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Monday, Oct 24, 2011, 3:02 pm

The Daily Occupation: Do Demands for Free Speech Advance the Occupy Movement?

By Rebecca Burns

The 'Idea Wall' at Occupy Philadelphia's camp site on October 16. (Photo: pwbaker at Flickr.)

Over the past six weeks, there have been more than 2,300 arrests in the Occupy movement, according to organizers. As more and more demonstrators are arrested for refusing to comply with the designated closing times of public spaces, the Occupy movements are forcing a public discussion of where—and when—free speech can occur. Some participants disagree, however, as to whether this is really the point.

This weekend, arrests related to the Occupy movement were made in Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Seattle, San Jose, and Portland. Almost all of the arrests were made as demonstrators refused to leave public spaces after their designated closing times.

While most were charged with minor offenses and released quickly on bond, the roughly 130 Occupy Chicago protestors arrested this weekend were reportedly held for longer periods and denied sleep and access to lawyers in an apparent effort to intimidate demonstrators and discourage further protests.

In San Jose on Friday, five protestors were arrested for illegal camping, while two others were charged with remaining in a public park after its 11 p.m. curfew. An eighth protestor was accused of felony vandalism after allegedly scratching a police car.

In Cleveland, 11 protestors were reportedly charged Friday not only with criminal trespassing but with resisting arrest. An interviewed member of the group said that he planned to return to Public Square, where the group had been assembling, and was ready to be arrested again.

In Cincinnati, 11 protesters were arrested Saturday after refusing to leave Fountain Square at its 3 a.m. closing time. Among the arrested was former boy band singer Justin Jeffre, a founding member of the band 98 Degrees.

On Sunday, 15 Occupy Philadelphia protestors were arrested after blocking a public street outside police headquarters. They were staging a sit-in as part of a nationwide protest against police brutality. Several of the demonstrators said they had personally been wrongfully arrested, and reportedly stated that they would move if police apologized in front of the cameras.

That the Occupy Wall Street encampment is located at Zuccotti Park, a private property owned by Brookfield Properties, has come with its own set of challenges. But as demonstrators across the country seek to set up permanent encampments on city and state property, they are forcing local and state officials to decide how to respond to the growing movement.

In a rare example of police pushing back against politicized orders, local police in Albany this weekend refrained from arresting protesters from trespassing on city property, despite pressure from the city’s mayor and New York governor Andrew Cuomo to enforce the city’s curfew. State police were on site to arrest protestors who did not vacate a state-owned section of the park where demonstrators had assembled, but a state police official told the Union Times that he supported the decision of Albany police not to arrest demonstrators for trespassing on city land. "We don't have those resources, and these people were not causing trouble," the official said. "The bottom line is the police know policing, not the governor and not the mayor."

Some members and critics of the movement alike believe that battles with local and state officials over free speech are diluting focus and draining resources. Kai Wright, the editorial director of Colorlines, wrote during the first weeks of the Occupy Wall Streets protests that he was unsure how “a running battle with individual cops over the right to public space” would focus attention on entrenched economic inequality or help put those most affected by the financial crisis at the center of the movement.

But others argue that the arrests are exposing the loyalties of local politicians who choose to crack down on protestors. Speakers at Occupy Chicago’s Saturday night rally, which took place before the mass arrests, denounced Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s ties to Wall Street and city-wide austerity programs.

Moreover, the tactic of “occupying” spaces is one of the tangible strengths of the movement, allowing it to create democratically-organized space where participants can discuss a plurality of demands and perspectives. In an online statement on why finding a permanent space was so important, Occupy Chicago organizers said:

“We need space to find solutions to the problems facing our country. We don’t have a voice in our current political structure, so we have taken to the streets, occupying more than 1,000 cities around the world... Together, we will create a new system, built on social and economic equality.”

Full disclosure: The author is a member of the Collaboration committee of Occupy Chicago.

Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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