Occupy – Freedom to Assemble?
Ok so we’re starting to hear stories of the local police breaking up some of the Occupy protests, and sometimes the police are using force.
Don’t we, as Americans have a constitutionally protected right to Assemble? Don’t we have the right to say what we feel in public?
Well Yes and Yes, but with limitations.
In Oakland the protesters started a bonfire in the streets. This creates a public hazard. That’s not protected.
Oh, and one person’s freedom of assembly cannot and should not impede another man’s freedom to go about their daily life. Basically, we have the right to flaunt our causes right in the faces of other people, but we can’t prevent them from ignoring us.
So let’s look at the most turbulent of the current Occupy protests: Oakland.
While we have the freedom to assemble, the government can pass laws to make sure that when we do, we do it in a safe manner. They can make us put up port-a-potties and such. They can’t deny the freedom to assemble unless it is going to clearly inconvenience everyone else. (I.E. we can’t parade down the interstate at rush hour). The government can refuse a permit if they think there will be insufficient facilities to handle, say, a hundred people staying the night in a park. Where do people use the bathroom at 2am? That’s a valid concern for the government. Going through the permit process makes sure we don’t have people just doing their business behind the bushes.
Oakland’s protest had a couple things going against it. They didn’t have the right permits (which are not hard to get) and they were going out of their way to block other people from going about their daily lives.
There were also documented incidents of people destroying private property as a form of protest. That’s not legal and not cool.
If the accounts I’ve read are accurate the first major engagement between the police and the protesters occurred when the protesters threw paint and chemicals at the police who were trying to disperse the camps. Again these camps hadn’t gone through the legal process of obtaining permits, which they probably would have been able to get.
Also supposedly, the people throwing paint and chemicals were not part of the Occupy movement. They were just crashing the party. Honestly, lots of the people down at the various Occupy protests are just joiners, there to be part of the crowd, not necessarily part of the movement.
While dispersing the crowd the police used non-lethal weaponry. The thing with weaponry is that even non-lethal has the chance to be lethal. A tear gas canister could, in theory, hit a person in the head and crack their skull. This may have happened. It’s also possible that the object that cracked said skull was a rock thrown by a protester. I’m favoring the canister theory, but I wasn’t there so I have to take each given account into consideration. The guy whose skull was cracked made the news as being a veteran of our wars in the Middle East, and he’s on track to full recovery. Still, getting a cracked skull sucks.
That’s about the worst of the Occupy incidents.
Now, there are some corollary incidents in Oakland that are related to the Occupy movement. Several cases of vandalism have been attributed to an extreme faction of the movement, though the movement disavows any relationship to these vandals. But this goes back to the right to assemble; it does not protect activities like destroying property or looting.
I would separate the protester folks from the vandals. Vandalism does not spread a message; it is not an intelligent form of protest. In this case it’s using the excuse of a cause to cause wanton destruction. I have no problems with the police using force to stop vandals. We’re all just lucky, but especially the vandals, that the police didn’t use deadly force when arson became part of the vandals “fun”.
A peaceful shutdown of the Port of Oakland probably is causing more damage to the working class than the rich, but it makes a point and gets the message heard. I’m just trying to figure out why these people are stopping hundreds of dock-workers from earning their rent and food instead of preventing a bunch of guys in plaid shorts from whacking little white balls. I mean if we really want to get our point to the wealthy, wouldn’t a protest blocking the street leading to a country club have more direct effect?
Permits are relatively easy to get and worth the effort. If they are turned down, it’s probably going to be for a valid reason related to the safety of the people in and around the protest. It’s not an attempt to keep any message unheard. And it keeps the cops from showing up in riot gear to remove the folks – unless their doing something stupid like setting random cars on fire. (They could probably get away with setting their own car on fire, providing they complied with environmental regulations and had the fire department standing by.)