Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Are the occupiers going too far in their protests?

Let me say right from the beginning of this article that I agree that citizens of a country have the right to protest against anything they believe is wrong, be it their government or some private enterprise. In democratic nations, it comes under the protection of freedom of speech and the right to assemble.

On a spring day of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, at the crest of the civil rights movement, protest leaders were faced with a dire problem. Hundreds of marchers had been arrested in a massive show of police force and they had no one left to take to the streets. So the leaders of the protest movement made a highly contentious decision. They sent in their own children and high school students. They figured that the police wouldn’t come down hard on them like they did with the adults.

They were wrong in their belief. They should have known better. That is because Birmingham police chief Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor was a police thug who didn’t give a tinker’s dam about the rights of Birmingham’s citizens. Connor, surprised by the protester’s numbers, did the only thing he knew how to stop the protest. He turned the fire hoses and dogs on the children and students. When he did that, it was broadcasted across the United States and it turned the tide against racial segregation.

Every police force has its share of thugs. It is these thugs that make martyrs out of protesters. Viral videos of riot police repeatedly pepper-spraying a row of seated, non-violent Occupy Wall Street protesters at a California university recently have sparked outrage around the world. As I watched the protesters continuing to sit on the pavement despite the fact that they were being pepper-sprayed up close by a police thug, I had nothing but admiration for the stamina of these university students and sheer contempt for the police officer.

The footage of the officer casually spraying an orange cloud of pepper-spray over the seated protesters while spectators screamed in horror is no different that other much-discussed pepper-spray incidents, such as the 84-year-old activist hit in the face with pepper-spray in Seattle, Washington and a Portland, Oregon woman who recently was sprayed in the mouth a police thug.

The current literature on social movements reveals a few factors shared by successful campaigns. They often have a single goal, a charismatic leader who stirs the emotions of members, they constantly adapt the message to keep people motivated, and they rely on the co-operation of both small and large groups of people.

Demonstrators are often remarkably agile, more so than the authorities. I know because when I was the head of a multi-faced protest that took place more than forty four years ago when the Progressive Conservative Party was holding their nominations for leadership at their leadership convention at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, our group outsmarted the politicians. Those who were in charge of the convention tried to stifle our concerns but we had the television people on our side and we got to make our statement on TV right in the centre of the floor of the convention. We were successful because we didn’t try to out-shout the speakers. Instead, we simply stood up and let everyone see our signs. We weren’t disrupting the proceedings. It is for this reason that those in charge of the convention didn’t try to force us out of the building. To throw us out of the building would have made them come across like Nazi thugs throwing Jews out of their homes. The last thing that the Progressive Conservative Party wanted the television public to see on their television was that political party was coming across like Nazi thugs dragging peaceful protesters out of the building.

The question that must be answered however is; just how long should protesters be permitted to protest on public or private property? This is not an easy question to answer because the right to protest is a right that every democratic nation cherishes. When you take away that right, then anarchy will quickly take its place.

However as we all know, once you get a crowd of protesters showing up, as sure as God made little apples, the fringe groups will also show up and pitch their own objectives at everyone in the immediate vicinity. Then the crowd of protesters enlarges as a mish mash of all kinds of objectives in which the original purpose is lost amidst the throng of heaving bodies and the screeching of mantras of all kinds.
That is when protesting serves no useful purpose. Imagine if you will, listening to a song that is conveying a message and then it is drowned out by many songs in different keys conveying other messages until all you hear is a wailing sound that is undecipherable and loud at that. That is when you then ask yourself, “What in hell am I doing here?”

Let’s consider what is happening in Toronto, Ontario with the protesters who are referred to as the Occupiers because that’s actually what they are doing. They are occupying a public park in the downtown area by sleeping in tents that they have erected in the park.

The Occupiers certainly have a right to gripe about the investment firms on Bay Street (Toronto’s Wall Street) because we all know that it is these investors who cause prices to go skywards such as gold, oil, and other commodities and at the same time, these investment brokers are making hundreds of thousands of dollars annually while those of us who are faced with these high prices are making far less.

I will quote Rose Dimanno, a Toronto Star columnist who aptly said, and I quote; “I’m just as angry over economic disparities and corporate hedonism as the next working stiff. I feel just as disempowered by the titans of power, just as disgusted by the 1 per cent elitists and the felonious pocket-liners, just as marginalized by dynamics that prevent so many of us from ever prospering.” unquote Those are my thoughts also and I am glad that there are people willing to go public and protest against these economic thugs.

It is not my intention to deal with investment brokers in this article as I am only mentioning them because that was what the main gripe of the Occupiers initially was.

St. James Park is lovely little green space in downtown Toronto where seniors like to sit on the benches, tossing crumbs at the pigeons, where office workers take their brown-bag lunch, where pram-pushers negotiate the landscaped gardens and people like to enjoy the sunshine whilst reading a book.

