You know something is seriously wrong when people who have the option of sleeping in the comfort of their own beds instead choose to sleep in parks across America to drive home a point. Which is why the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and their off-shoots deserve a standing ovation. Bravo! Considering what's been happening in this country for (at least) the last 10 years, it's about time people took to the streets.
Of course, the main reason the protests are so necessary is because governments across America -- at the federal, state and local levels-have, to varying degrees, failed to deliver for the American people. It's not only that our representatives are spending money that we don't have (and refusing to ask those who can pony up to do so), but also that there is a widespread sense that government does not reflect the will of the majority. (If you made a campaign contribution, don't worry-you get to play with house money.) Really, it is a type of modern-day colonialism.
And like the colonial masters of old, here too we have mayors and police chiefs cracking down on those who dare to challenge the status quo in (so far) Oakland, Portland, Denver, Austin, Tex., Nashville and Atlanta. In Oakland, the police chief said what looked like excessive use of force was necessary as a matter of public safety and security. Don't insult our intelligence. Using rubber bullets, tear gas and flash grenades against unarmed civilians is the public safety threat, not the other way around. But perhaps he was confused and thought he was in Syria.
The alleged justification for the heavy-handed tactics and the mass arrests stems from violations of restrictions on camping equipment and curfews in public parks (emphasis on "public"). Surely we can all agree that there is a difference between folks setting up camp because they're in the mood for a bonfire and some s'mores and doing it as a matter of protest. We have the right to free assembly and free speech in this country and absent a genuine threat to public safety, such as the plague, there is no justifiable reason to remove demonstrators from a public space. If people are peeing in the bushes write them a ticket. Sending in the riot police violates the very principles upon which this country was founded and any individual with responsibility for ordering such action should be removed from office (and given a copy of the Constitution on the way out the door).
Equally disturbing is what passes for illegal activity in some cities. In Oakland (again), one demonstrator was arrested for loitering without an I.D. and remaining at the scene of the Occupy demonstration after it had been declared an "illegal" assembly. Since when do you need an I.D. to be outside in a park or standing on a street corner? And what constitutes an illegal assembly-one the mayor doesn't agree with? Sure, our public spaces are for everyone's use, but that includes people exercising their First Amendment rights whether or not the rest of us find them agreeable or organized. In America there should be no such thing as an "illegal" assembly unless of course people are being physically harmed or harassed, which has not been the case in the Occupy demonstrations.
Elected and appointed officials who fail to grasp the broader message of the Occupiers are playing with fire. Not just with their political careers, but when they engage in overly-harsh tactics, they risk fomenting greater unrest. There is a deep unease across this country, grounded in the fear that the American dream has slipped through our fingers. Even among my college-educated (and employed) friends there is a sense that mere hanging on is a cause for celebration. So many dashed dreams, unaffordable bills, angst about the future and generalized outrage. We are a tinderbox only in need of a spark.
But as long as the Occupiers limit their activity to camping out in public spaces -- particularly with the onset of winter-their numbers will remain relatively small, allowing the establishment colonial masters to portray them as misguided hippies, losers and quacks. People with jobs, families or medical issues aren't going to camp out no matter how much they may agree that the 99 percent is getting screwed. What the Occupiers should do is take a page out of the Arab Spring playbook. Declare one day a week a day of protest and call on Americans of all political stripes and socio-economic standing to join them.
At some point, they are going to have to come up with ideas to solve many of the problems they are highlighting. The colonial masters can handle people banging on drums and perfecting the human microphone (particularly if they arrest all of them). They will have a tougher time surviving a political challenge borne of public outrage, as the Democrats found out in the last election. Early indications are that this type of political organizing is precisely what the Occupiers do not want to do. And the colonial overlords are banking on it. Literally.