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Occupy Oakland riots: More to come?

COMMENTARY The riot at Occupy Oakland was the work of a few people and didn't reflect what most of the protesters are trying to do. Unfortunately, it is also a picture of things to come.

What had been a day of peaceful protest turned violent late Wednesday night. Around 11 p.m., after most of the thousands who staged protests had left the Occupy Oakland site, masked vandals shattered windows, set fires and plastered downtown businesses with graffiti. Police responding to the scene found a huge bonfire in the middle of a street. They moved in, dispersing crowds with tear gas and flash-bang grenades and making mass arrests.

Many protesters were clearly angry at the actions of the masked group. The San Francisco Chronicle reported:

As protesters built one of the barricades on 16th Street, a nearby resident who had joined Wednesday's demonstrations walked up and began to take it apart. But whenever he moved a trash can or table or pallet, a man in a mask would put it back. "What does putting trash in the street accomplish?" asked the neighbor, 35-year-old Tarrell Gamble, as a crowd gathered to angrily confront him. "This is somebody's property."

There have been confrontations between police and Occupy protesters in many cities, but this is the first case of the protests becoming riots. Oakland may have been more likely to erupt because of the violence last month when police moved against the protesters' encampment, also using tear gas and flash grenades. That police action was not preceded by anything even vaguely like what happened Wednesday night. 

Whatever sparked it, the incident is a worrisome echo of riots this summer in the U.K. 

British police claimed at the time that the rampages were caused by street gangs. However, interviews with people arrested at the time has been proven that to be totally false. That violence was fueled by economic despair and a sense of powerlessness - the same things that have been fuelling non-violent protests everywhere from Tel Aviv to the Philippines to China in the past year. Those are the same things that triggered the Arab Spring.

Will there be more violence in the U.S.? Undoubtedly, but probably not for a few more months. Winter riots are a rare thing, by and large. By next summer, more Americans will be feeling the tight pinch from government budget cuts. Unless the employment picture improves dramatically, it will be amazing if there aren't riots.

Will riots be the fault of the Occupy movement? Not intentionally, that's for sure. If it survives the winter, the movement may be what brings out large crowds, which could be the starting point of violence. Some officials seem to be acting to prevent this by ousting the Occupiers from public land now.

That is a bad idea for several reasons.

For one there is this pesky little thing called the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Americans take that right very seriously. If people feel it is being denied to them - either by use of force or by regulation (capricious permitting requirements, etc.) - they will react strongly. Denying that right also increases the feelings that the government is against the majority of people and on the side of the powerful. (The powerful is a nebulous group usually defined as, "Not me.")

Also, most Americans view the police in particular as being on their side. They think the cops are there to go after the bad guys and otherwise provide help. (Perversely, the more crime there is in an area the less likely the area's residents are to believe this.) Once that image changes, once the police are seen as enforcers for "them" ... anything can happen.