25 October 2011
Occupy Oakland falls
The standoffs shaping up across the country between occupiers and state and municipal authorities raise fundamental questions about the meaning of public space. The left may not be used to visualizing things this way, but the occupations seem to have forced a choice: do "public" parks belong to the people, or to the government. It's one thing to argue against a rightist that the people are the government, but the occupations don't always pit "the people" or "the 99%" against the "right" as conventionally envisioned, i.e. Republicans, tea partiers, rednecks, etc. In some cases, as in Albany NY, they face Democratic state and city governments that are not friendly. Gov. Cuomo, the exemplary Austerity Democrat of the hour, has said that, while he respects freedom of speech, he also respects the rule of law. I'm sure the Democratic authorities in Oakland can say the same thing after breaking up that city's occupation this morning. Within two weeks, reportedly, conditions had "deteriorated" to a point that required a cleanup of debris and occupiers. The rule of law in this case apparently required the dissenters to be driven from the plaza. It all sounds very solemn and serious, but why should we give this rule-of-law rhetoric any more benefit of the doubt here than we give it when it comes from the mouth of some foreign strongman. Any authoritarian ruler will say much the same thing, but when this sort of thing happens elsewhere Americans are quite ready to recognize the rule of law as a pretext for the suppression of dissent. It may be a bad habit of thought, but we tend to assume that the laws themselves in many countries are actually written for the purpose of inhibiting political opposition. If it is a bad habit to think so, that's mostly because we apply standards selectively, presuming the worst motives from lawmakers perceived to be anti-American. Selective standards will still prevail among those who see nothing wrong with what happened in Oakland and may happen elsewhere. Others may end up questioning whether a rule of law is ever merely an end unto itself, or if it's always just a method of entrenching factional or class power as long as power is reserved for a particular class or faction. If the occupations prove that the people aren't necessarily the government, they may leave open the question of whether the government or the people are the law.