The Occupy Wall Street movement started as a handful of people camping in public spaces. OWS chose to establish itself in this way to make a public commentary about the people’s need to reoccupy both the physical and virtual commons.
But for some, these encampments were eyesores, public nuisances, and an inconvenient reminder that millions of poor and suffering people have been marginalized by corrupt political and economic policies. So many cities, with help and encouragement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, used public tax dollars to force protesters out of their camp.
Now, almost four months into the Occupy Wall Street movement, camping occupations in many major cities have been permanently evicted. Although the Mayors who ordered these evictions probably thought OWS would die without 24-hour demonstrations, they grossly misjudged the movement’s capacity for virtual organization and discussion. They also misjudged OWS’s legal prowess.
Protesters have filed a flurry of lawsuits in state and federal courts from coast to coast. While the mainstream media is happy to forget the infringement of Constitutional Rights and police brutality that greeted peaceful protesters in cities like New York and Oakland, the legal teams representing Occupy Wall Street have not.
“When I think about the tents as an expression of the First Amendment here, I compare it to Tahrir Square in Egypt,” said Carol Sobel, co-chairwoman of the National Lawyers Guild’s Mass Defense Committee. “Our government is outraged when military forces and those governments come down on the demonstrators. But they won’t extend the same rights in this country,” she said. “They praise that as a fight for democracy, the values we treasure. It comes here and these people are riffraff.”
The eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park was one of the most hotly contested evictions. Police deliberately raided the camp in the middle of the night, destroying personal property, the medical tent and kitchen, and confiscating thousands of books that had been donated to the OWS library. The next morning, 11 members of the New York City Council condemned the eviction and mass arrests, and media figures chastised the NYPD for blocking press access during the eviction.
While many of the plaintiffs in these cases feel that these lawsuits make an important statement about free speech and the preservation of civil rights, it’s important to remember that the First Amendment won’t absolve them of questionable behavior during protests.
Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., said police overreacted to the Occupy movement in some cities, which probably earned protesters some new support. Still, he noted, protesters’ First Amendment rights are not without limitation.
“We’ve always had to balance our rights,” he said. “No one can really claim you have an unfettered unlimited First Amendment rights. The courts are there to say, wait a minute, that goes too far, or that’s OK. It is part of that give and take. Of course we all wish our rights were never intruded upon.”
Image Credit: Flickr – shankbone