Friday, December 9, 2011

The Gatekeepers of Democracy

The gatekeepers of democracy were successful in silencing free-speech Wednesday night.

In a lengthy session that went well past 11:00 p.m., the Portland City Council voted 8 -1 to deny Occupy Maine protesters a permit to continue their encampment of Lincoln Park. Despite three hours of public testimony, almost unanimously in support of Occupy Maine, city councilors voted against a permit that would allow the protesters to create a 24-hour free-speech zone in Lincoln Park.

While the council’s decision was indeed disappointing, it is hardly surprising given its conservative, pro-business bent. Councilors used the recent isolated incidents of violence in the park, as well as the Portland business community’s accusation the encampment is an “eyesore” to justify shutting the protest down.

While the majority of public comments expressed impassioned support for Occupy Maine (there were about three speakers who opposed the permit), the councilors—save for David Marshall, the lone dissenting vote—remained unmoved.

A colleague of mine speculated that most of the councilors had likely already decided how they would vote before the meeting began. The fact that, throughout the three hour public comment session, many of the councilors sat staring at their laptops, or making snide jokes amongst each other, suggests this to be the case. A few speakers even called the council members out on this. They did the same thing my students do when I intentionally direct a question to those who are clearly not paying attention to my lecture: They temporarily stopped what they were doing and acknowledged the speaker, then eventually shifted their focus back to their laptops.

In other words, the allowing of public comments is merely a formality, perhaps to further the illusion of democracy and public representation. Indeed, Wednesday’s vote provided further evidence that representative democracy as it is currently practiced here in Maine and nationwide, is a sham.

At one point during the debate, Councilor and former mayor, Nick Mavodones justified his vote against the permit by claiming he had heard from many Portland residents who opposed the measure, and that the majority support for Occupy Maine amongst the attendees was “lopsided”. Yet, where was this opposition at the meeting? If Portland were run like a genuine democracy, where majority opinion rules, then the protesters would clearly have won the day. Instead, it took only one Chamber of Commerce spokesman to squelch free-speech.

As the Clash observe on the song, “Know Your Rights,” “You have the right to free-speech/As long as you are not dumb enough to actually try it.”

Perhaps the one moment of honest clarity during the debate came when Councilor John Anton told the crowd, “We’re the bourgeoisie. We’re the burghers. To expect us to do anything other than reflect the views of the bourgeoisie is…optimistic.” Well, at least one of them was upfront about it.

The council’s denial of a permit for the Portland branch of Occupy Maine does not necessarily spell the end of the beleaguered movement. Frankly, the fact they were made to seek a permit to express their First Amendment right to peaceful assembly is absurd. Furthermore, the protesters should have realized seeking any sort of approval from the city council was foolish. But Wednesday’s decision is nonetheless a blow to the movement—one echoed by similar, albeit more violent crackdowns elsewhere.

The irony of all this is one of the goals of the wider Occupy Wall Street movement is to create a grassroots, democratic alternative to representative government, which most participants agree has failed the country. Yet, it is the apparatus of "representative" government which is now forcing the group to disband. Once again, the official gatekeepers of democracy have shut the door on average citizens.

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