Certain cities across the country have sought to remove participants in the Occupy movement from public areas where they have been protesting, while pundits have criticized the movement for not having any affirmative program. The National Lawyers Guild has been defending the First Amendment rights of the Occupiers since they first arrived in Zuccotti Park.Bill O'Reilly has gone so far as to accuse us of funding them, something we cannot do with a budget a fraction of his annual income. However, Guild lawyers have spent countless hours without pay litigating on behalf of the Occupiers and negotiating with city officials to preserve their right to protest. Our legal observers have been on the streets and in the parks, ensuring that any unlawful police actions, such as the many violations of a consent degree negotiated with the City of Oakland only a year ago, would be documented in the event of future litigation. Our identification with the Occupy movement impels me to comment.
It is remarkable that so many have called for an end to the encampments, if not voluntarily then by force, on the grounds that they are somehow “illegal” or a threat to the health of the people in them. Less than a year ago, the Arab Spring began in Tunisia and spread to many other countries in the Middle East, most notably Egypt, where it continues even after Mubarak left office. Governments attempted to suppress the demonstrations, all of which were considered “illegal,” with tear gas, police force and worse. Regardless of the form of suppression, the United States government stood on the side of the demonstrators, calling on the governments to recognize their rights to protest and to democratic rule. When she visited Tahrir Square, Hillary Clinton said, “To see where this revolution happened and all that it has meant to the world is extraordinary for me. It's just a great reminder of the power of the human spirit and desire for human rights and democracy. It's just thrilling to see where this happened.”
Why, then, are similar protests in this country, inspired in many ways by the events in Tahrir Square, not similarly defended by the government? Why do municipalities look to justify arresting protesters and forcing them from their encampments with “less lethal” weaponry because the governments – not the protesters – have grown weary of them? The justifications given are mere sophistry. The right to protest is not dependent on the degree of oppressiveness of the government. It is a fundamental human right that cannot be limited without damage to the entire body politic.
Which brings me to my second point. The Occupy movement's fundamental protest is that money has so contaminated American democracy that the voices, needs and opinions of the “99 percent” cannot compete. The influence of money has expanded exponentially over the last generation, culminating with the Supreme Court ruling that corporations are “persons” with an unencumbered right to free speech, and the creation of “Super PACs, which take unlimited amounts of anonymous donations to advocate for their chosen candidates and causes. Not surprisingly, those candidates and causes tend to support lower taxes for the richest and gutting government programs designed to assist the poorest.
The fundamental protest against this injustice, say the critics, backseat drivers and Monday-morning quarterbacks, is not sufficient. The Occupiers need a program, when all they have done is list the things they do not like: wealth inequality, criminal corporate greed, democracy for sale and the consequent betrayal of the American Dream. Even in the guise of fact reporting, this criticism lurks. The AP, in an article printed in The Birmingham News, asserted that, “[t]he Occupy movement has intentionally never clarified its policy objectives, relying instead on a broad message opposing corporate excess and income inequality.”
Perhaps the pundits should re-read – or read for the first time – the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson and the other signers had a single program, independence from England. The Declaration did not suggest any more. Rather, it documented the “long train of abuses and usurpations” perpetrated by George III, which impelled the American colonies to separate themselves from England. Then the pundits should read the declaration from Occupy Wall Street.
That declaration, they will find, parallels one of our two founding documents, one that is venerated, not just in this country, but around the world. Yet, that is not enough for the talking heads who purport to speak on behalf of the American people and seek to set our country's course and dictate its discourse. The Occupiers, on the other hand, have actually changed the discourse with their commitment, their presence and their bodies. When Zuccotti Park was first occupied and surrounded by New York City police, all we saw in the media was the need to cut the deficit. Since then, more and more, the talk is about the impoverishment of American workers and the need for jobs. That is no small accomplishment. The National Lawyers Guild and I will cast our lot with the people struggling and suffering in the streets, not those who amass wealth by telling them what they should think and what they need.