Since October 15, Tucson’s Armory Park has been filled with hundreds of demonstrators representing Occupy Tucson, the local branch of the nationwide Occupy Wall Street movement. When I visited the park on the first day of the demonstration, I was impressed by the seriousness and substance of the demonstrators’ message. A demonstration where more than one sign calls for the re-enactment of the Glass-Steagall Act can scarcely be dismissed as ignorant or sophomoric. As a whole, the Occupy Wall Street movement represents “one of the most inspiring and important political developments of the last several years,” as Glenn Greenwald has rightly written.
Unfortunately, Occupy Tucson has allowed itself to become sidetracked by a dispute that not only has nothing to do with its message, but that would completely contradict its message were they to triumph in the dispute.
To date, demonstrators have been cited more than 350 times for trying to camp overnight at the park. Occupy Tucson has responded by urging the people of Tucson to deluge the Mayor and the City Council with calls for the fines to be waived and for no further citations to be given.
The Tucson Police Department, in fact, has treated the Occupy Tucson movement with considerable deference and respect, giving the protesters an hour of clear and unambiguous warning. Even then, the demonstrators were not actually removed from the park, but only given paper citations. Even so, following the first round of citations, the organizers of Occupy Tucson issued a press release accusing the City of Tucson of denying “the people’s right to peaceful assembly.” Or, as one demonstrator put it at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, “Do not censor us, and allow us to peacefully assemble.”
Curiously, the press release made two arguments, both of which bear some scrutiny. It argued, first, that Occupy Tucson’s actions qualified as a “protected activity” and hence should not be subject to any legal repercussions. Then it noted all of the local notables who had been involved in the demonstration and invited the reader to marvel that such luminaries had actually been subjected to arrest, if only on paper.
The city ordinance that Occupy Tucson deliberately chose to violate is in fact a broad one. According to the ordinance, no individual is permitted to “camp, lodge or sleep therein between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. unless special written permit be obtained seventy-two (72) hours in advance from the director.” It is quite conceivable that such permission could have been sought and granted; Tucson, after all, is as liberal-minded as Arizona cities get.
But Occupy Tucson not only did not ask for permission, they made a point of not asking for permission. Everything the movement has done indicates strongly that they feel that the nobility of their cause is so self-evident that it raises them above such mean considerations. On their Facebook page, a query about whether the organizers intended to apply for a permit was answered with the declaration that Occupy Tucson was engaged in an act of “civil disobedience” and hence had no intention of obtaining permission from the city government or any other government.
But civil disobedience is a last resort. In order for that tactic to be effective, it must be demonstrated that every lawful method has been tried, and found wanting. To use it recklessly as a first resort and insist—ludicrously—that the constitutional right of assembly absolves you from the duty to obey any other law is a travesty of the whole notion of civil disobedience.
The special pleading of the demonstrators is particularly distressing. Historically, demonstrators engaged in acts of civil disobedience have accepted the legal consequences of their actions because the actual law they are breaking usually has nothing to do with the point they are making. A demonstrator who occupies his town hall to protest an unjust war is not demonstrating for the right to occupy his town hall. Breaking a small law is simply a means of drawing attention to a much greater injustice.
Traditionally, the most effective practitioners of civil disobedience, such as Gandhi, have welcomed arrest because it drew attention to their cause. Occupy Tucson wants to have it both ways by breaking the law and avoiding the legal consequences. But it is ludicrous to contend that any law should be suspended for the special privilege of a group whose primary reason for existence is to oppose special privilege. It is in accepting the consequences of violating the law, not simply breaking the law, that the moral force of civil disobedience lies. In the greater context of the history of the noble practice of civil disobedience, Occupy Tucson’s plea for special treatment reeks of thoughtless hypocrisy.
It is surely true that egregiously unjust laws deserve to be broken, both because they are unjust and because a universal disregard is likely to hasten their repeal. But the municipal law governing whether or not people may camp in parks was not written in order to rob demonstrators of their constitutional right of assembly, and having such laws repealed is not part of Occupy Tucson’s platform. Nor can the Tucson Police Department be faulted for its actions, particularly in the context of the grossly oppressive manner in which other police departments across the country have cracked down on the demonstrators, often in blatant disregard for the law. With Occupy Tucson openly proclaiming its intent to disregard a law, TPD had absolutely no alternative but to make a point of upholding that law.
Remarkably, Occupy Tucson’s argument that they should not be barred from camping overnight in a public park is poised entirely on the “fact” that the law is meant only to apply to the homeless:
“The right of petition, and of the people peaceably to assemble for the common good, shall never be abridged.” – Arizona Constitution, Article 2 Section 5 [Note that under this section, camping in the park because you are homeless (for personal gain) might be illegal, but for the common good (political protest) it is a protected activity]
One can only marvel at the gall it takes to dismiss a homeless person’s need to find a pleasant place to sleep as “personal gain,” while declaring the right to camp overnight in a public park as a noble deed done “for the common good.” Genuine radicals would have recognized that the cause of the homeless—whom they are so disgracefully willing to throw under the bus—was in fact their cause.
The most powerful and effective of the Occupy Wall Street movements, the New York movement, has been careful to stay within the law. According to Reuters, an astonishing 87 percent of New Yorkers support “the protesters’ right to camp out in Lower Manhattan, as long as they obeyed the law.” In other words, Occupy New York has not been engaged in “civil disobedience” at all, but in a peaceful and legal demonstration. The result has been that the political rulers of New York City, at least so far, have been powerless to stop the movement.
No such wisdom prevails here, where Occupy Tucson has allowed a demonstration against lawlessness—against the degrading and oppressive rule of the financial oligarchs—to be sidetracked by a squabble over park space.
The organizers’ insistence on treating the demonstrations as an act of civil disobedience, rather than as a peaceful and legal act of public protest, works to exclude other citizens from Occupy Tucson and reduce the size of the movement. Most people cannot afford to rack up citations even for the worthiest cause; if they think Occupy Wall Street means nothing more than the right to sit on damp park grass all night, most Tucsonans will stay home.
Occupy Tucson’s strategy is destructive to its cause in the profoundest way. Pointlessly violating a local law, particularly at a moment when Arizona’s local governments are under unprecedented assault from an overreaching state government, degrades the authority of local government. Most seriously, it is corrosive to the fundamental principle of the Republic that the laws apply with equal force to everyone.