“Facilitating this expression of free speech is no longer viable, nor in interest of public health and safety”

by zunguzungu

UPDATE: If anyone would like to call Oakland mayor Jean Quan and tell her to stop the eviction of the Occupy Oakland encampment, the number is 510-238-3141.

Occupy Oakland is an illegal camp; from the beginning, they’ve neither negotiated, compromised, nor even communicated with the police or with City Hall. Jean Quan, the Mayor, is fairly liberal and at least nominally sympathetic. She marched on Saturday with the mayors of Richmond and Berkeley to “add their voices to the public outcry for government to invest in jobs and stop cutting needed programs for the poor and middle class,” and while it wasn’t exactly part of Occupy Oakland, that march did try to “connect” with it (Omar has details on that), and spent time at Frank Ogawa plaza. Who knows what Jean Quan really thinks of it all; someone in the camp was telling me about looking up at City Hall and seeing her in the window, looking down at them, a cinematic moment in my mind.

Last night, the camp received an eviction notice. They keep getting letters from the city, and I actually got my hands on a green one that actually thanks the occupiers for making concessions on some of the city’s demands. This is putting it very nicely, however; in fact, when the city first sent a list of demands to the camp, someone burned it with a lighter at the general assembly, to what was described to me as general approval. They have continued to be — utterly and without exception — unwilling to let the city dictate to them in any manner whatsoever. And so far, the city has done nothing (in sharp contrast to Occupy SF, who has negotiated and compromised with the police, and as a result, been subjected to arrests and destruction of their camps and supplies).

Many thought that would change last night — the idea that sending Occupy Oakland an eviction notice would get them to leave or change their ways is obviously false, so it seems like the letter is a prelude to violent removal. But so far the city has done nothing. The people at the Snow Park expansion camp told me about how the police wake them up in the morning — which depending on who you talk to was either passive intimidation or a direct stand-off — but as far as I know, they’re still there too, longer than I expected them to be. They’re a much smaller camp, and in some ways more threatening, since it marks the movement as more than simply symbolically oriented on City Hall, marks a desire to continue spreading. But the police haven’t come in force there either.

So while we’re waiting, let’s read that eviction note, which opens by declaring its support for both freedom of expression and such responsibilities as “public safety, public health, and crowd control.” These things are equal, the letter notes. And if they are equal responsibilities, you see, City Hall can indeed have it both ways, balance them: they can be on the side of “expression” while also using violent force to disperse a peaceful assembly. But trying to have it both ways forces the city into a rhetorical figure that’s quite revealing in its ugly clarity:

“Administration has determined that facilitating this expression of free speech is no longer viable, nor in interest of public health and safety”

Examine the assumptions of that sentence: the expressers of free speech can only express their speech to the extent that the city “facilitates” it. This is obviously not true, of course; the only reason this peaceful and truly remarkable assembly of Oaklanders is possible is that the police and city have had no part in it and have been excluded from the start. But Jean Quan wants to be supportive: she is a liberal mayor and this is (in rough outlines at least) a kind of leftish movement. If she simply said that the occupation is illegal and has to stop because it’s illegal, she wouldn’t have to bring up free speech at all. But then she couldn’t claim solidarity of any sort. So, to be supportive — whether because she is, or because she has a political reason to be — she has decided to support their right to be there, and so has interpreted their presence in the only safe way she can come up with: as “speech.”

But this creates a new problem: once you’ve acknowledged that the occupation is an expression of free speech, how can you also claim the right to evict people from that space? What she does, then, is worth noting: she asserts the city’s right to overrule constitutionally protected rights, to declare them “no longer viable,” in the name of  “public health and safety.” We should not be innocent enough to be shocked by this, but we should note the kind of kind of power that her rhetoric draws her into claiming: she makes the one and only thing she’s done — the fact that she hasn’t overrun the camp with cops, a la Melbourne — into “facilitating” free speech. You can put aside  all the other stuff in that letter, which is a laundry list of trumped up concerns that a police action would do nothing to solve but only a great job of making the problem invisible again. The core of it is the remarkable claim that speech is free only to the extent that the state elects not to use violent force to squash it. And the assertion that it can do so when it decides it is necessary, in the names of abstractions like “public health and safety.”