Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Ethics of Occupy Wall Street


The purpose of peaceful protest is to point out some kind of wrongdoing, some situation that needs to be remedied.  If protesters themselves commit ethical violations during the course of their protest, they lose all credibility.  How can the public consider protesters good judges of ethics, fit to point out what is and is not a wrongdoing, if the protesters cannot conduct themselves ethically during their protest?

As I blogged about previously, peaceful protest, the attempt to raise public awareness about grievances in a free society, is governed by different rules than revolutions.  People waging revolutionary wars often need to do things that would be immoral in a peaceful protest, like taking up arms and seizing land to house troops on.  If Occupy Wall Street is truly a peaceful protest, then it can't use revolutionary justifications for its behavior, and must restrain itself to legitimate tactics of peaceful protest in order to have credibility in pointing out wrongdoing in the system.

Does the Occupy movement have ethical credibility?  Looking at the question both morally and legally, there are some clear historical precedents to help us judge the legitimacy of the movement as a force for social justice.

Legality and morality are separate issues that aren't always completely in sync.  Civil disobedience refers to acts which are illegal, but still ethical.  One historical example is when Dr. Martin Luther King organized protests that violated unjust segregation laws.  The goal of the protest was to show that the laws were unjust and that the actions of the arrested protesters should not have been illegal.  No one else's rights were violated in Dr. King's protests, and the protesters submitted willingly to arrest, acknowledging that although their actions were morally right, they were still illegal, and the state had a right to arrest them.

A different type of civil disobedience was shown in a recent protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, popularized by Daryl Hannah.  These protesters blocked a sidewalk in front of the White House, then submitted to arrest, in order to create a media spectacle.  The pipeline protesters were not trying to prove that the law against blocking sidewalks is an unjust law, they broke that law solely to draw media attention to their environmental cause.  Because the law they broke wasn't unjust, they couldn't use the same ethical justification as Dr. King.  Instead, they made sure that their violation of the admittedly fair law was purely symbolic, conducted in a safe manner respecting the social order, without genuinely violating anyone else's rights, just a token of disobedience.

The pipeline protesters sat in organized rows, symbolically "blocking" the sidewalk, but still leaving plenty of actual space for other people to pass, and being orderly enough that they could hear police instructions in the event of an emergency.  They did not resist arrest, or characterize their arrests as unfair "attacks" against them.  Because of this respect for other people's rights, and respect for the social order, the pipeline protesters' civil disobedience was still moral, even though the law that was broken was not an unjust one.

Illegal Occupier encampments and marches match neither of these well-known civil disobedience types.  The laws that are being broken by Occupiers are not unjust.  Camping, public health and traffic laws are completely fair, reasonable, and necessary to protect the rights and safety of all citizens, so Occupiers can't claim an "unjust law" justification for disobedience.

Occupiers' disobedience is also not just a symbolic token of lawbreaking with no real damage or danger. They physically use their massed bodies and personal possessions to completely block other people from traveling or using parks, and have done so on a daily basis for well over a month, with the intention of continuing to do so indefinitely.  During their marches Occupiers are often so loud and disorderly that marchers in the back are not even aware of it when police interact with those in the front, and if an emergency arose there would be no way to relay vital safety messages to everyone.  

OWS actions have many innocent victims.  Travelers on the Brooklyn Bridge, and on other streets and bridges in Occupied cities, have been stranded, often for hours at a time.  Thousands of people all over the country have been prevented from getting to work, picking up their kids, getting food, or otherwise going where they needed to go.  In Boston, Occupiers' refusal to break camp meant several festivals were canceled, including a children's Pumpkin Patch Festival and a food drive for the needy.  The illegal OWS camping and marching harm the general public as a whole, but especially children, who are most disappointed by not being able to use a park, most frightened when their parents are several hours late to pick them up, and most disturbed by exposure to screaming, disorderly crowds of adults acting without restraint.

Does the Constitution offer protection for these OWS activities?  The Supreme Court has ruled that illegal camping is not constitutionally protected, and that park authorities have a duty to protect the integrity of the parks entrusted to them by the public.  In every Occupation where people are camping in non-camping parks, their use of park grounds as living accommodations damages the parks and violates the rights of other people to freely use the space.  Park rules against camping fall squarely in the category of reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions governing free speech, and do not violate the 1st Amendment, since protesters have the options of simply using one of the many available camping parks, if camping is vital to their free expression, or using non-camping parks to speak in as long as they do not attempt to set up living accommodations there.

