If you are lucky enough, gentle reader, not to have one of the “Occupy” or similar movements sullying your public places, consider yourself very fortunate, indeed.Having had the misfortune to pass by McPherson Square yesterday afternoon and see (and smell), for the first time in person, where America’s anarchist-movement-du-jour is camped out beneath the incredulous gaze of Civil War hero Maj. General James McPherson, I was struck by the awful condition of the public space. If we do not permit public protests of course, we are not truly a democracy, even when we disagree with the points of view of the protesters. However, if those same protesters do not respect public property, then one really does have to question the fundamental underpinnings of their protest.
We are fortunate that at some point, someone saw sense and put a wrought-iron fence around the White House about a block or two away, to keep this kind of nonsense off of America’s front lawn. The White House has been the official residence of the American head of state for centuries, and the symbolism of having an official residence for the elected leader of a country is of great importance to any democracy. Imagine if the next President of the United States – may he please be elected in 2012 – arrived in Washington and, instead of living at The White House, chose to rent an apartment on Connecticut Avenue. Would he be more or less likely to reflect on the great weight of history on his shoulders, if he was not surrounded by the walls, furniture, paintings, and so on that represent the life and work of the men who have held his office before him?
Whatever the identity of the individual head of state living in the White House at any given time, in a democracy such as ours he is but the sitting tenant of a property we all hold in common. Given the security concerns, no one was going to issue a permit for protesters to gather on the front lawn of the White House, and so their caravan has moved onto other public space nearby. And here, we are all getting a sense of how these persons, who decry (in some cases with very good reason) selfishness in others, are now exhibiting an incredible amount of selfishness themselves.
Of course, McPherson Square is not The White House, but like the White House it is still a public place that the people of the United States own in common, and one which at the present time the people cannot safely use. The encamped protesters do not understand that while public spaces and buildings belong to everyone, including them, they do not belong to them or to anyone exclusively. Indeed, the present situation reminds me of something my faculty advisor in law school used to say: your right to shake your fist in my face stops at the tip of my nose.
Under long-held theories of property law, of course, such as in the classic common law situation of a tenancy in common, if you ruin a piece of land that we jointly own, I can in theory sue both for damages and to have your ownership of that property terminated. Naturally we have no such recourse with respect to the public parks of our major cities, and the analogy does not directly apply to what is going on in our parks and squares. Yet clearly the abuse of this country’s long acceptance of and tolerance for the public airing of differing points of view must be tempered by a realization that protest which destroys publicly-owned property with impunity is not really a free exercise in democracy or in joint-ownership of the public spaces of our country.
From time to time a promotional ad runs on PBS entitled “This Belongs to You”. The montage of images over solemn, but inspiring music, flashes beautifully photographed scenes of, among other things, various American monuments and memorials, our natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon, and so on. It has always annoyed me no end, for it overlooks one very important fact: it assumes that everyone will voluntarily try their best to take care of things that belong to them, when this is patently not the case.
There will always be people who take advantage of protests such as the present “Occupy” groups to wreck both public and private property. The distinction between protester and vandal, however, needs to be made, and penalties enforced, by our elected and appointed authorities. These protesters have the right to their opinion, and we must defend their right to express said opinion, even if we find it unsavory. We must not and cannot defend, however, the notion that their right to protest supplants the general public’s right to enjoy, free of damage, danger, and destruction, the property which they must share with their fellow citizens.