Universal Translator

Monday, October 17, 2011

On the Nature of Protest

Something I’ve said for a while is that the 24/7 news cycle we now live under has forever changed the nature of political protest.  Back when we all got our news from only 3 different TeeVee channels and a coupla national newspapers, back when the news got shut off except for a few hours every day, a massive protest/rally could command the nation’s attention.  If half a million anti-war protesters assembled on the Washington Mall for a weekend then we’d end up talking about it for days – weeks, even.

But that is no longer the case.  The largest protests in the history of the human species were the protests to prevent the U.S. from going to war in Iraq and they got barely a mention by the media.  Once the protest/rally/marches were over they were flushed down the memory hole and conveniently forgotten by a press eager for the chance to showcase a War Spectacular.

The Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Movement/Occupy Together people (I don’t even know what to call them any longer) have at least internalized this lesson and figured out that the only way to keep shining a spotlight on a problem is not to leave.  And to keep yelling.

Which is one of the reasons I found this article by The Atlantic’s Wendy Kaminer so disturbing:

Do Occupy Wall Streeters have a First Amendment right to occupy public parks indefinitely, 24/7, to the exclusion of other uses?  No, they do not, obviously.

Really?  That’s obvious?  It doesn’t seem so to me, and I would like to hear why Ms. Kaminer thinks it is so obvious that the OWS crowd doesn’t have this right.  But she never explains herself, she just states it as a fact, calls it “obvious,” and then moves on.

Later, Ms. Kaminer supposes that

Cities may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on mass protests; a one or two month (or even a two week) time limit on a tent city in a small public park in a busy urban area would probably be deemed reasonable even by a court sympathetic to the protests (as I am.)  So would a ban on overnight camping.

I confess, I just don’t get this at all.  And – reading Ms. Kaminer’s article – I wonder how much of what she is espousing is just based on a desire to get back to “business as usual.”

For example, there is her reference to a time limit on a tent city protest “in a busy urban area.”  Is that supposed to make a difference?  Should we be more willing to let people do a tent city protest in the woods than we are to permit them to protest in “a busy urban area”?  And if that is the case, then isn’t what Ms. Kaminer really is suggesting is that protests are fine so long as they don’t inconvenience anybody?  But the very point of a protest is to inconvenience people in order to draw attention to one’s cause.

When bus drivers go on strike, they are telling the city for which they work that their contribution to everyday life is worthwhile, and that they need to be compensated accordingly.  We don’t tell those striking bus drivers “Yes, I support you, but I also can’t afford to be inconvenienced so you don’t have the moral right to withdraw your labor.  Now take me to my office.”

Same/same when it comes to the Occupy Movement.  How dare someone suggest that they – or any other movement – have only 2 weeks in which to make their point and then, having made their point, are to fold up tents, go home, and let “the serious people” ponder what it was they had to say?  This strikes me as the absolute height of arrogance.

I would argue that – given the nature of the world we live in now – the 18th century ideal of “petitioning the government for redress” must be read so as to include the right to a 24/7 occupation of a public space.  I would argue that this is, in fact, what the First Amendment means in the 21st century.  I would argue that to suggest otherwise is to betray the very first founding principle upon which our society ultimately depends.

I could be wrong, of course, and I’d love to hear why that is.  But to just dismiss this idea, as Ms. Kaminer does, is to assert a position and then side-step the debate.


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