Some Occupations have received special, temporary waivers from authorities to camp in non-camping areas, which raises a different set of ethical issues.  Authorities charged with enforcing laws have a right to use their discretion in deciding which broken laws to prosecute.  A traffic officer might decide to let a speeding driver off with a warning, or might choose to issue a ticket.  This is a judgment call authorities are empowered to make, allowing them to react flexibly in preserving the social order and keeping the peace in their jurisdiction.  Sometimes, for one reason or another, enforcing a law would cost the taxpayers more trouble than it would be worth, so lawbreakers get a pass.

The fact that some authorities have chosen to use their discretion to temporarily allow illegally camped Occupations to remain, in violation of laws and the rights of other citizens, does not mean that the Occupations are legal, or that they are ethical.  This discretionary leniency can rightfully be revoked at any time, based on the authorities' evolving understanding of what will best serve the public.  The Occupiers' violations of other people's rights remains unethical even if no legal charges are ever filed.

In America, the 14th Amendment requires that everyone receive equal protection under the law.  If all previous protest groups have been required to obtain permits to march, obey camping laws, and limit their protests to a set timeframe, it would be a violation of the 14th Amendment for authorities to grant Occupiers special privileges exempting them from these requirements.  Contrary to the Occupiers' complaints that authorities are violating the 1st Amendment by enforcing camping laws, it's actually Occupiers who are asking authorities to violate the 14th Amendment and give them privileges not available to other groups.

It's possible that activist groups who play by the rules and obey the law would be within their rights to sue Occupied cities for discrimination if city officials give privileges to Occupiers that were not given to anyone else.  Then again, cities might be able to make a counterargument that since OWS has openly broadcast appeals for followers to obstruct police, saying they "won't allow" police to enforce the law, and since their physical protests are supported by cyber attacks on police databases, Occupiers are not in the same category of group as peaceful protesters, but are instead a type of organized gang, requiring different law enforcement approaches than those used for peaceful protest.  These are questions courts and lawyers will have to sort out in the future.

At the moment, all we can be certain of is that in light of their numerous ethical violations and refusal to respect the social order necessary for rights to be available to everyone, Occupiers have no credible claim to being judges of wrongdoing.  It is hypocritical for OWS to demand that banks or government officials volunteer to be more saintly than the law requires, while Occupiers themselves refuse to obey reasonable and fair laws, recklessly causing harm to their fellow citizens, damaging public property, and demanding unequal treatment under the law.  Their message, should they ever articulate a specific one, is irrelevant.  Why should we take public policy advice from people who consistently violate other people's rights?  Who cares what bullies think?

12 comments:

  1. Uncertain About OccupyOctober 24, 2011 at 4:01 PM

    Hell yes. I live across the street from Occupy LA who are illegally camping on a "special waiver." Every day and night they blare concerts even though it's against the noise ordinance. It makes me despise the protestors so much. I love the movement but I see the protestors as very uninformed, exclusionist, borderline fascist brats. They've ruined our Farmer's Market, they've cost the city in police work. The grass is a whopping $400,000 to repair out of taxpayer pocket now. They're jokes, really. There are other larger parks without residential areas surrounding them that would work out better but they refuse. They could move their sound system away from residential areas - but they refuse. They scream equality but all they're really saying is, "only for us - no one else."

    And I bet no one who needs to read this, actually reads it. This is why Occupy is failing.

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  2. I see no homes within a block of City hall. How is it that you live across the street? If the noise is too loud, please come to the general Assembly at 7:30 tonight and address us with your concerns.

    Coming to the general assembly and addressing us directly will do more to help that simply complaining in a blog. Many of us do agree with your concerns and the concerns of the blogger.

    So if you want solutions, please be here at 7:30 tonight.

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  3. Complaints get us nowhere. Anyone with a complaint, please give a proposal for a solution.

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  4. You are correct on the idea but oblivious to the reality that u are not in a perfect world. This is in regards to your idea that something will change by just protesting period. The very idea they are protesting dictates they must break the status quo somewhat just as MLK did. Unfortunately, the idea that one must be given reason to change is not enough anymore. We are at a point where it seems likely forceful change is the only way to get the people their power back. We were all lazy and trusted the wrong people. Admit that first.

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  5. "Sorry for the inconvenience, we're trying to change the world."

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  6. The constitution specifically states that No law shall be made to prohibit free assembly. The constitution exists to limit government and protect our basic human rights. It is the rules that we allow ourselves to be governed by. Any person trying to deny another free speech, or the right to assemble to voice their grievances is a traitor to the constitution. They should be arrested and put on trial.

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  7. It is no wonder that you had to set up an "awareness center" in SecondLife to deal with Iran. There's no protest in the current real world that could possibly uphold your impossibly high standards of conduct and ethics. OF COURSE SecondLife is the only place you can actually do anything, if you are to obey your own rules.

    Pretty funny about the 14th Amendment.

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  8. Worried About OccupyOctober 25, 2011 at 4:59 PM

    I . "And I bet no one who needs to read this, actually reads it. This is why Occupy is failing."

