Occupy movement makes it time to think

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One fascinating aspect of the Occupy Wall Street movement is the light it shines on law enforcement tactics across the country.

Some cops are reacting badly to the sight of their fellow Americans exercising rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The police riot in Oakland, Calif., last week that left an Iraq war veteran in critical condition with a fractured skull is a case in point.

Mass arrests at "Occupy" sites across the country are up as mayors lose their patience with the movement and succumb to their darkest and most reactionary impulses. After all, they're being leaned on by the 1 percent annoyed by drum circles, insulting placards and bad vibes aimed their way by formerly docile workers.

To bring grassroots movements to heel, the least imaginative mayors and police commanders always fall back on their state-sanctioned authority. There's nothing like tear gas and batons to put "people power" in perspective.

But arresting peaceful protesters never works in America, especially when the freshly minted jailbirds are middle-class and working-class people who used to be content standing on the sidelines.

While I'm disappointed that Occupy Wall Street has a mostly monochromatic tint, I'm realistic enough to recognize that if it had ever been perceived as a revolt by minority groups, it never would have gotten the positive coverage it has received so far.

Besides, it is good for Americans of all stripes to be reminded of how easy it is to end up in the criminal justice system. Ordinary people are being booked and fingerprinted, whether guilty of breaking the law or not. Those whose only crime is showing up to voice principled opposition to a corrupt and soul-sucking status quo are ending up in the hoosegow for their trouble.

More than one critic has pointed out the surplus of cops at peaceful Occupy demonstrations while noting their relative absence from tea party gatherings in 2009. That was the year that a few overzealous citizens openly brandished guns at outdoor rallies to make a point about their Second Amendment rights.

Still, I have no doubt that most police sympathize with many of the sentiments expressed at the Occupy demonstrations. If anything, they are forced to clamp down on nonviolent assemblies because neither their commanding officers nor their bosses in the mayor's office understand the Constitution.

But wouldn't it be amazing if instead of following orders to circumvent the free speech rights of nonviolent citizens, cops refused to carry out those orders? Not only would they be fulfilling their calling to serve and protect, but they would have the virtue of having the law on their side.

The Occupy movement has presented all of us with an opportunity to think through the implications of citizenship in a great country that has, unfortunately, lost its way. Many of us -- perhaps most of us -- are no longer willing to watch passively as a tiny minority lock up a monstrously disproportionate share of the national wealth.

The illusion that one can ascend to the highest rung of the economic order based on one's talents and tenacity is broken. Only the most incorrigible dope believes that we all start off on a level playing field.

No one wants or expects a properly functioning democracy to guarantee specific outcomes for everyone, but it shouldn't be too much to expect justice and fairness to be more than buzz words.

If the crash of 2008 has taught us anything, it is that the financial wizards who have gamed the system for the past four decades would rather reduce the rest of us to serfdom than contribute to the growth of an economically viable civilization.

The Republicans and Democrats who cater to the whims of the 1 percent would like nothing better than to cast off the limited regulations placed on financial institutions since 2008. For many, the fact that Social Darwinism isn't the dominant ideology of the United States borders on intolerable. If you're poor and don't have a job, it's your fault, as Herman Cain put it a few weeks ago.

Just as most citizens of voting age never vote, most Americans are afraid to question whether the system is rigged against their economic and political interests. The demonstrators at Occupy remind all of us that active citizenship in a democracy is costly, but we are cowardly and apathetic. We'd rather vote for the next "American Idol."

The crime isn't that demonstrators are raising their voices against oligarchy. The real crime is that, just as in war, a minority are carrying a disproportionate share of our national responsibility.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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