Over the last two months, local governments across California have struggled with the Occupy Movement. The approaches adopted by officials seemed to change with the phases of the moon. One day they support the protests; the next day they gas protestors; and the day after that they apologized for gassing them. And while Oakland was one of the few places where gas was deployed and rubber bullets flew, many cities have had similar battles on a smaller scale.
The difficulty in dealing with the protesters seems odd. Really, California local governments had but two options: support them or arrest them. The blending of the options was asinine. Waffling between the options was ineffectual. Clear leadership and integrity requires bold, consistent action even at the expense of political expedience.
In Los Angeles, the City Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting the Occupy Movement. However, while their actions sung the praises of the protest’s intent, it did nothing to provide legal protection for the protesters.
Had the LA Council really wanted to show their support, they should have passed a resolution supporting the protests AND either amended or suspended curfews in city parks. Instead, the council chose to score easy points for political gains, instead of fulfilling their obligation to write laws and govern the city.
Some cities have simply chosen to ignore the protesters’ reason for gathering and have allowed police to enforce the law. Those cities have placed hundreds under arrest for violating ordinances banning overnight camping or for disregarding the legal curfews for using city parks.
In Sacramento, for instance, the City Council refused to extend a special exemption to the protesters to allow them to spend the night. Instead, the police went in, night after night, and forced people to move on and arrested those who resisted.
If simply ignoring those two laws isn’t enough, why not charge them with vandalism? In Oakland, Occupy protesters caused $2.4 million in damage – far more than necessary to prosecute destruction of property.
Blend Approaches and Fail
But when City leadership failed to deliver clear and consistent direction, the situation escalated.
In Oakland, the police cleared Frank H. Ogawa Park. That effort ended up sparking a riot and police used every tool at their means to end the demonstration, including gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray. The next day, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan apologized for the action and gave the protesters her de facto permission to use Ogawa park. Aside from disparaging the reputation of the officers who did their jobs and enforced the law, it emboldened the protesters.
In Los Angeles, the City Council’s resolution supporting protesters either officially or unofficially stayed police action. The delay in clearing the park only further complicated the job of the LAPD and its police chief, Charlie Beck, when they eventually went in to clear the park.
At UC Davis, protesters were pepper sprayed en masse by police after the campus’ chancellor ordered their tents be removed. Several days later, the tent city was back. Just over a week later, the tents moved inside of campus buildings. She even stopped by just before Thanksgiving to donate boxes of food to the protesters.
As the state and country moves into the heart of this coming election season, I doubt we have not seen the last of the Occupy protests. It’s imperative that local governments learn from these first lessons with Occupy protesters.
If the decision is to support the protesters, go all the way. Revoke the laws that they may break. That will demonstrate true solidarity. More over, it will protect protesters and police alike from legal ambiguity. If the law’s suspended, people can’t be arrested for it.
If the decision is to support law and order, then enforce the laws as they stand. Let the police do their jobs – clear a park, arrest criminals, and keep public lands clear. It’s with consistent policing that lawfulness can be maintained with restrained police tactics.
Which ever decision is made, someone will be unhappy. Stand tall and stand firm. But know that when a position is compromised, integrity is forfeited.
Like any manner of local governance, many other issues await decision and action. Keep governing.
These first experiences with the Occupy movements were embarrassing and the leadership was ineffectual. When the political agendas of political, public figures cause the nauseatingly unprofessional breakdown of governmental integrity, something has to be fixed.
So while protesters have and will continue to claim to be availing themselves of the First Amendment to “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” next time public officials need to avail themselves of their duty to the public.