    It looks like this prophecy is correct. None of the trolls read what you wrote.

    As for post #2. You don't see anything because your heads so far up your @#$. How have you been in the community for 3 weeks and not seen the homes around you? Scary you've not seen anything. Really scary that you missed the government retirement home and the two apartment buildings. If you can't take note of what's in your parameter than how can anyone trust your social and political judgement?

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  9. Worried About OccupyOctober 25, 2011 at 5:01 PM

    "Sorry for the inconvenience..." indeed while organizers camp rent free and ruin a peaceful neighborhood at the expense of the tax-payer.

    And if a long-time resident wants to ask an encampment to be kinder to the community it's forced itself on: GOD FORBID that person doesn't want to illegally camp with organizers in a Stanford Prison Experiment. And GOD FORBID the people who live in the community an Occupy has hi-jacked don't want to listen to illegal concerts 24/7. GOD FORBID the people who live in the hi-jacked community want to come home to the neighborhood they pay for and relax and enjoy it. I guess that's just too good for them, then - huh Occupy? Apparently you've been made the overseer of all things human beings deserve.

    "Oh you don't like our illegal homeless commune with illegal sound amplifiers? Come in and chat with us about it." Why should a tax-paying resident whose lived in the community long before an Occupy organizer had the notion to trash it - have to come into your camp and discuss a law that you're breaking? No one is coming to discuss laws you're breaking with you. No one in the surrounding community wants to walk into an encampment that terrorizes its host. Are you really that daft?

    Occupy LA has tied the hands of City Council while they abuse the neighbors and community around them. The organizers illegally camp and illegally throw concerts and the city barely audibly says "shame." An agreement between the council members and the squatters has been struck without a democratic consensus from anyone living around the area. That doesn't sound like change. It sounds like more cronyism.
    And when anyone outside of their Stanford psychosis experiment asks for actual peace, and for their community to go back to normal -
    after taking over public officials and city laws, Occupy organizers then all sign online and troll blogs, like this one, to spew more of their fascist opinions in hopes that it will silence anyone who disagrees with the way they're practicing their ideology. At this point Occupy are no better than the bankers.

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  10. Worried About OccupyOctober 25, 2011 at 5:01 PM

    If Occupy wants more support then treat people (the supposed 99% you're screaming about) with respect and dignity. Not disrespect and antagonism. No one is going to come to your camp if you think you can own the law and politicians, ruin a neighborhood, chastise and antagonize the community around you - all while costing tax-payers more money.

    The deal with the movement these days is Occupy exists on the de facto idea of cleaning up Wall Street but not on the wedge tactics and terrorism supported by unscrupulous people inside the camps and that's the unfortunate truth.

    Clean up the bullshit Occupiers or it's over for everyone.

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  11. Worried About OccupyOctober 25, 2011 at 5:04 PM

    II. Occupy is failing because of greed inside of Occupy. Comment #5 is an example of this: "Sorry for the inconvenience, we're trying to change the world."

    I've seen these types of snide, bitter and aggressive comments applied both to NYC and LA. There are other effected communities documented as well but I'll stick with NYC and LA.

    The deal is, snide comment making organizer, you're pushing your views on a society that doesn't agree 100% with you and/or just your tactics so you feel like you need to "inconvenience" them in the first place. Vile. Meanwhile these are supposed to be the 99% who live in the face of inequality and deal with a ton of daily disparities. So .... adding to it is apparently fine you.

    "Hey 99%er you deal with not being able to afford healthcare, healthy food, you have several terrible health conditions and you work the late shift in a broke ass job. You can't afford a car and stand out in the cold for an hour every night waiting for public transit. Life is hard - we want to "help you" by camping in your front yard for free while blasting concerts into your living room for as long as we like." xoxo Occupier

    That's as greedy as the bankers taking what people (don't) have. You are taking the average worker's peaceful community (worth a lot to those who live there) - of which they pay for to live in and enjoy, and are disdainfully trashing it. How is that a message of good intent? It's not.

    But hey it's OK! "We're working on changing the world!" Meanwhile OccupyLA has cost the city $400,000 in lawn repairs and $50,000 (so far) in police work. They freaked the small DTLA Farmer's Market out that has been there for over a decade - expecting handouts and refusing to move their tents for some of the booths. There's been drugs, rapes, and fights in other cities encampments. NYC has sunk millions into dealing with their occupiers. Yep "sounds" like "change."

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  12. No, it's not anything like that. No amount of people camping within vicinity of my house for any period of time can hurt me as much as losing 50% of my 401(k) savings.

    Get your heads out your asses; you sound like people with homeowners associations who tell other neighbors what they can do with their own house because you feel that you own all the land that touches yours.

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