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The Occupation of New York City – What it Means to You

On Behalf of | Oct 7, 2011 | Blog, Uncategorized |

I had an opportunity to watch the news regarding the protest movement called “The Occupation of New York City. “I also had an opportunity to review “the declaration” document of the group that sponsored the protest, the “Direct Democracy Occupation Group.” As I watched the coverage, and as I read the declaration, I recalled my younger years first as a high school student, then as a college student, as a law student, as a young… 

I had an opportunity to watch the news regarding the protest movement called “The Occupation of New York City.”  I also had an opportunity to review the “declaration” document of the group that sponsored the protest, the “Direct Democracy Occupation Group.”

As I watched the coverage, and as I read the declaration, I recalled my younger years first as a high school student, then as a college student, as a law student, as a young lawyer, and finally, as an “aging” lawyer (though I am not quite ready to call myself an “old” lawyer yet).

At each of those stages, I “evolved” my thinking about what “freedom” meant to me and, by extension, my ideas on “fundamental human rights” and “civil rights.”  I don’t know that everyone engages in this thought process, regardless of their educational background or level of cultural or professional sophistication.  I’m reasonably certain that, along with the great majority of doctors, architects, and other formally educated people doing “other things,” even lawyers who don’t do civil rights work don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about these notions.

Being a civil rights attorney, however, and writing as I do about the issues near and dear to my practice and, therefore, near and dear to me, I think a great deal about issues raised in this protest.

My personal philosophy is not strange to you if you’ve read even a minority of my blog entries.  I’m very much comfortable with being an extreme progressive.  I don’t consider myself a “liberal” because frankly, that has become a pejorative term (and I never really knew what it meant in the first place).  To me “liberality” simply means freedom, but only in the abstract.  The idea, on the other hand, of being a “progressive,” means that I embrace change and that I believe that change is not only the fundamental nature of the universe but also the best way to make things better.  If things aren’t the best that they can be, then we always ought to strive to make them better.  Only a fool, however, thinks we can ever reach a state of perfection.  Likewise, only a fool believes that by “standing pat,” and by never changing except to retract or rescind, that we can make things better.

So I am a shameless progressive and I believe in equal rights for all.  I believe in severe restriction on the right of religious organizations to politically lobby or to have a say in how a secular democracy runs.  I believe in restrictions on the free market (because unrestricted freedom to build enormous wealth for an elite means suffering for the majority) and that corporations must be restrained from doing harm or they will do harm without restraint and without accountability.  I believe that corporate leaders must be held personally responsible for what they have the corporation do.  I believe that money corrupts and that money, neither in its possession nor in the quest for it, should be used as a justification to do wrong on any level and for any reason.

Yet, I also don’t consider myself an anarchist.  I’m not one to take to the streets and “march” because I just don’t believe that gets much attention unless it’s negative.  Protests and marches don’t directly confront someone to change their mind in a peaceful way.  As Phil Jackson says in his recent television campaign, “anger” is the enemy of instruction.

That having been said, protests do accomplish a lot now-a-days.  They get people thinking and talking.  I think that’s really why protests happen now. I don’t think the protestors are expecting that anyone is actually going to be physically present and emotionally moved by what the protestors have to say.  I think the protestors hope that, through the press coverage, people will have dialogues and that through dialogues, perhaps hearts and minds can be changed and things can improve.

So I wouldn’t have taken part in the Occupation of New York City.  It’s too hot, there’s not enough access to bathrooms, and I get grumpy when I’m not fed.  As well, there are things I can do which, I hope, better serve the aims of the protest.  One of those things is to talk about why I empathize with the protest.

In the declaration document, I expected to find, as a 45 year old man, that most of the declarations made therein were too progressive, philosophical or unrealistic for my taste.  I expected what I suppose would have amounted to a pseudo-socialist (or outright socialist) rant that I, obtained a degree in political science and having lived quite a while in the world of the law and civil rights, would have known instinctively was unattainable and, therefore, to be readily discarded.

Yet, nearly everything I found in the declaration resonated with me, not just as a civil rights lawyer but as an American and as a human being.  More than that; it resonated with me as a husband to a wife, a son to two dead parents who had a vision of what they hoped the future might bring for their descendants, and as a father of an eight year old child.  I found myself wanting very much to have the sort of world that the “occupiers” want.

And here’s the thing; I bet that when I share their declarations through the filter of this blog (and hopefully you trust my perspective more than you might have trusted kids with shaggy hair and hacky sacks and signs), you’ll come to see the simple wisdom in their position.

They start by saying that “the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members.”  Well that’s obvious enough, isn’t it?  Either we all pull in the same direction or we’re going to lose the fight for our planetary and species survival and prosperity to war, religious ignorance (and the wars, hatred, overpopulation and starvation fatuous religion inspires), to pollution, ecological ruin and disease.  They also say that the “system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights and those of their neighbors.”  Also easy, and obvious, and frankly, this should resonate with any American; it’s what the American revolution was all about.  The right to “alter or abolish” tyranny is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence.

