Whitehead on the Suppression of OWS

As more and more cities send in heavily armed police officers to break up the Occupy Wall Street protests, John Whitehead is one of the very few conservative voices speaking out for the protesters and, more importantly, for the First Amendment. He writes:

Unfortunately, the tendency on the part of government and law enforcement officials to purge dissent has largely undermined the First Amendment’s safeguards for political free speech. The Occupy Movement, and the government’s response to its encampments in public spaces, perfectly illustrates the fact that there is no longer any such thing as unfettered free speech in America today.

The very fact that protesters have had to resort to occupying various public spaces in order to open up a national dialogue about issues of concern says a lot about the state of the First Amendment, or rather the sad state of it. Moreover, the heavy-handed police response to the Occupiers shows the degree to which the corporate state will go to silence these protesters and discourage any further uprisings.

There was a time when communities had town squares—public areas where people gathered to exchange information, ideas, and do business. These served a vital function in America’s history, allowing opinions and ideas—whether good or bad—to be aired and debated. Yet as areas once open to the public have been overtaken by state and corporate interests, traditional public forums for free speech have all but disappeared. Town squares have been replaced by private shopping malls and parking lots, neither of which are freely accessible to individuals hoping to voice their views. Consequently, protesters, even those not engaging in civil disobedience, are shut out, sometimes forcibly, from public areas, while attempts to peaceably assemble are overburdened by government regulations and permit requirements.

Furthermore, the court-sanctioned use by the government and private entities of so-called “free speech zones” to isolate protesters, even in public parks and college campuses, makes clear that the right to speak freely in public has eroded. Concentrating, monitoring and minimizing the effects of protests are the real reasons for using designated protest zones. Obviously, protesters are only perceived as dangerous because their message challenges the status quo. It’s the message that is feared. Thus, efforts to confine and control the dissenters are really efforts to confine and control the effect of their messages, whatever those might be. This is true whether they’re challenging environmental policies, free trade agreements or the political campaigns of candidates running for public office.

Hear, hear.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Very nice words.

    Will Whitehead back them up by using the legal resources of the Rutherford Foundation to intervene on behalf of Occupations locally or around the nation?

  2. freemage says

    d cwilson: Funny, I was just about to say that this is the sort of conservative I remember respecting, even when we disagreed.

  3. says

    John Whitehead is one of the very few conservative voices speaking out for the protesters and, more importantly, for the First Amendment.

    A sensible conservative?! (Pulls out his iPod and cell phone, begins furiously pressing the camera buttons) I thought they were extinct!

    Of course, not knowing his background, I won’t be surprised if this is just one moment of sanity, but either way, it’s refreshing to read something like this.

  4. gesres says

    I’m delighted with the OWS movement, but I don’t have a problem in principle with the protesters being given the boot. Seriously, should we allow indefinite encampment in public spaces by protesters? Whitehead’s criticisms seem a little…histrionic…in claiming this is a serious impediment to free speech.

    In the end, just sitting at these locations isn’t enough to produce the sort of social change the protesters want. Unlike despotic countries, we have a political outlet for people that want political change and there is no restriction to the speech or activities which can be used to influence voters.

  5. Crudely Wrott says

    Unlike despotic countries, we have a political outlet for people that want political change and there is no restriction to the speech or activities which can be used to influence voters.

    Where? Not In Your Back Yard?

  6. Crudely Wrott says

    Apology for unwarranted capitalization. Was thinking of NIMBY.

    Same difference but looks clumsy.

    Am properly abashed.

  7. sinned34 says

    …there is no restriction to the speech or activities which can be used to influence voters.

    Unless you’re camping out in public places. Or don’t have the proper permit. Those restrictions don’t count, apparently.

  8. Aquaria says

    In the end, just sitting at these locations isn’t enough to produce the sort of social change the protesters want. Unlike despotic countries, we have a political outlet for people that want political change and there is no restriction to the speech or activities which can be used to influence voters.

    So tell us where our voices can be heard?

    The media? Don’t make me laugh.

    Our government? Don’t make me laugh.

    You can’t make people look at you on the Internet.

    So where do you go to be heard when nobody is listening and you have nowhere to be heard?

    I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream–best sci-fi title ever. Who thought We the People would actually be living it?

  9. D. C. Sessions says

    Unlike despotic countries, we have a political outlet for people that want political change and there is no restriction to the speech or activities which can be used to influence voters.

    Absolutely. Their dollars have the exact same right to buy television ads, reporters, and public officials as anyone else’s dollars do.

  10. gesres says

    The Tea Party achieved some influence without camping out for months, so it’s silly to complain about this. Find some candidates to support, collect signatures, and gather money. That’s how it’s done.

  11. leftwingfox says

    The Tea Party achieved some influence without camping out for months, so it’s silly to complain about this

    Nonsense.

    The Tea Party was top-down astroturf: Wealthy republicans with direct access to Fox News and the Republican Party were able to turn the molehill of conservative resentment into a mountain of press coverage and policy grandstanding.

