How Occupy's anti-foreclosure drive could sink the movement
Protesting in public spaces is protected speech. But occupying homes and lots to protest foreclosures, while dramatic, could result in many lawsuits, robbing Occupy of money and momentum.
The Occupy movement's national call to action Tuesday â€“ occupying foreclosed homes in at least 20 cities from New York to Los Angeles â€“ seems guaranteed to expand the legal tussles that have dogged Occupy almost since its inception.Â
First Amendment speech is clearly protected in public places, legal experts say,Â butÂ laws about the right to protest on private property are much less forgiving, meaning the new Occupy actionÂ will court a much harsher response from legal authorities.
For activists, the tactic is a powerful way to take on banks, which are unfairly foreclosing on homeowners, they say. But a ramping up of legal action against Occupy could sap the movement of money and energy, some experts say, and potentially alienate Americans by casting the protesters as law-breakers.Â
â€śYou can speak your mind on a public sidewalk or roadway in front of a personâ€™s home,â€ť saysÂ Timothy Zick, a law professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. â€śBut you donâ€™t have the right to do so on their property.â€ť
Scuffles with the law have followed the Occupy Wall Street movement almost from its inception, when some 700 New York protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge in September. SinceÂ then, as tent encampments have been razed and arrests have multiplied, legal challenges have steadily mounted on both sides, with lawyers for the activists filing temporary restraining orders and mayors ordering police crackdowns.
But protesters in Tuesdayâ€™s anti-foreclosure day of action say they are not doing it to be arrested. Instead, they want to spotlight whatÂ Minneapolis organizer Anthony Newby calls a critical situation. â€śWe are hoping to create a national movement to defend against illegal foreclosure,â€ť he says, suggesting that banks have not been forthright in foreclosure proceedings.
Mr. NewbyÂ is working with a former Marine, Bobby Hull, who was foreclosed upon by Bank of America, who in turn sold the house at auction.Â Mr. Hull faces eviction by mid-February.
â€śWe are not looking for a confrontation, but rather are trying toÂ negotiate a peaceful solution,â€ť says Newby. But if it comes to legal force, â€śwe are prepared toÂ defend Bobbyâ€™s home.â€ť
He says that could involve hundreds of neighbors occupying the Hull home, possibly forcing law enforcement to move against all of them. â€śWe are hoping the local police, who we think are part of the 99 percent, too, wonâ€™t take part in such actions against Bobby,â€ť he adds.
To Peggy Mears, a Riverside, Calif., activist working with a local family to reoccupy their foreclosed home, the banks aren't holding up their end of the bargain.Â â€śThe banks were bailed out, and they were supposed to use that money to help homeowners, but they have not,â€ť she says.
The phone message at the Los Angeles chapter for the National Lawyerâ€™s Guild seems to acknowledge the prospect of increased arrests. It tells any member of the Occupy Los Angeles movement: â€śWe accept all collect calls from jail.â€ťÂ
But for the guild, jail â€śis not our goal, either,â€ť says Executive DirectorÂ JamesÂ Lafferty. AsÂ a human rights bar associationÂ that facilitates public demonstrations, the job of the guild â€śis to use the courts to keep people in the streets.â€ťÂ
While legal decisions such as Roe v. Wade or Brown v. the Board of Education can make a difference, â€śthe pressure that led up to those decisions came from people protesting in the streets,â€ť he adds.Â
Indeed, extended legal struggles are not necessarily a desirable outcome for Occupy. They can drain money and momentum crucial to the long-term viability of any movement. If confrontations go too far, â€śthey can also turn the public off to the movement," saysÂ University of Nebraska law professor Rick Duncan.Â "WhoÂ is going to be sympathetic to people who are obviously breaking the law by trespassing on private property?â€ť
Implicit in the new Occupy struggle, however, are concerns about the loss of public space in which to protest, says Greg Magarian, a constitutional law expert at Washington University in St. Louis.Â â€śThe privatization of public spaces where people can be seen and heard is a very dangerousÂ shift,â€ťÂ he says.