I should begin by making clear that many of the people involved in the dispute I’m about to discuss are graduates of Albany Law where I teach, including the Governor, the District Attorney and some of the Occupiers, and I know some of them, including the District Attorney.
In this dispute about the handling of the Occupy Albany movement, I have nothing but praise for David Soares, District Attorney for Albany County. Soares has refused to prosecute people for participating in Occupy Albany and making plain their objection to government policies and massive inequality. Clearly Soares has better things to do.
Soares understands that it is fundamentally un-American to prosecute people for peaceful demonstrations. It’s only supposed to be other countries where the police or the armies are called out to arrest demonstrators or worse. Here the First Amendment tells public officials that they are supposed to accept demonstrations as part of political life. The Founders of this country spent lots of time on the streets demonstrating or supporting those who did. But even in America there are those who would rather keep demonstrators off the streets and out of sight. There are some who would rather settle political issues with weapons. Shame on them.
One of the leaders of Occupy Albany, Colin Donnaruma, a graduate of Albany Law and a member of the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, wrote me too late for last week’s commentary and his thoughts deserve to be heard:
24 people from Occupy Albany were arrested [the night of the 12th] in Lafayette Park for holding a peaceful meditation circle that went past a supposed 11:00pm curfew…. [The next] night another 13 people were arrested for peacefully protesting in the park after curfew.
The background of this is that Lafayette park is state land, governed by state officials and policed by state police – unlike the lower portion (Academy Park) which is city land, controlled by city officials, where protestors have been allowed to camp for the last three weeks. The state curfew in question has never previously been enforced and is not codified in writing anywhere. It seems quite clear that it is being enforced against protestors by state officials because of the political view point that is being expressed by the protestors which has been critical of state officials.
This is a serious civil liberties abuse!
There can certainly be legitimate issues regarding public safety and sanitation. But public officials have a duty to facilitate, not block, peaceful public demonstrations. The governor and the Mayor of New York City could have provided toilets if they were worried about sanitation. It would have been a lot cheaper to set up a few port-a-potties than deploy police or state troupers to arrest and hold peaceful demonstrators.
Politicians get tough with demonstrators to be symbolic, to show they’re tough on young people, tough on liberals, and build up their credentials with the set of people who think no one has a right to disagree with them, people who think it’s OK for Tea Party goers to demonstrate, or show up with loaded weapons at public events, but don’t think it’s OK for anyone else to appear in public with a placard. Some people have a double standard about demonstrators, and no understanding of the Constitution that some of them claim to uphold in their politics.
Soares, by contrast, understands both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment. Many cheers for David Soares.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 14, 2011.