Evicting the Public

Why has occupying public spaces brought such heavy-handed repression?

Across America police have been called to clear protestors from parks and university campuses. Ostensibly progressive cities like Portland and Oakland have been in the vanguard of evictions. From Harvard to Berkeley, university presidents have joined mayors in using police in riot gear to remove students and other protestors from campus lawns.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took pride in giving police a direct order to evict the original Occupy Wall Street encampment from Zuccotti Park. The police moved in at night and made a point of blocking media coverage of their actions.

It is disturbing to see governments in ostensibly democratic America taking actions reminiscent of the Chinese government ousting protestors from Tiananmen Square. More recently the government of Bahrain used force to remove peaceful protestors camped at the Pearl Roundabout. I am sure Mayor Bloomberg does not think he has joined the ranks of Chinese communists or antidemocratic Arab rulers. He declares himself a supporter of the First Amendment. Indeed, he has done much good as mayor (though he has also felt entitled to manipulate the electoral process to stay in power). But for that matter Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues did many good things, just not on June 4, 1989. Bloomberg’s action against Occupy Wall Street was directly analogous to those of rulers who do not even claim to be democrats.

One should not just condemn his actions but wonder why he and a variety of other well-intentioned leaders thought such actions made sense. The pretext was health and fire concerns, which are certainly legitimate, but I doubt anyone imagines that sanitation or safety is the whole story.

There is the obvious point that Bloomberg’s fortune was made mainly in financial services not public service. It’s not surprising he sides more with Wall Street than its critics, even in a time when common practices as well as problematic individuals on Wall Street have caused ordinary people enormous pain. It may be that Mayor Bloomberg sought to defend Wall Street and wealth from the Zuccotti Park occupation. But I doubt he thought the protesters were on the verge of winning. I suspect he merely thought it was more important to maintain public order than to allow those particular citizens to exercise public voice.

Similar decisions have been made by officials across the country, Democrats as well as Republicans. The predicament of university presidents is instructive. Some of these leaders no doubt agree with protestors that the power of financial capital has become too great, that inequality is too extreme. They also face immediate practical challenges. They are charged with “maintaining order,” and the safety of students is a real issue—though it’s hard to say how serious—since the Occupy encampments brought lots of non-students onto campuses. University presidents are also tasked with raising money from wealthy donors. This isn’t optional, partly because politicians have slashed public funding for higher education. Yet relying on private donations to make up the differences changes the character of universities. Among other things, it makes it less and less possible for them to offer public spaces for protest against the control of society by financial interests.

So, it is a pity that Mayor Bloomberg chose repression over freedom for dissent. But we need to face the fact that the use of heavily armed police to evict and arrest protestors and reporters is a national pattern, not simply a matter of the personal preferences of individual politicians or university presidents. This pattern reflects the very ascendancy of private financial capital that Occupy Wall Street protests. But it is a more complicated pattern than just the power of the rich over politicians, real though that is.

The material power of wealth is reinforced by law, as for example the Supreme Court has declared that corporations are individuals entitled to constitutional guarantees of free speech. It is reinforced by cultural campaigns like those through which conservative think tanks have encouraged the view that private property is natural while public space (and perhaps the public interest) is optional. Zuccotti Park, we are often reminded, is private property. But of course the park is also the small concession to public interest extracted from a giant corporation in return for permission to build a larger and more profitable building than zoning laws allowed.

As powerful as big capital is, this alone did not produce the wave of police actions to block the political occupation of public spaces. The evictions also reflect a decade-long erosion of protections for dissent. Since September 11 concerns for security have been used to justify a wide range of restrictions on freedoms previously guaranteed to Americans. There are real security concerns, but many of the legislative and procedural attacks on the freedom of citizens are only vaguely related to the achievement of actual security, if at all. The Patriot Act is a notorious example. American citizens are now subjected to unprecedented levels of surveillance. Access to public spaces is ever more tightly restricted. Making protests easier to control is a goal of architects and urban planners as well as police and politicians.

Real questions about order and safety in public spaces are intensified by new security concerns. These may be exaggerated but they’ve been repeated long enough (and uncritically enough) that they shape public consciousness as well as official policy. Responses to Occupy Wall Street protests may well be shaped by efforts to defend the existing financial system and its beneficiaries, but they also reflect securitization of public spaces. And against this backdrop it is worth paying special attention to the explicit efforts of NYC officials to prevent citizens from observing or reading first hand reports of what officials did. Efforts to minimize or manage media coverage of important public events are explicitly antidemocratic.

Occupy Wall Street and its cousins around the country constitute only a small social movement. It has resonant slogans and appeal beyond the numbers of its activists, but it is at best in the early stages of its development. It sounds melodramatic to say that democracy itself is at stake in the widespread moves to repress its main strategy of public demonstration. But it is true. Happily American democracy is not on its last legs; there is plenty of chance to fight back against repression and elite efforts to manage public participation. But the issue is basic. After all, democracy depends not just on voting and the rule of law but on social movements and public expressions of dissent.

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