Occupy Movements Spotlight Disappearing Rights

Occupy Movements Spotlight Disappearing Rights

Occupy Movements Spotlight Disappearing Rights

As Occupy chapters open across the country, the trials and tribulations of protesters draw attention to the nation’s disappearing rights.


Early this morning, police raided the makeshift camp of Occupy Boston and arrested anywhere between fifty and 100 people for the crime of sleeping in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Officials claimed the reason behind the mass arrests is because the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the second home of Occupy Boston, sits across from Congress Street where expensive improvements in renovation have just been made.

Police asked the protesters to keep the movement isolated to Dewey Square, their original location, but the request proved impossible since the square couldn’t hold all the activists.

Police assume the protesters will mangle or graffiti these luxurious renovations across the way sometime in the future. No damages have occurred yet, but the clairvoyant folks in the Boston Police Department have a bad feeling about all of this.

The Rose Kennedy Greenway’s Executive Director Nancy Brennan, meanwhile, expressed her support for the activists. Brennan’s organization, which maintains public parks, also supports free speech, according to Brennan. She simply asked the protesters to take care of the park during their stay.

However, there is another version of the story. In an interview with WBUR Mayor Thomas Menino said the protesters “exceeded the boundaries we set up for them.” Boston Police Department spokeswoman Driscoll says the arrests occurred because the protesters had moved onto newly renovated private property on Greenway.

Greenway is a series of parks and public spaces that cost private and public participants $150,000 to construct. The whole “public” aspect of the parks implies free use by the taxpayers who helped pay to build the thing, but in America, public space is quickly becoming private space that happens to be funded by taxpayer dollars.

Protesters of Occupy Dallas had a rude awakening when they discovered they would need to pay a fee in order to protest in Pioneer Plaza. That small, incidental fee came to the tune of $1 million. You know, pocket change, really. Totally affordable for someone who has lost their home, or is currently suffocating under $100,000 of student loan debt. The protest fee masquerades as an insurance policy. You see, the state is just looking out for activists. If the Dallas police’s motherly instinct happens to directly infringe on activists’ rights to freedom of expression, then too bad. I hurt you because I love you.

Dallas’s quandary is a microcosm of national pain. Public land is quickly disappearing as corporations buy it up for name rights, but also the right to use public servants (police) to deny other citizens the use of the land. And when stubborn citizens refuse to let go of the land, there are always eminent domain laws to assist corporations with their seizures. When all else fails, heightened post-9/11 security provides a blanket excuse to force citizens out of the public arena.

Oh, and never forget the appeal of a stupid law.

In New York, participants of Occupy Wall Street aren’t permitted to use poles to prop up their tents because doing so would constitute physical structures. Individuals now huddle under tarps during inclement weather, holding up the coverings with their hands.

Police visited the camp last night to instruct activists to take down a projector screen being used during a presentation because, yes, it too counts as a physical structure. Protesters ended up holding up the screens themselves because humans propping up objects do not yet count as an offense.

Occupy Chicago may have experienced the roughest encounter with the law yet. With no park to sleep in, activists gathered on a public sidewalk. At least, the sidewalk is considered public until the police say otherwise.

“The first couple of days, the Federal Reserve police told us that as long as we didn’t lean against the wall of the bank, we could sleep there,” said Micah, who volunteers as a press liaison for the group. “Then, they decided they owned the sidewalk up to six feet, and put up barricades to protect their sidewalk.” This created a bottleneck that put the group in conflict with a Chicago city ordinance preventing anyone from blocking a public way (including sleeping or refusing to move). “We decided, since you’re not going to let us sleep there, we’re going to just not sleep,” Micah said. As a result, the group keeps everything on the street light and mobile, using wheeled carts and backpacks. “Until 3 (A.M.) we have about 40 people.”

This style of police oppression should be familiar to any seasoned activist. Police claim protesters have the right to use public sidewalks to exercise their First Amendment rights until they cross some arbitrary line and “obstruct the flow of traffic” or “impede pedestrian traffic.” In New York City, that could literally mean getting in the way of one pedestrian—quite an easy thing to do—and the police can shut down the entire protest.

No law is too silly or too archaic to bust out in response to a disconcertingly passionate group of citizens. New York City even dusted off a 150-year-old law against wearing masks in public to try and stem the growth of Occupy Wall Street’s demonstrations. Seven people were arrested due to violating this law. It remains to be seen if the police will continue enforcing the policy come Halloween. The law does include an exemption for masquerade parties, so rich women will still be able to dress as naughty maids for the night. ‘Murika!

Even Mayor Bloomberg, who is being portrayed as a merciful king in the media for allowing protesters to stay in Zuccotti Park, is at the center of a bizarre incestual public-private arrangement. His live-in girlfriend, Diana Taylor, who is an investment banker, sits on the board that owns Zuccotti.

Bloomberg recently decreed the protesters may stay “indefinitely,” but many observers missed an important caveat. Bloomberg added: “If they break the laws, then, we’re going to do what we’re supposed to do: enforce the laws.”

The statement seems harmless enough until you examine the history of the NYPD interacting with protesters: the pepper-spraying of innocent young women as they stand inside police pens, the mace and baton-wielding police brutality, the curious testimonies of police leading protesters onto the Brooklyn Bridge before arresting them en masse.

Examined with these instances in mind, Bloomberg’s statement suddenly seems quite ominous. What he probably meant to say was, “Even if they don’t break the law…” After all, it’s easy to stifle dissent when the police can make up any old reason to jail everybody, or resurrect a law from 150 years ago to squash an uprising.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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