22 November 2011

Occupy Obama? Round One in New Hampshire

In a democracy, in theory, everyone gets to be heard. In practice, it's all about who shows up and who gets heard. Public space and public time are inevitably contested, and dissidents may be excused for feeling that some are heard too often and others not enough. That feeling seems to have motivated the "mic check" outburst in Manchester NH today when Occupation sympathizers attempted to collectively challenge (or heckle) the President. Loyal Democrats eventually drowned out the protesters with their own more mindless chanting of campaign slogans, while the President told the mic-checkers that they had made their point, when they clearly had not. In his comments, Obama seemed to think that their point had been made at the Occupations, where people had expressed, as he heard it, frustration over how the American dream had seemed to slip away from many working people. That's not exactly a misinterpretation, but in the wake of evictions across the country, the frustration has gone beyond economic worries. This is what the demonstrators meant to say:

Mr. President, over 4000 peaceful protesters have been arrested while bankers continue to destroy the American economy. You must stop the assault on our 1st Amendment rights. Your silence sends a message that police brutality is acceptable. Banks got bailed out. We got sold out.

It may not be in Obama's power, even had he the will, to stay the hands of city and state cops across the land. The President may not accept police brutality, or he may not accept that the evictions constitute brutality. For their part, the occupiers and their sympathizers do not accept that their time has expired, that they've said their piece and should yield the ground to business as usual. Their test of democratic principles may go beyond any appeal to the First Amendment, and go all the way to first principles. They are determined, it seems, not to yield until their concerns are recognized and addressed, and it also seems that they recognize no obligation to accommodate others by standing down after having their turn at the center of attention. For them, this is not about whose turn it is to speak. If democracy is really about who shows up and who gets heard, then it's their prerogative to stand their ground until the people (or their representatives) respond, either by accepting their demands or by driving them from the field. The occupiers have no obligation to quit until they're ready, or until they're silenced. Democracy doesn't guarantee them victory, but it doesn't require them to give up when others demand that they do so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What if King George had told the colonists: "Okay, we've heard your complaints. Thank you for your comments, now please go away." Oh, wait - that's exactly what happened. If they had simply shrugged their shoulders, bowed their heads and "went away", there would be no President Obama today to ignore his constituents.

They decided that the king "heard, but was not listening" and took actions to correct that problem. Ultimately, the only "fix" was to eliminate the British government (in a manner of speaking), and set up their own.

The difference, in this case, is rather than one group of people complaining about a lack of representation in government, you have two groups of people whining about a lapse in their representatives' ability or willingness to do their jobs, about taxes being too high, about the average person's quality of life continually spiraling downward while the "upper classes" are wealthier than ever, at the same time both groups are yelling at each other with ideological insolence while trying to outshout each other.

I'm beginning to wonder if maybe what this country really needs is a "timeout" from democracy so we can remember WHY we took that route in the first place.