They go on to say that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power.  This, I’m not so sure I agree with, not because I don’t want the world to work that way (I do) but because I can’t see that it ever will as long as humans run things.  Human nature being what is, greed is fundamental to the human condition.  Those who “don’t have” may speak loftily of their “ideals” in wishing to redistribute what they don’t have, but give enough people that don’t have something that something, and they’ll grow possessive over it.  The way to maintain a rational but better society than the one we have now is by allowing everyone freedom to acquire, but with practical limits that don’t allow misery for the many as the price of privilege for the few.

Here are some of their other “planks” in their platform.  Remember that the “they” of whom they speak are the same “they” of whom I speak in my other blogs and of whom we all speak when we complain about the greed, corruption and vanity of the elite corporate creatures who manipulate our politics, our laws, and our rights.  The “they” is the tiny minority of the population that holds the reigns to controlling the vast majority of wealth (and thus power) in this country.  Here are the planks which resonated with me:

“They” have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses;

“They” have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace…;

“They” have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization;

“They” have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions;

“They” have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself [education] a “human right;”

“They” have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay;

“They” have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility;

“They” have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit;

“They” determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produce and continue to produce;

“They” have donated large sums of money to politicians supposed to be regulating them;

“They” continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil;

“They” continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save lives in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantial profit.

There are other more general allegations that are not generally supported by fact although they certainly feel intuitively true.  The ones in which I am interested, however, appear above.  Now, if you’re a rational, reasonable, hardworking, loyal and patriotic American whose loyalty and patriotism is to the ideal of what America should be rather than to a political party or a political pundit, then I’m guessing that you agree with most, if not all, of the above statements.

Which raises an interesting question: why aren’t we all acting in accord with these beliefs?  Why are we letting the relatively few and admittedly “protest” inclined “occupiers” of New York City do all the heavy lifting for us?  Why am I?

My easy escape answer is, of course, that I don’t.  I try to redress some of these issues in the courts through my civil rights practice, but at the end of the day, I can really only redress a few, and only in my own way and as the present law allows.  The law is administrated by judges who must follow what the legislature passes, and when the corporations effectively own most of the legislative process, the judges are hamstrung in delivering justice; discretion can only go so far.

Do any of us think that this country has not been largely subordinated to corporate power?  Do any of us really think that there’s anything approaching a fair chance for people who aren’t part of the economic elite to achieve what the economic elite has already achieved and covetously guards?  Plainly, many of you reading this blog may be, as most of us are, somewhere in that vast “middle class” from the lower to the middle to the upper.  I’m guessing that no one reading this blog is part of the economic elite that throws seven figure sums around like they mean nothing.  So it’s to those putative readers I speak when I ask the above questions and when I ask these:  does anyone think that the bailout doesn’t make them sick to their stomach and that the money hasn’t been misused?  Does anybody really think that some of that bailout money wasn’t used to increase already ridiculously bloated bonuses and perks for executives of the companies whose malfeasance necessitated the bailout in the first place?  Does anybody think our food supply is safe despite the level of toxins still poured into that food supply?  Does anybody really think that educational opportunities are fairly administered or that the pharmaceutical companies aren’t being ridiculously greedy in hoarding cures or overcharging for remedies?  Does anybody really think that educational debt is fair or that students have meaningful choices to do good work for less pay?

That last question, by the by, is pretty near and dear to me as a lawyer.  In another blog, I’ve railed against the idea that law school is becoming more and more expensive and that only people with silver spoons in their mouths, or people willing to live hand-to-mouth, can afford to do work for “people” as opposed to “corporations” when they get out of school.  Law students are faced with a ridiculous choice of either serving the corporate power structure for the kinds of salaries that allow them to support the increasing law school debt – work of which I am sure they don’t feel particularly proud – or being poor (or ruining their credit score) and literally living on macaroni and cheese by accumulating that debt and yet trying to serve the interests of regular families (which isn’t as nearly financially rewarding at the start of one’s career).

My favorite line of all, however, is the fact that the corporations have influenced the law to the point where the corporations are treated as “people” with none of the accountability.  I’ve railed against that in many of blogs before and I rail against it every day and I’ve said it to juries.  It’s insidious and disgusting and yet that idea is as enshrined in our law as many other principles as old as the law itself.

If I as a person do something wrong, then I as a person am responsible for it.  But if a corporation, treated as a person when it comes to asserting its rights against others, does wrong, the corporation is held accountable but not the people that directed the corporation to do the bad thing.

That’s nice.  We hold a piece of paper creating the corporation responsible for injury, corruption, death.  But not the people who hide behind the paper.  We call that “the corporate veil” and it is one of the most shameful and unacceptable Faustian bargains our economy has made in order to be “successful.”

We fight against that particular legal fiction every day with varied success.  We fight against that fiction for you.  We do that for individuals and people who don’t realize how “evil” corporations really are until they’re personally wronged by corporate arrogance and greed.

I found myself empathizing a great deal with the Occupation of New York City.  I’m going to start supporting that group and I’m going to remember that when one person cries out for justice for himself, it is a good idea for other people to listen.  Martin Luther King once said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and truer words were never spoken.

The Occupation of New York City and more importantly, the ideas that it was meant to represent and foster, are necessary way-stops on the journey to justice.