Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, and its off-shoots

Occupy Wall Street has grown from a very small protest this past summer, thanks in large part to a brutal over-reaction by New York City police. On September 1, a small, sort of pre-protest was held, to test how it would be to hold peaceful, legal protests by occupying public sidewalks 24 hours in New York City. The protesters encamped relying on a previous decision, METROPOLITAN COUNCIL, INC v. HOWARD SAFIR, Commissioner of the New York City Police Department, et al., 99 F. Supp. 2d 438 (S.D. NY, 2000). Nine of the protesters were arrested when they refused to disperse. They videotaped the event, and I have to say the police were quite polite.
On September 17, Occupy Wall Street worked with US Day of Rage, which was, despite its name, launched a peaceful protest. In a well-planned and supported protest, the group organized an occupation of a growing swath of New York City to protest a variety of issues. The group has acted in a democratic fashion to allow the protesters to articulate what they think the protest is about, so the issues are sometimes shifting and sometimes murky. But most agree about the unequal distribution of wealth ("We are the 99" is one common slogan, referring to 99% of the population in contrast to the 1% that has the vast majority of the wealth).
Eventually, a few of the New York City police did act brutally toward some of the protesters, and were caught on video. These reports came out on September 25, and galvanized the protests in New York and elsewhere. Suddenly, the protest seemed much more important.
Occupy Boston sprang up (and last night was rousted out of its expansion onto the Rose Kennedy Greenway by Boston Police). On their website, they claim that there are now 120 Occupy sites throughout the country. I know there is one in Atlanta, Charleston, Chicago, Dallas, Humboldt (California), Knoxville, Los Angles, Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Fe. Actually, the cities in California have a shared website, Occupy California. To find out what is happening, you can check into Twitter and use the general hashtag #occupy.
In a related movement, Lawrence Lessig and Mark McKinnon have called for for a Constitutional Convention to be hosted at Harvard. The post linked here actually appeared last spring, so this movement began earlier than the Occupy Wall Street, but it arises from the same frustration.
Washington is hopelessly addicted to money and thus to the status quo; drunk with power and incapable of getting sober and fixing itself. It’s time for an intervention—by the states.
Politically, we two disagree on just about everything. But the one thing we do agree on is that the institutions of government in Washington have become corrupt, held hostage by well-funded special interests. It’s no wonder that only 17 percent of the American public in a recent Gallup survey said they had a favorable opinion of Congress. American voters believe, and rightly so, that corporations, labor unions and moneyed special interests have a chokehold on politicians. Voters are disillusioned and discouraged because they don’t believe Washington represents the will of the people. And the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. F.E.C.—which permits unlimited independent corporate campaign expenditures—will only make this worse.
And so too many throw up their hands and say, “We give up. Congress won’t fix itself. And there’s nothing that we can do about it.”
But there is something we can do. We, the People, can take back the power we gave to Congress. We can take it back through the states.
The framers left open a path to amendment that doesn’t require the approval of Congress: a convention. Article V of the Constitution requires Congress to call a convention to propose amendments if 34 state legislatures demand it. Any proposed amendment would then have to be ratified by both houses of 38 state legislatures (three-fourths of the states).
(snip) Even if 34 states don’t call for a convention, history teaches that a real threat is often enough to get Congress to act. The only amendment in our history that changed the structure of Congress (the 17th, making the Senate an elected body) was proposed by Congress because the states were close (just one state short) to calling for a convention. If nothing else, the possibility of a body they can’t control is enough to get Congress to pay attention.
Some will resist the idea of a convention because they fear a “runaway” in which fringe elements would take over the agenda and propose radical amendments. But the framers anticipated such a danger and established a very high bar against it. Amendments are ratified by legislatures (or state conventions), not by referenda. And if even one chamber in 12 state legislatures refused to ratify an amendment, it would die. There will always be twelve solid blue states and twelve solid red states in America. There’s thus no danger that one extreme can overtake the other. Conventional wisdom will argue that constitutional conventions or amendments are just impossible. Just like it was impossible to wrest a republic from the grip of monarchy or abolish slavery. Or impossible to elect Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. But conventional minds are always wrong about pivotal moments in a nation’s history. And this is a pivotal moment in ours, when a movement to restore democracy is possible.
Indeed, the movement has already begun. Legislators in South Carolina, Virginia, Oregon, Rhode Island and Florida are already throwing sparks that could soon become a brush fire across the country. More and more are coming to see that if reform is necessary—as most all of us, whether from the right or left believe—this is the only way.
Interestingly enough, when I searched for information on Occupy Wall Street, the top item returned was a Wikipedia entry reminding readers of Article Five of the Constitution, giving the citizens the power amend the Constitution or to call a constitutional convention. It was a sponsored link.

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