OAKLAND, Calif. - Many in the crowd outside Oakland City Hall shouted “Burn it! Burn it!’’ as masked protesters prepared to set fire to an American flag. That’s when a woman emerged from the scrum, screaming for them to stop, that it would hurt the cause.
Moments later, the flames began, and suddenly a movement that seemingly vanished weeks ago was back in the spotlight, this time for an act of protest that has long divided the nation and now the movement itself.
The images of the flag-burning went viral in the hours after Saturday’s demonstrations on Oakland’s streets, with Occupy supporters denouncing the act as unpatriotic and a black mark on the movement. Others called it justified.
The flag-burning, however, has raised questions about whether the act will tarnish a movement of largely peaceful protests and alienate people who agree with its message against corporate excess and economic inequality.
Violent clashes between police and Occupy demonstrators in Oakland and the potential for confrontations in other cities have divided supporters of the movement.
Saturday’s protest in Oakland culminated in rock- and bottle-throwing and volleys of tear gas from the police, as well as the City Hall break-in that left glass cases smashed, graffiti spray-painted on the walls and, finally, the flag-burning.
In Washington yesterday, the US Park Police began enforcing a no-camping ban at the two Washington park sites where Occupy protesters have been demonstrating for four months.
Sergeant David Schlosser, a Park Police spokesman, said officers would first ask demonstrators to obey the regulation. He said some demonstrators had already complied, although he did not know how many.
The National Park Service warned protesters at McPherson Square and at Freedom Plaza that those who violate the camping rule will be subject to arrest.
No arrests were made by yesterday evening, and Schlosser declined to discuss a timetable for forced eviction of the demonstrators.
Schlosser said the camping ban pertained not only to sleeping on national park grounds but also to possessing bedding materials such as blankets. Protesters hung a blue tarpaulin over a statue in McPherson Square.
Some of the Washington protesters said they would not leave and were preparing for a confrontation with police.
Police said more than 400 people were arrested; at least three officers and one protester were injured in Saturday’s clashes in Oakland.
In New York on Sunday, police arrested 12 people who participated in a march in support of Occupy Oakland.
About 300 people marched through Lower Manhattan on Sunday night. At least twice, marchers threw bottles apparently aimed at police. Police charged three people with assault and one with criminal weapons possession. The rest were charged with disorderly conduct.
“I’m quite confident that the general view is that violence of this sort - whether it’s symbolic or otherwise - is contrary to the spirit of the movement and should be renounced,’’ Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin said of the Oakland confrontations.
Gitlin, who is writing a book about the movement, noted that flags have had a prominent place at the Occupy Wall Street encampments that sprang up last fall. They are typically pinned to tents or waving from wooden flagpoles.
Troy Johnson, an Occupy Oakland member, said he arrived just in time Saturday to watch his friend, whom he would not name, emerge from City Hall with an American flag in tow.
“He asked the crowd: ‘What do want us to do with the flag?’ ’’ Johnson recalled. “They said, ‘Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!’ ’’
The fire-starter is not an anarchist, but a typical member of Occupy Oakland who feels the system has failed them, said Johnson, who pulled out his cellphone to show his recording of the flag-burning.
“I would describe him as someone who loves his country, but also disappointed in the system that’s running this country,’’ said Johnson, who goes by the nickname “Uncle Boom’’ and was a sergeant in the Army.
“To the veterans who fought for this country, I wholeheartedly apologize,’’ he said. “Because when they took the oath to join the military, they fought for the flag. But they also fought for the right to express ourselves.’’
Another Occupy member, Sean Palmer, who served in the Marines, said he opposed flag-burning. “I think they should’ve hung it upside down, because that’s the international call for distress and that’s what we are, in distress,’’ Palmer said.