Last Saturday in my hometown of Halifax, mayor Peter Kelly negotiated with the occupiers to vacate the parade square for Remembrance day. When they complied by moving to another park, he sent the police in to clear them out with physical force. 14 people were arrested, mostly for sitting nonviolently in tents. Last night in New York City, the occupiers were awoken by a massive police presence that cleared Zucotti park, arrested 200, threw out 5000 books without a hint of irony, and continues to block access to the park despite a court order requiring it to permit the continuation of the protest. Similar stories are unfolding in Oakland, Vancouver, Chicago, and countless other occupied cities. As I write this, I’ve got friends in Toronto who are gearing up to fight an eviction order which the police may be enforcing soon.
What’s the justification for all this? An ethically honest person must conclude that there isn’t any. An ethically dishonest person, on the other hand, always has the option of throwing up a smokescreen of fallacies in defense of the police departments and mayors of the cities that are evicting their occupations. Given that the occupation in my city hasn’t been threatened yet, the only thing I can do to help fight the evictions is to take down as many of their proponents’ arguments as possible. What follows is a list of all the pro-eviction arguments I’ve heard, along with a short refutation of each one.
1. The occupations are Illegal.
This is not necessarily the case. In some cities, Toronto among them, the occupations are being held on private land with the permission of the property owner. Other occupied cities do not actually have laws against urban camping on their books. Even with such laws in place, there is good reason to believe that evicting the occupations might actually be unconstitutional. This is particularly relevant in Canada, where a supreme court decision found that camping can be a form of protected political speech. There are constitutional concerns in the United States, as well. Municipal bylaws do not trump civil liberties.
At most, those involved in the occupy protests are guilty of breaking very minor laws. Municipal bylaws about tents are routinely violated by such hardened criminals as twilight fans, but no riot police are ever called to a movie premiere. Civil disobedience is called that for a reason: Minor and unjust laws are broken in order to facilitate more effective political speech. Martin Luther King broke such a minor law, which would have required his march through Birmingham to obtain a permit from the city. He and his supporters got beaten and arrested for their trouble, but no sane person today thinks of that march as a criminal act. Nonviolent lawbreaking can be a legitimate political strategy, and police clampdowns on such actions tend to be frowned on by history.
2. Illegal Activity is going on at the occupations.
Think about the last rock concert you went to. Was there illegal activity going on there? Unless you’re a fan of the Jonas Brothers, odds are that there was. Tthe specific illegal activities going on in the occupations are probably roughly the same as those going on at the average rock concert, and yet the police would get little public support if they arrested the ten thousand Rolling Stones* fans because a few of them were smoking joints. The sensible response to illegal activity at the occupations is the same as the sensible response to the same activities at a rock concert: arrest or fine the individuals, and leave everybody else alone.
*Might be acceptable at a Nickelback concert.
3. The occupations are unsafe.
Here’s a riddle: What’s a more unsafe place to be than an occupation? The answer: An occupation that is filled with teargas and baton-swinging riot cops. I’m baffled by the suggestion that the way to improve public safety is to hit people with batons and pepper spray.
4. The occupations are infringing on the rights of the public.
This is, of course, meaningless in the case of occupations which exist on private property, but it is also a badly mistaken charge in the case of occupations in public parks. Public parks are intended to serve a variety of positive social functions. They are meeting places, exercise and recreation areas, urban aesthetic features, and also protest venues. Sometimes these uses preclude other uses, and this is normally accepted. I’ve never seen riot police called in to evict somebody’s family reunion or rugby game. Whatever small public harm may be caused by a small encampment in a public park, there will almost certainly be more harm caused by the police action necessary to remove them. This argument fails a very basic utilitarian test.
5. The occupy protests are disorganized/aimless/ineffective/naive/full of smelly hippies.
This is a red herring. Even if this charge were true (and my experience suggests that it is not), it would not have any impact on the right of the occupiers to conduct their peaceful protest. There is a certain vicious antagonism here. I have a feeling that most people who make this point simply don’t like smelly hippies, and want to see them beat up. This is the mentality of a thug.
6. The occupations are expensive.
Much of the expense imposed by the occupations on their host cities has to do with policing them. This is the result of municipal priorities which demand a massive police presence at a peaceful protest, and has nothing to do with the actions of the occupiers themselves. As for the costs associated with minor damage to public space, these pale in comparison to the costs of eviction. In Halifax, where the eviction of Occupy Nova Scotia was a relatively small operation, it cost the city over $104,000 in police wages-a number that can only multiply as the city fights a supreme court challenge.
That’s all I can think of for now, but I will update this list if I encounter any more fallacious apologism for the police. While these refutations will provide little in the way of protection from tear gas, I hope they might help win an argument or two. In the meantime, I have to wish good luck to all everyone on the ground at occupations, who will have a task over the next few days that is much more difficult than writing a simple blog post. Stay safe, friends.