The Bedlam of Occupation

by John Hood

I wrote a column today for Carolina Journal about the reasons why the Occupation movement is devolving into confusion, bedlam, and farce. If you doubt the sanctity of private property, insist on special access to public property because of your moral superiority, and question the legitimacy of law enforcement and political institutions, the community you create will not be a pretty one.

It’s worth reviewing just a sampling of the news from the past week or so of Occupation protests:

• Local officials are targeting encampments in the San Francisco Bay area for massive sanitation and public-health problems.

• Organizers of Occupy Baltimore are encouraging participants to report allegations of sexual assault to the collective, not to the authorities. Think of the publicity!

• One faction of Occupy Charlotte has attempted to “exile” another faction, who will no doubt issue a writ of excommunication via a complex series of hand signals.

• Arrests for trespassing at Occupy Chicago, Occupy Cincinnati, and other sites put police officers in the position of trying to explain to clueless protesters the difference between exercising one’s freedoms of speech, petition, and assembly and violating the equal rights of fellow citizens to access and use well-maintained public property.

• Disagreements about food distribution led to violence at Occupy Oakland. One policeman on the scene commented that it was “interesting for a group that claims to be against current civilization and rules to set up a far more oppressive society than our own.”

• Violence and rampant property theft at Occupy Boston has put local leftists on the defensive and prompted former mayor Ray Flynn to urge the city to clean up the mess: “I’d walk down there with the police commissioner and I’d say, ‘Look, you’ve done your thing, but please respect the laws of this city. It’s time to pack up, clean up, and leave.’”

• Organizers of Occupy Raleigh demanded the right to take over a corner of the state capitol grounds, only to be told that they had overstayed their original permit and would displace other scheduled events and citizen access to the grounds if allowed to stay. “It just shows that going through the standard practices and accepted procedures doesn’t work,” one activist said. “This totally vindicates the movement. We are not going to get what we want through the system.” What’s next, then?

Let’s make this as simple as possible, so even an overeducated, underemployed grad student can understand.

Freedom of speech means that you have the right to say, print, broadcast, or distribute whatever message you like about whatever subject you like. It means that the government has no legitimate authority to punish or silence you just because some government official, or even all government officials, may dislike what you are saying. To exercise your freedom of speech, however, is not to give you some sort of special authority to violate either the equal right of others to speak or other rights they enjoy, such as the right to control access and use of their homes, lawns, businesses, and other property.

In short, if you are on your own property, you have every right to say whatever you want, as long as you want. If you seek to enter someone else’s property to yell at them, they have every right to have you blocked or ejected. As for public property such as parks or government lawns, you have the right to obtain a permit to conduct a demonstration for a particular period of time, as long as you respect the rights of others and clean up after yourselves. You don’t have to right to “take over” or “occupy” such sites, however, because they are neither campsites nor stages furnished for your self-gratification.

The fact that many young leftists seem not to understand such basic principles is an indictment of American education — as is the fact that many of their not-so-young professors are active Occupiers themselves.