Call it Occupied Philadelphia. The present tense of “Occupy” may be misleading.
On Friday, Mayor Michael Nutter announced that then-“Occupy” Philadelphia protesters had until 5 p.m. Sunday to pack up their belongings and remove encampments from the area surrounding City Hall, known as Dilworth Plaza.
As a conciliatory gesture, Nutter offered protesters the ability to demonstrate across the street from City Hall, as long as they did not erect tents or stay overnight.
Nutter’s office did not draw up the eviction note without purpose. Among other problems were “serious health and safety issues” magnified by “intolerable” living conditions, according to city officials.
The fact of the matter is, however, that Nutter had no other choice. Occupy Philadelphia should have seen this day coming, and the mayor had the authority and justification for mandating that the 24-hour encampments morph into 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily protests.
There exists no right — inalienable, fundamental, implied or otherwise — that permits a group of citizens to permanently “occupy” public space. Anyone who tries to argue otherwise has a warped sense of the First Amendment and the shared public sphere.
Yet, this line of thought has permeated Occupy Philadelphia as the group weighs whether to heed Nutter’s edict. Protesters at the heart of the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park, Manhattan, attempted to argue exactly this two weeks ago, in an attempt to defy New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s similar efforts to dismember the encampments.
As Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Michael Stallman concluded, “The [protesters] have not demonstrated that they have a First Amendment right to remain in Zuccotti Park.” He went on to note that “protected speech is not equally permissible in all places and at all times.”
Legal rulings aside, the logical extensions drawn from a permanent occupation of City Hall beget further reasoning for expulsions. At what point does permanently and completely occupying a public space such as our Dilworth Plaza render that realm an essentially private residence? Restricted access to a public space by definition makes the space more private. Pitching dozens of tents and encampments works to narrow or suppress otherwise general access to a public zone such as City Hall.
Ironically, Nutter’s actions were spurred by a civic project that should be applauded by the Occupy protesters. The reason for the 5 p.m. Sunday “eviction” deadline is that Dilworth Plaza is scheduled to undergo a $50 million renovation that has been in place for months.
These refurbishments are expected to put 1,000 people to work over a multi-month timetable, exactly the sort of job creation that Philadelphia needs and the lack of which Occupy protesters have lamented. As Nutter said, the remaking of Dilworth Plaza is intended to be “built by the 99 percent for the 99 percent.” Or, as he stated more resolutely, “Occupy Philly is now purposefully standing in the way of nearly 1,000 jobs for Philadelphians at a time of high unemployment.”
The mayor’s call for removal has evidently fallen on deaf ears, legal rulings and public renovations as motivation aside. As of Saturday, The New York Times reported that roughly 250 tents were still up in defiance.
The same charade is being played out across the country, most analogously with Occupy Los Angeles, whose Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has recently sought to evict the protesters from L.A.’s City Hall. Like Nutter, perhaps even more so, Villaraigosa expresses unabashed sympathy for the movement, saying it has “awakened the country’s conscience.” And like Occupy Philadelphia, the removal of protesters in Los Angeles has been met with fierce resistance and defiance.
In Nutter, Occupy Philadelphia had a vocal ally and political support. Yet they continue to fight, ally be damned.
Like in one of the memorable passages from Don Quixote, Occupy Philadelphia — at this stage — seems to be fighting windmills. As Don Quixote soon realized, battling windmills only makes them churn faster.
Battling a sympathetic mayor for permanent occupation of City Hall will only undercut the movement further.
Brian Goldman is a College senior from Queens, N.Y. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The Gold Standard appears every Monday.
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