Memo to Occupy Protesters: City Halls Can’t Help Your Cause

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The Irvine City Council opted late last month effectively to welcome Occupy tent campers onto Irvine City Hall property for a round-the-clock, indefinite duration stay. The Santa Ana City Council, on the other hand, said no this week to overnight camping by protesters.

What complicates the question is that cities and other government agencies, unlike private proprietors, cannot pick and choose the views and agendas they host. A big box store can decide to allow scouting and veterans’ organizations to solicit support from entering or exiting shoppers and exclude, say, frankly political or religious proselytizing. But city hall can’t discriminate based on the content of a group’s message — assuming the group has a message (as distinct from just wanting a place to spend the night).

The city of Sacramento is enforcing a wee hours curfew on Occupy protesters in the park fronting City Hall as a constitutionally valid regulation of time, place and manner. It argues that overnighting on city property adds nothing to whatever message is expressed by being in the park during the day and early evening and that permitting sleepovers for a protest group will force the city to play host to homeless campers in the park as well. Whatever the logic of the latter argument, the first court to consider it has found the city’s position persuasive.

The irony is, of course, that a radical increase in middle-class homelessness (directly linked to joblessness) appears to be one of the key conditions that prompt the Occupy demonstrations.

The French writer Anatole France, with oft-quoted sarcasm, saluted “the majestic equality of the law, which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges.” Such is the purpose-blind policy of Sacramento, and it wants no erosion of its traditional inhospitability by unhappy campers suffered to snooze for economic justice on municipal soil.

In any event, the Occupy movement seems largely misdirected. The Wall Street denizens responsible for the pain felt by so many could not care less about the throngs in the streets below their towers. They would begin to pay attention only if the byways of their home neighborhoods were Occupied — a right protected under the First Amendment, incidentally — and their neighbors began to express irritation.

But apart from excesses like Bernie Madoff’s, Wall Street does only what the law permits; the law is made in Washington, D.C.; and the lawmakers come from their home districts, each of which has one or more offices in addition to the lawmakers’ homes. Orange County has offices for four members of Congress, and the state’s two senators have offices as near as Los Angeles and San Diego.

It is those locations that Occupiers might much more productively target. Crowding around city halls may get a certain amount of media attention for a few days, but it has about as much effect on those capable of legislating economic justice and holding financial buccaneers to account as the invasion of Iraq had on those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

The Occupy demonstrators are repeatedly faulted for having no coherent agenda, but they could have a thousand-point manifesto with minutely detailed calls to action and still get nowhere if the turf they choose to Occupy as a theater of demonstration continues to be controlled by mayors rather than members of Congress.

In another context, protesters at political appearances, conventions and other events complain because they are corralled into speech-permitted zones out of sight and earshot from the VIPs they had hoped would hear their voices. The Occupy organizers who fail to take their demonstrations to the officials with the power to change business as usual are subjecting their fellows to a self-inflicted obscurity as disabling as any police cordon.

The first rule of property has been said to be: Location, location, location. That goes for protest as well.

Terry Francke is Voice of OC’s open government consultant and general counsel for Californians Aware. You can reach him directly at terry@calaware.org.

 

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