Nov 26 2011
Part One: The Arab Spring in Bahrain is posted separately.
Part Two: The American Fall in Richmond
Coming to America
In October 2011, explicitly drawing on the methods of Arab Spring protests, the Occupy Wall Street movement began. As in Bahrain (see Part One of this blog), a continuous presence in a public place of symbolic importance was central to the movement’s message and tactics. As the movement’s name made clear, its target was the global corporate elite (which it termed the one percent). Its message was that the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of he wealthiest one percent of the population is antithetical to the principles and functioning of democracy, and harmful to the interests of the vast majority of the population (the 99 percent.)
The Occupy movement rapidly spread around the United States. From Mobile to Seattle, in public spaces and on university campuses, the tent became a symbol of resistance to corporate greed and the diminishing economic power of ordinary citizens.
Tolerance of the Occupy movement among city authorities and the police forces under their command did not last long. By coincidence or otherwise, in late October and early November the crackdown came. From Davis, California to Richmond, Virginia police – often dressed and armed as if for a counter-insurgency campaign rather than the enforcement of trespass laws – descended on the protest sites, evicting protesters and demolishing their encampments.
Where protesters were camped on public property, city authorities often used city ordinances and zoning las as the legal justification for their actions. In Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz, to name just a few such examples, violation of hygiene and sanitation codes was cited as a reason for requiring protesters to move. The encampments, authorities claimed, were a threat to the protesters’ own health as well as that of others.
In Tucson and many other cities, ordinances forbidding occupation of (or, in Mobile, Alabama, loitering in) parks by night have been used to evict protesters. Violators were in some cases charged with trespassing on city property (or, in the case of Mobile, criminal trespass.)
The city where I live, Richmond, Virginia is home to an active Occupy movement whose experience epitomizes the purpose, experiences, and political repression occupiers have experienced around the country. It also exemplifies, perhaps better than just about anywhere else in the US, the importance and relevance of the movement’s geography.
In mid-October, members of Occupy Richmond set up their tents in Kanawha Plaza, a public park in the city’s downtown. City authorities provided portable toilets at the site, and Richmond’s Mayor, Dwight Jones, even visited the encampment.
Two weeks later, shortly after midnight on November 1, police raided the camp and evicted the protesters.
Nine members of the movement were arrested, and some of these were later charged with trespassing in a city park by being in it after dark. Protesters claim, though, that they were exercising their right to free speech, and that the city was violating their constitutional rights by evicting them (see my video of the camp the day before the eviction.)
The media-framed public debate that followed the eviction predictable became one of law-and-order versus freedom-of-speech. What was largely missing from the discussion was the important role of geography in the controversy.
The group’s choice of Kanawha Plaza was not accidental; it was part of the political message it sought to convey. On one side of the park is the building of the US Federal Reserve; opposite is the headquarters of Dominion Virginia Power, one of Virginia’s largest corporations. Also overlooking the park is a building housing Sun Trust Bank, ranked 224th on Fortune’s list of the 500 largest U.S corporations. A block away are the Richmond offices of Wells Fargo, another bank and the country’s 23rd largest corporation.
The basic argument of the Occupy movement is that too much wealth (and therefore power) in the United States (and around the world) is in the hands of giant corporations and the few well-remunerated individuals who run them. Occupy Richmond’s downtown location was a symbol of this argument. It was part of the opinion they were expressing, and their message would not be the same if they were to protest elsewhere. By forcing the protesters to leave, the City of Richmond was therefore changing the group’s message. In other words, in this particular case, eviction had the same effect as censorship.
Shortly after the eviction, the editor and publisher of a prominent local newspaper, the Richmond Free Press, invited Occupy Richmond to set up their encampment on the spacious lawn in front of his home. Situated at the end of a cul-de-sac in the city’s outer suburbs, the location of the new encampment would seem to be unpropitious, except for one fact. It is next door to the home of Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, under whose auspices the city police had evicted the protesters from their first camp. Location was once again a critical part of the occupiers’ protest, although the content of their message now shifted to include an emphasis on what they saw as their First Amendment right to free speech.
Occupy Richmond’s new location offered another advantage; it was on private property, and since protesters were there at the invitation of the property owner, they could not again be cited for trespassing on either public or private property.
Faced with this conundrum (and with a petition from some local residents) Richmond authorities scrambled to find a way to evict the protesters from their new home. The city’s police chief was frank about this, telling a local newspaper on November 21 that his department was researching ways in which they could use zoning ordinances to make the protesters leave. The objective was to get rid of the protesters, zoning laws were simply the means to this end.
A day later, the city attorney’s office came up with something. The publisher and landowner was served with a notice informing him that he was using his property in a way that was not “expressly permitted” in an area zoned for single family residences. ”Cease the unlawful use and occupancy of the property,” the decree ordered. “In addition, remove the temporary sanitary facilities from the property.”
But, as in the Kanawha Plaza eviction, the removal would once again deprive the Occupy Richmonders of part of their political message. Zoning laws were being used, wittingly or otherwise, as a means of censoring a political message.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans the rights of freedom of religion, speech, and peaceful assembly. The Supreme Court has, in numerous decisions, interpreted these three enumerated freedoms broadly, holding that free speech is not only verbal, but also includes other forms of expression (such as art and, controversially, political campaign donations.)
But, as the Richmond case clearly illustrates, geography can also be an important component of free speech. Where speech is happens can be as important as the words that the it contains.
In Egypt, a place – Tahrir Square – become a locus for and a symbol of the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. As I noted in Part One of this blog, by eliminating the traffic circle and monument that symbolized this space, Bahraini authorities presumably assumed that they would deprive its opponents of a rallying place and symbol.
In a 1919 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic,” succinctly rephrased as “you don’t have the right to yell fire in a crowded theater.” Yelling fire in an open meadow, though, is harmless.
In other words, location can be important component of speech, as it certainly was in Richmond. By their actions, city authorities were asserting that zoning regulations and the ordinances on after-hours use of public parks trump First Amendment rights of free expression. It remains to be seen whether courts will agree with them.
(See also this short piece in The Atlantic, in which Kenneth J Stahl argues that the point of the Occupy protests may be “to challenge city governments’ policy of catering to mobile capital at all costs.”)
Postscript: Occupy Best Buy
I am writing these words the day that is known in the United States as “Black Friday.” It is the day after the Thanksgiving holiday, the last Thursday of November. For retailers, and many shoppers, it marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Retailers mark the even by opening very early on Friday morning, and enticing shoppers by offering large discounts on a limited number of items for those first in line when the stores open.
Ardent shoppers line up outside some of the major retail stores hours – or, in some cases, a day or more – before the stores’ Friday opening. On Thanksgiving Day 2011, I visited an electronics store in an outer suburb of Richmond, and there I found about fifty people with tents pitched on the sidewalk in front of the store. Some had been there since Wednesday (see video.)
They had not been asked to leave, either by the store’s owners (they were on private property) or by the police of the suburban county in which the store is located.
Camping in order to shop, apparently, is legal. Camping in order to protest against corporate influence, though, is not allowed. It is hard to imagine a more vivid illustration of the central argument of the Occupy movement.