More ominously, protesters in many cities now face the prospect of sustained police crackdowns, from the hassles of permitting and noise ordinances to the violence that erupted last week in Oakland. There, police used tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets to attack protesters near city hall. One of those bullets fractured the skull of Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, leaving him hospitalized in critical condition. Since then, Olsen has become the chief symbol of Occupy’s new reality: Going up against Wall Street, it turns out, is serious business. And the more serious the Occupy movement gets, the more official and near-lethal hostility it’s likely to encounter.
As they sort out what to do next, the Occupiers might take a page from the history of American labor, the only social movement that has ever made a real dent in the nation’s extremes of wealth and poverty. For more than half a century, between the 1870s and the 1930s, labor organizers and strikers regularly faced levels of violence all but unimaginable to modern-day activists. They nonetheless managed to create a movement that changed the nation’s economic institutions and reshaped ideas about wealth, inequality, and Wall Street power. Along the way, they also helped to launch the modern civil liberties ethos, insisting that the fight to tame capitalism went hand in hand with the right to free speech.