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Friday, Nov 11, 2011, 7:44 am

Shootings, Suicide May Provide Cover For Authorities To Shut Down Occupy

By Allison Kilkenny

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Irrespective of the possibility that the killing of a man yesterday in Oakland might have nothing to do with Occupy Oakland, or its members, it appears authorities are preparing to use the tragedy as an excuse to shut down the campsite

Here are the facts as we understand them currently: Thursday evening a young man was fatally shot just yards away from Occupy Oakland's encampment outside City Hall. Several occupiers have stated they did not recognize the man, and a protester named Jordan said he saw two groups of people get into a fight, and the altercation ended when someone pulled out a gun and fired. Witnesses say they saw several young men flee the scene. 

For residents of Oakland, sadly, this scenario isn't unusual or shocking. As one protester said to the San Francisco Chronicle, "I live in Oakland, and this is a daily occurrence." 

Protesters voiced aggravation with the city because the plaza has been shrouded in darkness lately, leading some to believe the city is deliberately keeping street lights off. The combination of a hospitable living space for the homeless, who are sometimes mentally disturbed and/or addicts, combined with the near-total darkness is a dangerous equation that can lead to bad outcomes, such as the shooting that took place yesterday.

Yet Mayor Quan has seized upon the opportunity to discredit the occupation, and has asked campers to leave the plaza voluntarily. Additionally, City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuenta has been calling for the camp's removal, saying, "Unfortunately, we will have no excuse for not taking action. This was escalating and was going to happen."

The councilman made this statement despite the fact that there has yet to be any evidence presented linking the awful crime to the occupation. That proof may manifest eventually, but as of right now, there is zero evidence linking the two events together.

Tragedy has often been used by authorities as weak attempts to undercut Occupy. When a woman died of a drug overdose at Occupy Vancouver, her death prompted Mayor Gregor Robertson to call for the entire camp to be closed down. Robertson said the "really tragic circumstances" clearly demonstrates that the situation in camp has "deteriorated."

Similarly, the suicide of a 35-year-old military veteran at Occupy Vermont is being exploited by Deputy Chief Andi Higbee, who told reporters the shooting raised questions about whether the protest would be allowed to continue.

"Our responsibility is to keep the public safe. When there is a discharge of a firearm in a public place like this it's good cause to be concerned, greatly concerned," Higbee said.

But if authorities like Higbee were truly interested in "protecting the public," which includes protesters, they would focus on the much larger, deeper issues of homelessness, drug addiction, and veteran mental health.

In the United States, a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes, and vets account for 20 percent of the nation's suicides. This is a systemic problem, not isolated to the Occupy camps, and law enforcement should not be permitted to scapegoat the movement.

Closing the Occupy movements isn't going to stop suicides and overdoses, and these kinds of terrible actions will continue elsewhere unless society addresses the failed War on Drugs, rampant homelessness, and the pointless wars that are mentally scarring U.S. soldiers, not to mention resulting in the needless carnage of Middle Eastern civilians.

Oakland didn't turn into a hotbed of crime and violence the second Occupy set up its campsite. During the first decade of the 21st century, Oakland was consistently listed as one of the most dangerous large cities in the United States, long before Adbusters ever put out the call for citizens to occupy Wall Street.

"Protecting citizens" should probably include things like keeping city lights on to ensure civilians who are exercising their rights to free speech aren't murdered in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, what policing has become in this country is a means to crush the First Amendment.

OPD, which gobbles up two-thirds of the city budget, roams the streets like a small army, beating protesters and using them as target practice when shooting projectiles, sometimes critically wounding demonstrators. 

Then, when unrest occurs, as it often does when brutally victimizing people, the OPD uses that chaos to make the claim that more authoritarian behavior is necessary. Hell, they probably need more funding, too! Rubber bullets for EVERYBODY!

The simple truth is that a movement this large and diverse is bound to experience a degree of violence and tragedy. It's just a statistical impossibility to guarantee that no protester, ever, in any march, or during the 24-hour encampment will ever do something stupid, or experience a mental breakdown. But when a drug addict overdoses or a veteran takes his own life, it's important to examine how our society failed these victims and drove them into tents where they ultimately took their own lives, whether accidental or deliberate. 

It's essential that citizens never become desensitized to violence and dismiss a brutal act in Oakland simply because, well, Oakland is always violent. However, it's also important not to allow this violence to become a distraction, or a tool to undermine the Occupy movements.

The group is on the frontlines of America's unjust, vastly unequal society, and so they have become a default support group for the mentally disturbed, addicts, and sometimes suffering veterans. It's not the fault of Occupy when one of these discarded citizens dies, or acts violently. Rather, it's the state's fault for failing so many Americans.

Allison Kilkenny is an In These Times Staff Writer and the co-host of the critically acclaimed radio show Citizen Radio. Her blog for In These Times, Uprising, focuses on efforts around the world to address the global economic crisis.

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