I recently listened to an interesting segment by On The Media about the etymology of the word, “occupy”. It brought to mind a thought that has been percolating awhile: Public spaces like parks and streets are not really ‘ours’. We, the people, pay for their creation and maintenance, but we don’t actually own these places in the sense that you or I might own a piece of land. Public property is public only in the sense that it’s owned by the state.
On its face, this seems like a total ‘duh’ statement, but it’s actually kind of strange when you consider something like the Occupy Wall Street protests.
What I find endlessly fascinating about the Occupy movement is that its main action so far has been claiming and occupying public sites like parks and municipal buildings. In a way, it might be more accurate to describe the Occupiers’ actions as reclaiming places that are supposedly open to all of us. The Oakland Occupiers were pointing out, by their very presence, that their City Hall wasn’t a place for everyone. Or at least, not for the unemployed, the homeless, the young, the dark, the marginalized, the poorly dressed, and the non-conforming. They were highlighting the fact that very few of us are actually welcome in our seats of government.
That’s why I find the advice that Occupy protesters dress in business casual to be terribly misguided (and fishy, given some of the sources of this kind of advice). Of course well-dressed people with the appropriate licenses and permits, and the funds to buy these things, are welcome in public places. The lesson: you should look and behave exactly like the people who are oppressing you in order to be taken seriously. Of course.
Besides deploring the fashion sense of protesters, pundits and public officials have expressed concerns about keeping public sites like Zucotti Park orderly, clean, and sanitary—that is, lawful
The obsession with the aesthetics of the Occupy protests (in every respect) perhaps makes sense if you compare the (temporary) situation of protesters to homeless people. It’s a matter of course for the police to harass and evict homeless people who sleep or even just sit in parks, bus shelters, and sidewalks. Neither the Occupiers nor the homeless are using these public sites as, according to the law, they ought to be used. They are breaking the law simply by their presence. Parks are for approved recreational activities during sanctioned hours. Bus shelters are for travelers. Standing or sitting aimlessly on a sidewalk can get you a ticket for ‘loitering’. Living in any of these places is illegal.
If one views these facts through a vaguely Marxist filter (as one does), then the pro-capitalist intention behind these ordinances against misappropriating public spaces becomes clearer. Being obviously unemployed in public places is illegal. Being obviously poor in public places is unlawful. One is reminded of the Anatole France quote:
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.
Tweak this a bit and the absurdity of official and police actions against the Occupy protests is stark:
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep in parks in wintry conditions to protest pro-corporate government policies, and to be tear gassed and injured by the police while demonstrating against the undemocratic concentration of power in the economic elite.
The Occupy movement chose its name wisely. The protesters are occupying spaces that are public in name only. Living in Zucotti Park and other spaces supposedly intended for the public’s use—when they are actually spaces reserved for the (visibly) employed and non-impoverished—is a means of reclaiming these spaces for all of the people…not just business men on their lunchbreaks. The continuing occupation of these public sites without official permission is a symbolic rebuke of inegalitarian government policies that favor the few at the expense of the many.
Simply by being in places where they’re not supposed to be, the Occupy protesters are saying, “this land is our land”—a message that politicians, pundits, journalists, and the wealthy have forgotten. The United States of America is not their land; it’s our land.