Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Over at Slate is a piece on Occupy Wall Street, penned by Raymond Vasvari, an attorney who has represented some of the Occupy Cleveland squatters in federal court. The piece is remarkable for two things. First, it notes the ineffective rationale and cowardly manner of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's eviction of the squatters from Zuccotti Park, which is private property. Second, it has the gall to frame this confrontation as a freedom of speech issue, rather than a property rights issue. To wit:
When Power [i.e., the government --ed] evicted the demonstrators today, it told them to take their tents, structures and bedrolls with them, but promised they could return, sans mattresses, once Zuccotti Park had been cleaned. The need to clean the park may or may not have been a pretext for evicting the demonstrators -- who several weeks ago took the job of cleaning the park in hand themselves. But the core dispute in the case -- as it has been in other cities -- is whether the demonstrators can use the park as an encampment. The city argued that such a use is inconsistent with the use of the park by the general public for "passive recreation." And this afternoon, a state court judge agreed.Note the absence of the one word, "trespassing," that could cut through this whole issue like a hot knife through butter. Few people miss the term because most take for granted the idea that the government should own, or at least be in charge of running, "public spaces", such as streets and parks. As with schools, this inevitably leads to conflicts between the government's proper role as guardian of freedom of speech and its improper role of allocating fora for such speech. The government shouldn't own (or dictate the use of) such "public spaces." In a truly free society, where the government was properly limited in scope to the protection of individual rights, the whole matter of whether squatters could use Zuccotti Park as a communal mattress/latrine would be up to the owner of the park and, if they created a nuisance, anyone affected.
Mayor Bloomberg, who sympathizes with the squatters, and has an extensive record as a "nanny-state" collectivist, plainly has a feeble grasp of the concept of property rights. Otherwise, he would have evicted the squatters much sooner; on principled, rather than merely pragmatic grounds; and permanently. Most people, due to the confusion I noted above, will see this as a reasonable compromise. But people like some of the squatters and Vasvari understand that the real issue isn't freedom of speech, but property rights. They will seek to take advantage of everyone else's confusion about property rights, and use that confusion (and everyone's respect for the right of freedom of speech) to continue to gut property rights.
Occupy Wall Street exists in a First Amendment space all its own. The protestors do not, in an important sense, occupy the spaces in which they exist to the exclusion of other uses, like a rally or a parade. They depend for their rhetorical force not on a temporary massing of thousands, but on the persistent presence, day in and day out, of a committed core of demonstrators, whose ongoing presence extends the teachable moment of their message into a perpetual, if not permanent, opportunity for dialogue. The Occupy movement, in that sense, is a sort of national sit-in, whose continuing presence forces us to confront those questions we would otherwise more easily avoid. The essential moral challenge is the same as that posed by the lunch-counter demonstrators of the civil rights era: We are here, we politely dissent, and we defy you to move us along for your own convenience.In sum the intended use of a piece of private property is, not a right, but a convenience; but the desire, on the part of a mob, to persist somewhere permanently somehow is a right.
Really? By what right?
The obscene moral equivalence Vasvari draws between these squatters and the lunch counter demonstrators of the civil rights era is similarly vacuous (and, thanks to public confusion) dangerous. The moral force of many of the acts of civil disobedience during the civil rights era came from making everyone see that racial bigotry and Jim Crow laws were harming actual human beings. These squatters are, in fact, doing the opposite with regard to the victims of trespassing.
The owners of Zuccotti park are unknown to practically everyone and arguably suffer little from the crime. (Although anyone who wants to enjoy the park is victimized in a small way.) But that last fact is non-essential. The proper way to think about a crime conducted in plain view of everyone is to consider what it would mean for other, similar crimes to be condoned. So consider the idea that someone who wants an "ongoing presence" in your neighborhood or home to extend a "teachable moment" indefinitely is entitled to do so -- with your home or yard affording him the opportunity he wants. Now, you tell me whether these rabble occupy the same moral high ground as the lunch-counter demonstrators of the civil rights era.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, as revealed by its non-government target, is not opposed to the forcible redistribution of wealth, despite its complaints about who ends up on the receiving end. Its method of protest shows it to favor the confiscation of wealth from private citizens. Everyone, these squatters included, has the right to voice his opinions, but no one has the right to simply take over whatever platform he happens to think will make him be heard.
OWS has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It is all about destroying government protection for the inalienable right to property.
11-17-11: Corrected spelling of Zuccotti Park to have two c's consistently.