    OWS on the other hand, has no influential leadership capable of glad-handing their way into the Democratic party, and a much smaller base of sympathetic media figures. Without the money, political contacts or media support that the Tea Party had, their strategy and tactics are naturally going to be different.

  12. D. C. Sessions says

    The Tea Party achieved some influence without camping out for months, so it’s silly to complain about this

    The “Tea Party” to date is standing up for the 0.1% with money. Does it come as a surprise that they have had more access to power than the people complaining about the disproportionate power of that 0.1% ?

  13. Chiroptera says

    gesres, #5: Seriously, should we allow indefinite encampment in public spaces by protesters?

    Even in a functioning democracy, it is possible for the majority to be insensitive to the legitimate concerns of the minority. One weapon that the minority (even more so for a disempowered majority in a disfunctional “democracy”) has to keep the majority accountable to basic principles of constitutional law and human rights is to be unruly, even ungovernable, and even threaten the majority’s ability to carry on business as usual.

    Of course, we can’t just allow just anyone with a trivial grievance to disrupt the normal course of ordinary life. So in the end, the willingness to withstand the police’s batons is one measure of the legitimacy of the cause.

    So, in the end, the answer to whether you are willing to allow indefinite encampment in public spaces is how much you favor their cause.

    It certainly isn’t a perfect system (if it can even be called a system), but considering that “democracy” is no panacea that guarantees that everyone rights will be respected or that everyone’s voices will be heard in the national debate, I don’t know what else a minority can do to make sure that its legitimate concerns are taken into consideration.

    In the current US dysfunctional “democracy,” I certainly can’t imagine any other process that will work

  14. D. C. Sessions says

    Bear in mind that if protesters can’t continue to make their point by peacefully occupying a fixed location, they have the option of flash mobbing someplace otherwise random.

    What happens if some tens of thousands of pedestrians show up on $RANDOM_LA_BLOCK at 08:00 tomorrow morning? Not linking arms or anything, just walking slowly around, and around, and around the block. Sardine-packed sidewalks, pedestrian-choked crosswalks. No way for anyone who doesn’t have a reserved parking space to get to and from any building in the neighborhood.

    Good freaking luck choosing which pedestrians to arrest.

  15. gesres says

    Even in a functioning democracy, it is possible for the majority to be insensitive to the legitimate concerns of the minority.

    In theory, the OWS is not the minority, but the overwhelming majority. There are a number of very reasonable goals that have been expressed via the OWS movement that probably would get overwhelming support in the US population, even by many of the conservatives. The movement, however, has been a bit tainted by the stigma of a disorganized rabble hanging out in a park. If they get organized, they’ll be able to generate all the cash they need.

  16. Modusoperandi says

    gesres “In the end, just sitting at these locations isn’t enough to produce the sort of social change the protesters want.”
    Yes. This is just the first step. And a moderately successful one, considering that for a couple of weeks people were talking about “jobs” instead of “deficit”. Granted, half of those mentions were people saying “Those dirty hippies should go out and get jobs”, but you have to start somewhere.

    “Unlike despotic countries, we have a political outlet for people that want political change…”
    Yes, but it’s 50hz and uses an odd plug.

    “…and there is no restriction to the speech or activities which can be used to influence voters.”
    Also, free pepper spray.

    D. C. Sessions “Good freaking luck choosing which pedestrians to arrest.”
    {insert Latin for “Arrest them all. The Establishment will know its own”}

  17. D. C. Sessions says

    D. C. Sessions “Good freaking luck choosing which pedestrians to arrest.”
    {insert Latin for “Arrest them all. The Establishment will know its own”}

    Mission accomplished. Nothing gets the message across better than having The Man arresting lots and lots of people just trying to get to work.

  18. Modusoperandi says

    D. C. Sessions, it’ll be their own fault. Everybody knows that the Patriot Act repealed that thing about “petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances”, so if so-called “innocent” people get caught up in the indiscriminate arrests of Undecent Americans, roughed up by our Tough on Crime™ Thin Blue Line and railroaded by our Also Tough on Crime™ court system, well that’s just the price we have to pay in the defense of Liberty™.
    In any event, why did we bother spending a decade (or more) militarizing the police if not to blindly crack down on our own citizenry? I mean, who else is going to harass retired judges who are committing the crime of 1st Degree Observing a Protest? You?
    Thomas Jefferson said it best:

    “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of hippies and passersby.”

  19. D. C. Sessions says

    Modusoperandi, you have it exactly. And I look forward to the day when police pepper-spray anyone caught walking in the Financial District.

  20. Pinky says

    As more and more cities send in heavily armed police officers to break up the Occupy Wall Street protests…”

    Local politicians send in police to harass peaceful demonstrators. We are now hearing: “The demonstrators are costing the taxpayers millions of dollars.” Creating an almost truth to use as propaganda.

  21. sunsangnim says

    It’s nice that Whitehead is sticking up for the protesters. But I think his rosy depiction of free speech in the past is a little inaccurate. The government has always been willing to treat the First Amendment as little more than a suggestion.

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