Friday, October 14, 2011

If US Authorities Have Any Sense They Will Listen to #OWS, Not Try To Repress

Yesterday NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Brookfield Office Properties, which constructed and owns Zuccotti Park (aka "Liberty Park") in which Occupy Wall Street protesters have now been bivouacking for several weeks, wished to "clean up" the park, that Brookfield had requested the help of the NYPD to clear the protesters from the park, and that under his direction the police would do as requested.

The protesters, predictably, voted to refuse to vacate the park, and it seemed that an early-morning showdown today was imminent; however, at almost the last moment the Mayor announced that Brookfield had instead decided to "try to work with" the protesters in order to see that their concerns regarding the "sanitation" and other issues concerning the park were addressed in some mutually agreeable way. Mr. Bloomberg's own publication, Bloomberg, carried this story this morning: "Zuccotti Owner Got Calls From Elected Officials, NYC Mayor Says," which perhaps adds another wrinkle to what nearly happened in NYC this morning, and it is a story I think worth a closer look.

As I type this, Occupy San Diego protesters are being arrested in that city. A few days ago, the Boston Police Department moved against a group of protesters who were a part of Occupy Boston. The Occupy Cincinnati protesters have been subjected to almost nightly police harassment in the form of citations almost since they began their protest. Occupy Seattle protesters have also been arrested. Also today, the Occupy Denver protesters' encampment was destroyed by police, their equipment and possessions confiscated, and many of them were arrested as well. Protesters belonging to the Occupy Dallas and Occupy Houston protests have also been subjected to arrest and/or police harassment, and these are only a few examples of attempts by US authorities to deprive American citizens of their First Amendment rights.

The idea has long been almost folkloric in the United States that the US government in Washington pays little if any attention to anything which happens "outside the Beltway," as the saying goes, meaning that, whether Democratic or Republican, most American administrations seem more or less oblivious to what is taking place in the country at large, instead concentrating on the political infighting and deal-making which occur in Washington to the exclusion of everything else.

Now, I do not know, nor have I seen any hints even, that any federal officials might have made any of the telephone calls to Brookfield Office Properties to which Mayor Bloomberg alluded in the above linked article, but if they didn't they ought to have done. And it would behoove them also, to the extent permissible given that the various US states are "sovereign" entities in their own right, to contact state and local authorities across the country and advise them that, wherever their personal or partisan sympathies may lie regarding these protests, the worst thing they can possibly do is to employ repression in any form.

Americans have always been a notoriously unruly people. That is not to say that Americans are not, in the vast majority of cases, decent, law-abiding citizens. In fact, they are, and nearly always have been. But Americans have never reacted well when they feel as if they are being pushed around, and in particular when they feel as if any of their most basic constitutional rights are being threatened. And for most Americans there are no more basic, fundamental constitutional rights than those enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or 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."

Clearly, these rights do not apply only to persons who happen to agree with the current administration in Washington, nor do they apply only to those who voted for or support those elected officials who happen to be in power in any of the various state capitals or municipalities.

It should also have been clear to elected officials at all levels of government, for several years now, that the people of the United States in general are mightily displeased, although many may not be displeased about exactly the same issues. Enormous displeasure, for example, was clear for all to see at the very beginning of the Iraq War. Later, after the financial crisis of 2008 began to come into focus, and in particular after the Bush Administration began the bailout of the big financial houses and banks, the Tea Party was born due, among other things, to the fury of conservatives who found themselves left in the lurch, financially speaking, while the federal government spent trillions of dollars (including the trillions it was only learned recently that the Fed also gave to the banks, surreptitiously) propping up many of the institutions which had caused the financial meltdown in the first place. And now we have the Occupy Wall Street protests, which consist of many progressives and people even further to the Left, but also a fair sprinkling of conservatives too. They are outraged by the bank bailouts and by the continuation of America's seemingly endless overseas military adventurism or empire-building, among other issues, and these protests have now spread from coast to coast, taking place in literally hundreds of cities and towns of all sizes, descriptions, and types.

All of the above goes to show for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that the entire country, or a very substantial portion of it, is absolutely seething with anger. Americans from one end of the political spectrum to the other are feeling much aggrieved, disempowered, disenfranchised, and in general ignored and ill-served by their elected officials. This is true to a degree which I have never before witnessed in my lifetime, and although the various types of protests which have occurred up until now have been, on the whole, non-violent in nature, there can be no guarantee that they will always remain so. Any people, even Americans, if they feel they have been pushed too far, are capable of lashing out, and the consequences of that, should it occur on a nationwide basis, could well be too terrible to contemplate.

That is why I sincerely hope that our elected officials, from city councils, mayors, governors, congressmen, senators, and the President himself will take note of what is really taking place here and act accordingly. Repression, when it is employed, will only go so far, and in almost every case when it is employed serves only to aggravate an already inflamed and irate populace even further. It is, put simply, exactly the wrong tactic to employ.

So is "politics as usual," which seems to be the prevailing attitude in Washington. Conservatives are thundering against the latest protests, referring to them as "mobs in the streets" (probably because these latest protesters are not all conservatives whom they can hope to co-opt for their own purposes), and progressives are attempting to co-opt them for their own party in the upcoming 2012 elections; but these protests are not about the upcoming elections, no matter how devoutly Democrats might wish that such were the case. They are about the issue of governance in this country as a whole, not about specific candidates and/or issues. For an excellent article on this topic see: "Occupy Wall Street’s ‘Political Disobedience’."

There is still, I believe, time to save the situation before events spiral completely out of control. Each repressive act committed only pours gasoline on an already raging fire, so all such acts should be halted so long as protesters remain peaceful, non-violent, and obey the law. And it will also be necessary for officials at all levels of government to realize, once and for all, that whatever the ultimate outcome of the current unrest in the United States may be, business as usual is simply no longer an option. What is occurring is not just a "sound bite" or the subject of a few "news cycles." If it is to be dealt with constructively instead of destructively, if ultimate catastrophe is to be prevented, officials must do what they can to engage the American people in a serious, sustained dialogue. Either way, the eternal game of "musical chairs" in Washington, in the Congress and the presidency, in the state governors' offices, in the state legislatures, in the mayors' offices and the city and town councils, cannot and will not be allowed to go on indefinitely.

Americans are no longer willing to sit on the sidelines and be treated by elected officials or financial "geniuses" as if they were ignorant, unruly children. Like it or not (and I suspect most professional politicians and most corporate CEOs won't like it much), the American people have dealt themselves back into the game. Those who choose to ignore that simple fact, whether in government or in the private sector, do so at their peril.

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