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Forum Post: OWS and the right to assemble

Posted 12 years ago on Nov. 4, 2011, 6:46 p.m. EST by aomame56 (0)
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The architecture of oppression

By Kevin DeLuca

As the Occupy Wall Street protests spread across the country and now the world, one truth becomes self-evident: The First Amendment is gravely ill.

Although most references to the First Amendment focus on the freedoms of speech and religion, the third key right of the legal trinity that embodies the nation is “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

With private shopping malls having replaced public squares and restrictive laws governing the remaining public places, the people’s right to assemble has been dramatically diminished. Without the right to gather and protest, the right to free speech becomes compromised.

The Occupy protests reveal the architecture of oppression. First, the loss of public spaces leaves few places to protest. When people do gather in public places, local laws are used to violate the people’s First Amendment right to assemble. Examples in Boston, Chicago and New York City are telling. At the moment, Salt Lake City is a site of hope.

In Boston, roughly 100 protesters were arrested under the cover of darkness in order to protect flowers and shrubs on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Flowers over the First Amendment? When shrubs trump freedom of assembly, democracy is incapacitated. Mayor Tom Menino was blunt: “I will not tolerate civil disobedience.”

Coinciding with the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial dedication in Washington, Mayor Menino’s sentiment is on the wrong side of history.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered the Occupy Denver protesters out of Lincoln Park after three weeks. The police followed orders at 3:30 a.m. and forcibly cleared the public park. The governor declared, “The First Amendment and the rights it guarantees for free speech and assembly are critical to our democracy. These rights are what set the United States above all other nations. We also have rules and laws that must be followed.” Which laws invalidate the First Amendment? When did the right to assemble become an illegal activity?

Chicago is experiencing similar middle-of-the-night police raids on the right to assemble. Whenever Occupy Chicago tries to occupy iconic Grant Park, site of President Obama’s election night celebration, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s police decide that the right to assemble is illegal. Their excuse for the oppression is that Grant Park closes at 11 p.m. So far, over 300 citizens have been arrested.

Of course, arbitrary public park closing times are not considered critical to America’s democracy and yet they are deployed to silence people in city after city, including Oakland, Seattle, Phoenix and Atlanta. Oddly enough, although the NYC Occupy Wall Street protesters have been subject to hundreds of arrests, they have been allowed to stay in Zuccotti Park because it is private. Due to a quirk of local politics, the originally named Liberty Plaza Park is required to be open 24 hours a day.

To their credit, the Salt Lake City authorities recognize the paramount importance of the First Amendment and have allowed Occupy SLC in Pioneer Park. Still, the protesters have to ask for permits. Americans do not need to ask permission to assemble. The First Amendment is a right, not a privilege.

Even in the Internet Age, democracy and freedom depend on the right of the people to assemble and speak. The Arab Spring confirmed this truth and now the American Autumn of anti-greed protests reminds us. From Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Chicago’s Grant Park, places for the people to assemble and speak are at the heart of any possible democracy.

The physical and legal architecture of oppression must be dismantled in light of the right to assemble in places and protest.

Kevin DeLuca is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah and the author of the book Image Politics.



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[-] 1 points by AFarewellToKings (1486) 12 years ago

Debating the legality of occupying land is interesting but with the 2012 elections coming soon, the OWS movements objectives are now put in jeopardy by continuing the physical occupation. The act of occupying land that isn't "your own" is a powerful show of force, but expecting supporters to freeze in the depths of winter to keep the movement "alive" is cruel and inhuman. How is that any better than the system they rail against? OWS needs to understand that having innocent people living this way and requiring the public services to ensure their survival will rapidly turn public opinion against them. OWS is new but they have made their point. The occupation is "the shot across the bow" of the good ship "ThePowersThatBe". TPTB would like nothing better than to wait patiently for public opinion to turn against OWS and then go in and clean up. OWS may think they won't go gently to the endless winter night, but let's give those who work to defend this land some credit (read David vs Goliath). The camps will be dismantled. All of that can be easily avoided and OWS can keep riding it's wave by simply taking the movement to the next level. For sure, we don't want to see another Kent State. First OWS has to declare that 11/11/11 is the final day of the occupation of lands all over the country. The activists and supporters would be able to go home without feeling like deserters and the public services can move in to assist the homeless. The whole country can breathe a sigh of relief. Second OWS has to declare that they are rising and leaving the camps to go out and fight the real battle. OWS has to approve the 99% Declaration as the battle-plan, frankly because it is the only legal means on the table to further their agenda. This is where the true anarchy will play out for by the time of the National General Assembly in Philadelphia next summer, the list of grievances will be/ should be the most in-depth document produced since the list of grievances produced in the Suffolk Resolves in 1774, which led to the Declaration Of Independence two years later.

Please read the 99% Declaration: https://sites.google.com/site/the99percentdeclaration/?tmpl=%2Fsystem%2Fapp%2Ftemplates%2Fprint%2F&showPrintDialog=1

[-] 1 points by TechJunkie (3029) from Miami Beach, FL 12 years ago

Which laws invalidate the First Amendment? When did the right to assemble become an illegal activity?

Two centuries of legislation and case law have established that government does have the authority to limit speech, including requiring permits for protests. The limits on speech must be applied in a content-neutral way. A city can't require the Tea Party to obtain a permit while not requiring the Occupy movement to require a permit to demonstrate in the same location, for example.

[-] 1 points by dthompson (79) from New York, NY 12 years ago

The first amendment does not give you the right to do whatever you want wherever you want for as long as you want.

How about the rest of the general public's right to use the public spaces their tax dollars support?

[-] 0 points by justhefacts (1275) 12 years ago

"Americans do not need to ask permission to assemble. "

No, but they do need to ask for permission to assemble on, in, or around property that does not belong to them exclusively. Your right to assemble ends when it infringes upon someone else's rights, doesn't it Mr. Deluca?