I am a Liberal, and I do not support Occupy Wall Street. Many Liberal pundits are putting pressure on all Liberals to embrace this movement, but there are several reasons why I cannot agree. Let's examine the facts of what the Occupiers have said and done, before rushing to support them:
- The First Amendment
Occupy Wall Street protesters have uniformly refused to apply for permits for their demonstrations, or to obey police orders to disperse, claiming the First Amendment gives them a right to free speech wherever and whenever they choose. Of course there are decades of legal precedent showing that the First Amendment is interpreted by courts to mean that people exercising free speech must take into account the manner, place, and time of their speech, to avoid violating the rights of others or creating an unsafe situation. The famous example is, "You cannot shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theater."
By Occupy Wall Street's logic, you could walk into a gun shop and grab whatever guns you want, because the Second Amendment gives you a right to own a gun. Having a right to do something doesn't absolve you of the need to work out the logistics of exercising that right, to make sure you're respecting others' rights and keeping things safe for everyone. Police go through extensive training to recognize unsafe situations. If their judgment is that your "impromptu march" is creating an unsafe situation and needs to be dispersed, you must respect that and obey them. You have the right to disagree later in court, not by fighting the police in the street.
- Civil Disobedience
When called out on the illegality of refusing to disperse, violating health codes, and blocking streets and bridges, Occupiers often refer to America's rich history of civil disobedience. It's true, in this country we respect people's rights to nonviolently break a law for a cause, and consider it a valid tactic for raising awareness. However, true civil disobedience requires those who practice it to willingly submit to arrest, to acknowledge that the issue must be fought in a court of law, not with violence in the streets. This has not been the behavior of Occupiers, who scream at police, try to "unarrest" members being arrested, and who struggle, go limp, or run away when it's time to be arrested for the cause.
Civil disobedience must also be freely chosen by the participants. There is at least one proven example of leaders in the front of an OWS march refusing to relay the message to the back that they could leave the area without any charges filed. NYPD video proves that this warning was given, but those in front shouted so that those in back couldn't hear it, even though they had all been trained for two weeks in the "People's Mic" technique for relaying messages to large crowds.
Many of those arrested on Brooklyn Bridge were convinced that police tricked them into being there, and had no idea that they had a chance to leave with no charges. Several hundred people were not charged, because police were aware those people did not hear the warning, but who was it that made sure they didn't hear it? DailyKos examined this incident in detail, speculating about the identities of those who shouted down the warning to leave, but Occupy Wall Street has not made any internal inquiries or procedural changes to ensure this does not happen again by requiring the People's Mic to relay police messages, so everyone can freely choose whether they want to be arrested or not.
Comparing the behavior of Occupy Wall Street with the Tar Sands protesters at the White House is telling. Daryl Hannah spectacularly raised awareness for her cause when she submitted to arrest for refusing to move from a sidewalk in front of the White House. Her group took care not to block the travel rights of others while disobeying police orders to move. Ms. Hannah put her hands behind her back for cuffs with a smile. She did not scream at or struggle with the police. She knew the police were just doing their jobs, and that she deserved arrest for refusing to move, instead of asserting the "sovereign" rights of the American people as a justification to break laws and not be arrested for it. She paid her fine and went on to give interviews that brought national attention to the proposed tar sands legislation.
When the Occupiers form large groups that block streets and bridges, chanting "Our streets!" and "Take the bridge," they are violating the rights of ordinary citizens who have a right to travel on the roads their taxes pay for. The streets are for everyone to use; they don't belong to any one group, even if that group claims that they speak for "99%" of Americans. Travelers on the Brooklyn Bridge were stuck for two hours because of the marching Occupiers, who showed no sympathy for those who may have been trying to get to a hospital, pick up their kids, or be on time for a job they desperately need to feed their families. This is clearly beyond the realm of civil disobedience into simple mob rule, and it is not what democracy looks like.
- General Assembly: Leaderless Consensus Organization
Many people are impressed by the Occupiers' choice of anarchist-based General Assemblies rather than traditional decision-making models. They see it as an innovative new technique, much like "crowdsourcing," that could become the new standard model for activist groups. However, this technique is not new; it is the method Anarchist activists feel all governments should operate by, and they have been using it in their communes and gatherings for years.
