Conditions at some of the "Occupy" tent sites started going downhill at a most inopportune time. A New York Times/CBS poll had just reported that 47 percent of the public said that the movement's views reflect those of most Americans (with only 34 percent saying they do not). On the ground, the homeless were moving into several encampments, joined by various hangers-on drawn to the excitement.
Occupiers, time to quit while you're ahead -- for you're a little less ahead with every confrontation involving police or other civic authorities. The skirmishes provide unflattering visuals for the ordinary folks at home, even those sharing your angst and anger over the financial-industry takeover of our economy. It doesn't matter who was at fault. It doesn't matter whether or not you have the right to pitch tents on public parks.
Every battle with the forces of order attracts people not necessarily interested in curbing Wall Street's influence but in having a street brawl. Occupiers with a serious agenda should know that there's nothing they can do about the invaders, other than deny them their stage.
(Chefs who were serving superior fare to the original Occupiers at Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park became annoyed when interlopers showed up just for the cuisine. To deter the freeloaders, they switched from roasted beet salad with aged sheep's milk cheese to brown rice and other dietary basics.)
In Oakland, Calif., tear-gassed demonstrators recited the Vietnam-era chant, "Now the whole world is watching." And it was, but that's not really a good thing for the movement.
When the Vietnam protests turned violent and nasty, a larger American public didn't like what it saw on TV. Disorder. Attacks on law enforcement. Disrespect for the American flag. Pictures of Mao. The radicals had taken over, offending average Americans, including many opposed to the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon used that resentment to ride to victory.
Occupy Wall Street and its allies should understand that they entered the fray with the silent majority on their side. (Seven in 10 said the Republican Congress favors the rich, according to the Times/CBS poll.) Thus, they must treat the neighbors with utmost respect. One problem with demonstrations lasting weeks is that they tend to take over and degrade public spaces. Squares in front of city halls. Parks where people throw Frisbees. Plazas people cross to do their business.
We know that responsible Occupy leaders have done their best to keep things peaceful and clean, but tent cities that draw crowds have a way of frustrating the best intentions. The most careful campers can't avoid trampling the grass. For those living or working near these tent cities, the novelty is gone and fatigue is setting in.
Before the Occupy movement took off, the tea party had long commanded the cameras' attention. It, too, attracted exhibitionists eager to say inflammatory things to a ravenous media. The Republican right then put its hooks into its passionate followers, pushing some of them toward a radical politics at great odds with the silent majority's world-view.
At least the tea party people weren't in the faces of couples trying to get a marriage license at City Hall or beating drums into the night. They were using social media to make themselves powerful at the political level. That's what the Occupiers should do and maybe are doing, but we don't know much about it, because the squatters are getting all the attention.
Those camped out should adopt another famous line from the Vietnam era: "Declare victory and leave." Time to get off the lawn and go online.