WHAT OTHERS SAY: Occupy Wall Street needs a sharper focus

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 | 10:30 a.m. CDT; updated 12:15 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 11, 2011

We keep hearing how the Occupy Wall Street protests are not exactly laser-like in their focus on what's wrong in America and what they want fixed.

Most participants stay fixed on our economic problems, unemployment and disenfranchisement of our shrinking middle class at the hands of greedy corporations.

But it's a big movement, and big movements have fringe elements that try to loudly yell "me too" to draw attention to their pet causes.

And it appears there are others who might scheme to infiltrate the protests to create problems for the protesters, as well.

Case in point, those who this weekend stormed the National Air And Space Museum, protesting a display of unmanned drone aircraft. Not some newly unveiled exhibit either — it's been there for more than a year.

The museum closed early Saturday afternoon after security guards used pepper spray to repel more than 100 demonstrators who were told they could not enter the building while carrying signs, The Associated Press reported. The spray sickened some.

Most members of a group who arrived at the museum Saturday included those taking part in the October 2011 Stop the Machine demonstration in the capital's Freedom Plaza, which had an anti-war and anti-corporate greed message, The AP said.

Others joined up from another march more formally linked to the Occupy Wall Street movement, according to reports.

And on Monday a conservative activist who writes for the American Spectator took credit for leading the protest astray.

Patrick Howley, an assistant editor at the American Spectator, says that he joined the group under the pretense that he was a demonstrator and became the only one of the group that rushed the museum door, unleashing the pepper spray attack on the whole crowd.

"As far as anyone knew I was part of this cause — a cause that I had infiltrated the day before in order to mock and undermine in the pages of The American Spectator," Howley wrote, according to The Washington Post. The language of the Spectator's story later was altered without explanation.

Was this a move worthy of Richard Nixon's Plumbers, with whom apparently this particular conservative journal has much in common, or is the hoax his claim of being involved in the march and infiltrating it, throwing more confusion into the mix?

Some stories of how the Brooklyn Bridge march went off the rails a week ago had a similar feel to the problems at Air and Space, albeit without anyone taking credit for leading naive demonstrators into lanes of traffic.

Howley's bragging, fortunately, seems to have undermined his claimed efforts to hurt the protest movement, rather instead giving it a free pass this time around.

The lessons looking ahead are twofold.

On the one hand, the movement needs to get some organization and focus soon if it's going to be an effective force in our politics. It'll have to be better organized to help avoid the possibility of infiltrators who'll create problems.

On the other, when things go off the rails, rightly or wrongly, we'll always have to wonder if it was truly an organizational flaw or a political dirty trick that causes the next debacle.

Not knowing will only become the issue of more debate and division, something we don't need right now as this protest aims to unite a majority of Americans for the first time in a long while.

Copyright Springfield News-Leader. Reprinted with permission.

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