Mayor V. and the LAPD have thus far been leading the nation in terms of allowing the Occupy movement to peacefully exercise First Amendment rights. This will all be erased on Sunday night when the LAPD moves in to enforce the midnight deadline for clearing out.
At a city hall press conference held the day after Thanksgiving, Mayor V. declared to the world that he and his police have finally had enough of the 400-plus tent encampment surrounding City Hall. After nearly two months of allowing the movement to establish their presence there, the decision to evict stands as an abrupt about-face. What happened?
It's not just that the grass is getting ruined. Is it unsanitary? Occupy LA has complied with all Dept. of Health mandates including adding to the number of portapotties and not preparing food. In all respects, Occupy LA is a model camp. They take in the homeless. They don't tolerate violence or unlawful behavior. They have worked with the city on all fronts to make sure that they are able to protest without causing too much disruption to day-to-day business of other citizens. They are good-citizens.
The question this raises is this: Is it possible to be good citizens and good protestors at the same time? The answer that came down on Friday is a resounding no. Camps and marches are not tolerated in our cities, unless it's a sanctioned parade or camping out for Black Friday deals. Then it's OK. Anything of a political nature is immediately deemed a problem.
LA was showing other cities how they could accommodate peaceful protests. It was proving that pepper spray and military tactics were unnecessary and counter-productive. LA seemed to be holding the moral high-ground, for a change.
What this decision to evict demonstrates is that citizens have no space for lawful protests in our cities. Our cities are for working and shopping. Protesting has to happen somewhere else. Like indoors, perhaps, since this is what the city offered to the camp. They could have turned themselves into another shop-front, open for business. But civil protests aren't companies -- just like corporations aren't people.
Now that Mayor V. has escalated, the movement will have to decide if it is indeed a protest or merely a temporary experiment in an alternative democracy whose time has run out. The official word from Occupy LA is that they are staying. Some will probably fold up their tents and go home -- those who have homes. But there is a core group prepared to stay regardless of what the police bring to their midnight raid.
In fairness, perhaps it shouldn't be called a raid just yet. That remains to be seen. By now LA has learned that even if they advance on the camp in the middle of the night there will be hundreds of cameras trained on every move. YouTube will immediately start to fill up with footage shot by citizen journalists. So, what will the Mayor and the police do when the Sunday deadline arrives and passes and there are still hundreds of protestors holding their ground peacefully? The world will be watching.
The best thing LA could do is let the deadline pass and not move on those who choose to remain. This would show that there is still room for the First Amendment -- even if it damages the grass. Send in the social workers as the first wave as promised to offer help to the homeless who have found refuge there. Then send in the politicians and business leaders to talk directly with the citizen protesters and find out what brought them to this point. What made these people think that it was time to protest?
Before LA breaks it's Occupy camp it has a chance to learn something from it. In turn, other cities could still learn from LA -- unless the LAPD brings out the riot gear and pepper spray. Mayor V. has the opportunity to turn this into one of the city's brightest moments. Let's see if he is enough of a leader to make this happen.