Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Occupy Wall Street gives honest and legitimate protest a bad name

The ability to speak one’s mind and protest things one doesn’t agree with, particularly the actions of government, was one of the rights considered so important by early Americans that several of the states insisted on a special statement guaranteeing those rights before they would ratify the U.S. Constitution. The resulting Bill of Rights guaranteed this right in its first Amendment, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Trouble arises, however, when those peaceably assembled and speaking freely – like participants in a protest such as Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and its various incarnations – are so focused on their complaints and on their right to express their displeasure that they ignore their responsibility as good citizens to behave sensibly and obey the law.

This is what has occurred with the OWS movement that has spread across the country: participants either are ignorant of the laws and don’t understand there are limits to “assembling,” or they just don’t care. While exercising their right to assemble, they interfered with the rights of others. The right to peaceably assemble does not allow protesters to deny other people their rights, no matter how important the issue they are protesting. Protesters may not prevent people from traveling on a street or sidewalk, or from entering buildings, or using public spaces.

And when protesters took up residence at the protest sites in tents and sleeping bags they crossed the line separating peaceful protesters from slovenly trespassers. Stories are common of protesters urinating and defecating on streets and sidewalks, leaving massive amounts of trash behind, and indulging in violent behavior, including assault and rape. One gets the idea that sex, drugs and rock-n-roll have become the order of the day. The Woodstock Generation has returned.

What happened to the righteous anger at the greedy bankers and corporate bigwigs, the hated one percent? When night falls, the focus apparently changes from “work” to “play.”

All of the irresponsible behavior and lawlessness has cost 18 cities where protests have been taking place $13 million, money that these cities were obligated to spend, because the police had to be on site, due to the lawlessness and bad behavior, and the mess had to be cleaned up because it presented a health hazard. For officials to simply look the other way would have been irresponsible and therefore unacceptable.

The protesters, of course, don’t like the police interfering in their fun and games, and they apparently have the support of allies in the media.

A recent TV news story showed a group of young people on a college campus, sitting down with arms linked, being sprayed with pepper spray by a police officer like he was watering plants. The story generated a great deal of sympathy for the protesters and great anger against the police.

As often happens in the mainstream media, however, the TV coverage told only part of the story. As it turns out, the protesters had been given ample warning that police would use pepper spray if they did not obey the order, and the alternative to spraying them was for police to forcibly drag the protesters away, which arguably could have been worse, particularly if the protesters resisted.

It is too much of a generalization, and probably partially inaccurate, to say that the OWS folks don’t understand how their country works, have refused to take part in being responsible for their own well-being, then expect others to take care of them. But there is a strong undercurrent of that present in the movement, and when the public became aware of this, support for the movement began to dissolve.

The protesters blame Wall Street and the big banks for the current economic trouble, and a good bit of the blame is rightly theirs. But businesses have to operate in the environment that exists, and the environment that the OWS protesters so despise was created by government, not Wall Street. Rules and regulations for banking not only made it possible for the housing bubble to expand and then burst, but virtually made it certain that this would happen.

The protester’s poor understanding of the US economy and current economic conditions, and their illogically focused anger has produced an incoherent message and harmful actions. The holiday shopping period is what turns a bad year into a successful one for many retailers. Yet, the movement sought to subvert Black Friday shopping activities, which would harm a lot of the people the movement claims to represent, the 99 percent.

But cooler heads prevailed. Millions of Americans – acting in their own best interest, in the best tradition of free market economics – ignored the irrational pleadings of the OWS protesters, and flooded retail outlets last Friday, producing a six percent increase over Black Friday numbers from last year.

That doesn’t signal a healing economy, that goal won’t be met until sensible economic policies are put in place. But it is a good sign.

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