The city authorities wanted the Occupiers to pack up their tents and leave the park. The people living in the area were complaining about the Occupiers; “Enough is enough.” I can appreciate their position in this matter. The stench of urine and feces is permeating their homes, the noise at night is keeping them awake and what used to be a nice park to sit in has become a cesspool. And further, many of the protesters are not actually protesting anywhere near Bay Street where the people they are protesting against are working. So what, you may ask, were they doing still squatting in the public park? It would appear that all they are doing is simply living in the park.

The park wasn’t built for that purpose. Like all parks, it was built so that people can gather and enjoy the greenery that a park offers in a forest of concrete.

Emotions ran high at the Occupy Toronto encampment at St. James Park as some protesters vowed on Monday to remain at the scene and braced for police intervention in the hours after a court decision on November 21st said the city had the right to evict them. While some packed their tents and left, others erected a makeshift barricade of boards and wood pallets outside the portable domed tent that served as the movement’s library. Two masked protesters chained themselves to the tent.

The argument of their lawyer, Susan Ursel (who is doing the work for free) was weaker than last months tea leaves. She argued that the tents in St. James Park constitutes a mini-village that is symbolic of an attempt to redress inequalities in society in a spot near the financial district.

She even had the audacity to bleat in front of the court that the Occupiers had the right to remain in the park indefinitely because they are protected by provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteeing freedom of conscience, expression and peaceful assembly. If that was true, then it follows that they also have the right to assemble on the major streets of Toronto and even on major highways and literally block all forms of traffic, thereby inconveniencing thousands of commuters.

The judge hearing the case raised an interesting rhetorical question. He asked, “(If) every protest group all of a sudden has its own park, at the end of the day, where do I ride my bike?”

City lawyer Darrel Smith told the court that the Occupy participants are free to spread their message in the park to get the message out, they just can’t camp there.

That was no good enough for one of the Occupiers, Dave Vasey who said, “We will keep the camp going forever.” Can I interpret that to mean that the Occupiers are assuming squatter’s rights to the park and that they are now going to claim it as their own property? The squatters were actually hoping that the court would use their lawyer’s argument to justify de factor expropriation of a city park for their own sole use.

Here is an argument presented to the court that would make even a vulture regurgitate. It was argued by a lawyer for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association on behalf of the Occupiers. He argued that the Charter of Rights trumps public inconvenience and lost profits for some businesses. How would this lawyer feel if the Occupiers camped right on his front lawn and also in front of his building so that none of his clients would be able to see him? He would reach for the phone so fast that light wouldn’t catch up to him in terms of speed and then call the police to remove the crowd of people away from his lawn and building.

I am convinced that the vast majority of these people who call themselves Occupiers are unemployed simply because they are too busy sitting on their asses and doing nothing rather than applying for work. If they would seek work and find it, they wouldn’t have the time to be camping out in a public park. If they wanted to protest, they could do it on their days off. Ask yourself this rhetorical question.

If the Occupiers were employed and were now having a two-week vacation, would they be camping in St. James Park? Not likely. How easy it is to protest when you are not working for a living.

I am not denying the existence of the problems that the Occupiers are raising. There are many social problems that need to be addressed. But raising those problems to the public forum is one thing but doing it at the expense of those who want to live their lives to be in a peaceful manner and without being inconvenienced is quite something else again. As I see it, these Occupiers are simply bullies who will push an old lady off the sidewalk just so that they can get a message across to others in a store or a building. It is easy to see why local people in the immediate area of the squatters are unsympathetic to those who would inconveniences them and that actually buries the real purpose of the Occupation to the extent that their purpose becomes meaningless.

Bullies are bullies even when they are cloaking themselves with the mantel of freedom of rights and assembly.

The Occupy Toronto Manifesto was a mish mash of various demands, a Marxist Socialist compendium of demands that stretched from the creation of higher taxes for the rich to the protection of the environment to forbidding all Canadian military intervention blah blah blah.

In sum, it sought to impose the thoughts of a few on the rest of us. That’s OK if they wish to bring that message to us because it is their right to do so. But when their message is accompanied by their actions of taking over a public park or a public street, then I as a taxpaying citizen am no longer interested in their Manifesto or their dreams of a better world. My immediate response to their activities is simply said in two words, “Move on.”

What I would prefer to see is organized protests permitted in public parks on certain days and for certain time periods of the days after their protester’s application for the use of the park is approved by the city. This way, people who are sympathetic to a particular protester’s group’s position can go to that park and listen and even participate in the protest.

Meanwhile the rest of us who have something else to do who live by the park would not be inconvenienced by the protesters.

Further, I would like to see the park used only one weekend a month as a maximum for the use by protesters so that the other three weekends can be given to those of us who would use the park for what it was built for—a walk through the park and a wonderful time enjoying the beauty of the park.

As far as protesting on a public street, that shouldn’t be permitted. The roads and highways were built for vehicular traffic, not pedestrian traffic. Protesters who march down public streets without city approval are bullies who are saying to the rest of us, “Out of the way while I exercise my right to assemble."

A pox on the lot of them who think that their rights supersede the rights of the rest of us.

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