As the nascent Occupy movement spreads from Wall Street across America citizens preparing to occupy their local Main Street are being forced to grapple with a fundamental question of political rights.
The First Amendment recognized and attempted to protect citizens’ rights to participate in the democratic process; but what does this actually guarantee and does it still apply in actual practice?
This issue is being confronted today in Gainesville, Florida – a city of approximately 125,000 that is the home of the University of Florida, one of the nation’s largest public universities.
After two weeks of preparation the official occupation began at 8 a.m. Wednesday, October 12th, with a dilemma. The City of Gainesville would allow them to hold a one-day permitted 24-hour event and nothing more. Any further activities, whether of the group of even an individual person acting on their own, would be deemed unlawful and subject to citation and/or arrest. Given this ultimatum the question was put before an Ad Hoc General Assembly around noon: should they stay or should they go?
It appears that a showdown such as that witnessed in Seattle Monday night is likely in Florida – where the conflict between the Mayor and the unelected administrators of the City raises not only the question of who actually is in charge but how will the City respond to the expression of fundamental political rights of peacefully assembled citizens engaged in speech-acts aimed at seeking redress of grievances that apply to all levels of government – from the National, to the State, and ultimately to the Local authorities.
These events and debates taking place in a growing number of cities and towns, of all sorts and sizes, across the nation bring into light one of the most fundamental issues at the center of the Occupy movement. This is the issue of citizen participation in government and the fundamental working of the democratic process in America.
When the First Amendment was ratified in the late 18th century it was not to establish fundamental political rights. It was, instead, to recognize them as fundamental and to ensure that government officials understood that they were to be respected and guaranteed. The language of that highest law is clear: Congress, and by virtue thereof no other level of government authority, shall make any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
These rights have been allowed to be eroded over time and city’s throughout the nation, including Gainesville, have adopted ordinances that cannot been understood and interpreted as anything but such an effort to legislate the curtailment, the limitation, or in the original language the “abridgment” of these fundamental rights necessary to maintain a democratic form of government and to hold officials empowered therein to account.
Engaging in a peaceful assembly cannot by semantic redefinition be reduced and transformed into an “event” that can lawfully and reasonably be abridged – whether limited by time, or effectively prohibited by excessive costs, – without the elimination of the very principles which are enshrined in the nation’s Constitution as its highest and most fundamental law.
The question that will be put tonight to the General Assembly in Gainesville, Florida – “should we stay or should we go” – affects every person and every community across the country. The citizens of Gainesville are being compelled to take a stand, no less significant than those of our 18th century ancestors on the streets of Boston, and defend the principles of democracy and the rights of citizens to participate therein. The eyes of the world should be watching this small city in North Central Florida because what happens here will signal whether “We the People” have the rights that we established more than two-hundred years ago fully intact or whether they have remained on mere parchment alone, in an air-tight Museum case on Capitol Hill, merely to give the people the belief in the myth of their role as citizens.
What the Occupy Movement is centrally about is a concept that has been unfortunately lost in practice in America – and that is that the highest office in a democracy is not the President, nor the Mayor, nor an unelected Manager of a City, but is itself an office held by each and every one of us, with the duties and responsibilities thereof to protect and defend the rights associated with that office, the office of the Citizen.