In many ways, the "Occupation of Zuccotti Park" is just a marketing tool for this particular type of Anarchist decision-making process. Protesters do not need to sleep in the park to defend it from armed attack, as those who slept in Egypt's Tahrir Square did. The purpose of forming a micro village in Zuccotti Park is to demonstrate that this Anarchist model can be successful at sustaining a community.
Devotion to this demonstration of the Anarchist model has led Occupiers to steadfastly ignore the increasing health risks caused by their refusal to allow the park to be sanitized by its owners, and from continuing to live in such close proximity without proper sanitary facilities on site. This refusal to acknowledge basic facts of science does not speak well for the group's overall grasp of reality, and poses a real health risk for the entire city, especially during flu season, as visitors mingle with those living in unsafe conditions, then go back to the wider community, carrying viruses with them.
Has the Occupation of the park proven the success of the GA model? It has indeed created a community which has subdivided into various committees, for food, trash removal, security, music, etc, to provide for the needs of the occupiers. However, it has completely failed to come up with a set of realistic demands or goals for the movement, releasing only declarations of grievances, and tentative demands that display shocking lack of awareness about how the world really works. Occupiers propose a demand for the forgiveness of all debts, for example, without explaining how that could be done without causing a devastating crash that would destroy the world's economy.
The Occupation of Zuccotti Park is not self-sustaining. It is supported by a steady flow of donations from the outside world, so it is not proof that the anarchist GA model creates self-sustaining communities. There is no sympathetic group of space aliens who would support us with donations if the entire world turned to this model of organization. Goods and services must still come from somewhere, and without laws regulating their creation, and government enforcement of those laws, we get sweatshops, quack doctors, and unsafe products.
What works for a small group does not necessarily scale to 300 million people. It is impossible for all 300 million Americans to come to 100% consensus on any issue, because we're simply too diverse and large a population. No matter what the issue is, at least a portion of the population will disagree on any proposed solution. This is why we agree to live by majority rule, because we could never possibly please everyone completely.
- No Need for a Goal
Initially, every critic of the Occupy movement pointed out that it has no goal, nothing specific that it would like to achieve. Lately this has been spun by OWS supporters as a false criticism. They claim that simply continuing to occupy the park is a valid goal, that providing a place to gather to talk about grievances (despite the existence of an internet that would be much more efficient for that purpose) is a valid goal, or that valid goals will emerge through the GA process over time. This has been applauded by many pundits as innovative and evidence of new emerging paradigms, but I have to agree with my friend who said "The Emperor has no clothes."
If the President himself, flanked by all the Rothschilds, Bloombergs, and Dimons, appeared at Zuccotti Park, hands in the air, and said, "You win, we'll do whatever you want, just tell us what will satisfy you," OWS would have to say "We'll get back to you when our online voting is concluded and the votes ratified by GA consensus." Without an answer to "What would make you go home again?" this is protest for protest's sake. Without specific goals, there's no way to tell when you've won, and you have no justification for demanding media attention and political support until you have them.
People have a right to know exactly what they would be supporting by joining this group. "Support us now and we'll tell you what you supported later," is not logical or fair. "We'll tell you what our demands are once we're more powerful" is downright sinister.
Does Occupy Wall Street deserve Liberal support?
Given these facts, I cannot support Occupy Wall Street. I am a Liberal, and believe in using the government as a tool to regulate markets so products are safe and wages are fair, keeping the government out of our bedrooms and gardens, and defending the right to dissent, but I cannot defend a movement that does not use true civil disobedience and instead engages in mob rule tactics and deception, all for no real reason except to advertise the model village they created to prove that anarchist thought can succeed in governing a small group.
There are legitimate groups pursuing rational goals of financial reform, without resorting to open lawlessness, seizing private property, resisting arrest, or tricking supporters into being arrested. They want to create change within our existing system of government, not replace it with the anarchist consensus model. I support those legitimate groups, because they are what democracy really looks like.