The OWS Red Herring

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.

-- CAV


11-17-11: Corrected spelling of Zuccotti Park to have two c's consistently. 


Michael said...

there is no right to free speech on other people's property

John Drake said...

My first thought when I learned that OWS was located on private property was "Do the property owners approve of this use of their property?" If they do, then the occupiers can stay as long as that permission remains and Bloomberg has no right to evict them. If they don't, then the police should immediately remove them from the park.

As to the free speech issue, I agree, its a complete red herring.

bratzid said...

Or the moral equivalent of academic Keynesian economists occupying the banks.

Just listened to a commercial on bloomberg radio for the Land Trust.
Bloomberg in large and small ways is a teachable moment.

Gus Van Horn said...


Yes. That's a fine executive summary of my point, which I would have done well to emphasize more clearly.


Agreed, but Bloomberg would also have a legitimate reason to evict them under nuisance law if their activities interfered with the rights of others (e.g., if they kept any nearby residents up all night with drums, or their waste were to pollute other property).


Would you care to elaborate further?


bratzid said...

The enemies of capitalism have to employ epistemological and moral cover in order to gain control of the wealth created by capitalism. The Keynsians give the anticapitalist the epistemological cover and the OWS types give themselves the moral cover. Bloomberg may have moved them out of the private property of the park but his own company is turning the other cheek at every turn when given a choose between uncompriming defense of Capitalism or Interventionism whether in epistemology or morality. Many of the economist that are given air time on Bloomberg News are Keynesians even to the point of a wink and nod to the animal spirit. On the moral front the example of letting environmentist commercials to ply there morality on its network is clear betrayal of private property. The control of wealth is not an automatic assuance of being a procapitalst as Mayor Bloomberg is demonstating. Capitalism demands a epistemological and moral defense of Objectivism. Let us hope we still have time to eloborate on that point.

Gus Van Horn said...

Fair enough. I'd say that even non-Keynesian economists, who often avoid moral arguments (or simply surrender outright) can be even more damaging in the long run to the cause of freedom, which cannot be fought without taking a firm (and proper, egoistic) moral stand in favor of it.