change,” or take over Google’s server farms “to draw attention to privacy questions.” But my motivation is irrelevant; to do so would be illegal. So, by the by, is attacking law enforcement:

“Officers were pelted with bottles, metal pipe, rocks, spray cans, improvised explosive devices and burning flares,” the Oakland Police Department said in a statement. “Oakland Police Department deployed smoke and tear gas.”

Watching the videos of the “skirmish,” it is obvious that Occupy Oakland is demonstrating against inequality in the same sense that airplane hijackers are complaining about the flight path. Such rechristening of criminal behavior is not a wholly American problem — last summer’s British rioters were quickly rechristened as “protesters against the cuts” by the BBC, as I noted at the time — but the way in which the Occupy movement has been covered is a scandal in the country of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. 



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