For many tens of millions of people the nationwide (and now global) protest movement galvanized by the Occupy Wall Street actions in New York City are a very hopeful and long overdue development, a reinvigoration of the spirit of the First Amendment right to freely and peaceably assemble.
Early signs of heavy-handed police tactics and government surveillance, however, should make it clear that to progress the movement and its supporters will need to challenge not only concentrated economic power but the erosion of the right to dissent that has occurred in American society over the past decade.
In an interview on their new book Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in 21st Century America, lawyers Michael Ratner and Margaret Ratner Kunstler dissect the legal assault on protest rights and its implications for the movement.
Seperately, on Alternet, Rania Khalek enumerates specific constitutionally dubious statutes currently being brought to bear in the attempt to quell the burgeoning spirit of protest.
As Occupy Wall Street protests spring up in cities across the country, authorities are thinking up creative ways to contain this peaceful and inspiring uprising. Although laws and municipal ordinances vary from city to city, there is a consistency in the tactics being used to stifle the movement. More importantly, as demonstrated by the protesters at Zuccotti Park who kept strong in the face of a looming eviction that never came to fruition, these maneuvers are not working.
Still, there is no shortage of justifications and rationales behind the constantly evolving schemes being implemented to destroy the spirit of Occupy Wall Street. Here are 12 desperate and unsuccessful measures the authorities are using to discourage, deter and crack down on peaceful protests.
1) No Snoozing In Public
Most cities have an anti-camping ordinance on the books that prohibits camping or sleeping in public spaces, particularly public parks, to minimize the risk of nighttime criminal activity. But the ordinances are frequently used to cleanse cities of the inconvenient and uncomfortable scenery of homeless people; police in San Francisco are known for enforcing the city's camping ordinance primarily against the homeless.
But now, all over the country, anti-camping ordinances are being used to arrest and deter protesters from occupying public spaces.
Local news stations covering Occupy Dallas report that police plan to begin enforcing the city's ordinance against sleeping in public, first with warnings, then tickets, and eventually arrest. Due to a city ordinance that prohibits sleeping in Los Angeles public parks, Occupy LA activists move their tents to the sidewalk every night, and move them back to the park every morning. Occupy Chicago protesters have resorted to staying awake in shifts, then switching with one another to sleep in cars or someone's home nearby to get around the ban against sleeping on the public sidewalk.
2) No Umbrellas
Officials in various cities are citing ordinances that prohibit the erection of permanent or semi-permanent structures, referring to tents, tarps, sleeping bags, and in one city, umbrellas.
According to Seattle's newsweekly, The Stranger, the Seattle Police Department warned protesters that, "You can't have an umbrella open unless you're standing and holding it," otherwise they are considered structures and will be confiscated. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn later clarified the reasoning in a statement, saying, “As for umbrellas, police were concerned that protest participants were using umbrellas and tarps to create makeshift tents to evade the no-camping rule."
In a city known for its heavy rains, it’s rather extreme to ban the use of umbrellas. But the absence of tents, tarps and even umbrellas during downpours in New York City and Washington DC has yet to discourage protesters.
Fortunately for the Occupy Wall Street protesters in NYC, the privately owned Zuccotti Park is open 24 hours a day, unlike city-owned parks that are usually closed in the late night to early morning hours. In city and state-owned parks occupied by protesters throughout the country, authorities are using park curfews to their advantage. Just after 3am on the morning of Friday, Oct. 14, Denver police raided the Occupy Denver encampment citing an 11pm to 5am curfew at state parks, making at least 21 arrests. A similar 11pm curfew in Iowa led to 32 arrests on Oct. 9. The same thing happened at Occupy Sacramento.
4) No Open Flames
The "burn ban" generally applies to outdoor cooking, like grilling in the park, and is strictly followed by Wall Street protestors who refuse to give NYPD any reason to evict them. In the early days of Occupy San Francisco, SFPD issued protesters a notice of the local laws and ordinances they were allegedly violating, to justify a pending police crackdown. Included in the list was a “fire code prohibiting open flames that applied to outdoor cooking setups.” The lesson here is no barbequing.
5) No Sitting or Lying Down
SFPD’s notice also informed protesters that they were in violation of a sit-lie law that prohibits sitting or laying down on San Francisco sidewalks between 7am and 11pm. This criminal offense can result in a fine starting at $50 and possibly lead to jail time.
6) No Obstructing the Pedestrian Walkway
Occupy Chicago faced major obstacles early on but has managed to remain intact. The group initially had trouble finding a place to occupy due to the city’s lack of publicly available land. Occupiers ultimately chose to set up camp on the public sidewalk surrounding Chicago’s Federal Reserve building. At first, police warned them not to lean up against the building, but that quickly evolved into a ban on the area 6 feet from the building (almost the entire sidewalk), followed by the enforcement of a Chicago city ordinance preventing people from blocking the public way, aka sleeping or sitting on the sidewalk. (In NYC this is called “impeding pedestrian traffic.”)
7) No Private Belongings in Public Space
Chicago’s spur-of-the-moment version of San Francisco’s sit-lie law was made to apply to the private belongings of protesters as well. According to In These Times, this forced them into “packing their gear into backpacks or putting it onto mobile carts for temporary relocation.” An update on the Occupy Chicago Web site alerted activists to “Occupy Chicago, Phase 2 – Mobilization,” a new plan that would “make all things there 100% mobile, all bodies must be constantly moving, and absolutely no sitting/sleeping.”
8) Unaffordable Fees
The city of Dallas, Texas, demanded that Occupy Dallas fork up $1 million for liability insurance if they want to keep their permit and continue occupying Pioneer Plaza past 5pm Friday (Oct. 14). That’s quite a hefty price for to pay the working class, jobless and indebted students who make up the majority of protesters. As a result, Occupy Dallas took the city to court for unconstitutionally restricting their “right to peaceably demonstrate in traditional public forums."
Ultimately they reached a deal that allows them to stay in Pioneer Plaza until Sunday (Oct. 16), then relocate to a spot behind City Hall until mid-December.
9) No Potties
Occupy Dallas protesters have been walking a half-mile to use the nearest toilet since they started camping out in Pioneer Plaza because they could not afford the $1 million permit that would have allowed them to bring in a Porta-Potty. Now, that is commitment!
10) No Masks
In NYC at least five protesters were arrested for violating a state statute that dates back 150 years and prohibits masked gatherings of two or more people, with the exception of masquerade balls. With Halloween just weeks away, it will be interesting to see how the NYPD handles masked elementary kids hopped up on Sweet Tarts and Gummy Bears.