Occupy the nation: from Wall Street to Portlandia

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Last Sunday my wife and I took a walk through Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to check out Occupy Wall Street. Along the way we walked through City Hall Park, a tiny gem nestled between City Hall and the Woolworth Building, past Trinity Church with its grave stones dating from the 18th century, and beneath the spectacular new buildings rising from Ground Zero. In those dozen or so blocks between the Brooklyn Bridge subway station and the occupied park, we saw literally thousands of people busily going hither and yon while others just enjoyed their Sunday afternoons.

It was New York and America at their best. A melting pot of humanity — some in a hurry, some hawking wares to passersby, others sitting quietly on park benches, and still others (probably folks like me from out of town) marveling at what human ingenuity and determination have built on this tiny island between the Hudson and East Rivers. It is capitalism in the raw, with government always trying to keep up. Somehow, over four centuries, the two have come together to create the greatest city on earth.

So after our short walk, we were even more anxious to learn a bit about the occupiers of Wall Street. For my wife, it wasn’t just casual curiosity. Her father used to work at Number One Wall Street. He was a lifelong banker, and by all accounts a hell of a good guy to boot. Yet his successors on Wall Street are being condemned as the greedy “one percent” who aren’t paying their fair shares.

We circled the park and walked through the middle a couple of times. There were no people on soapboxes, no chanting of slogans. Just small groups in quiet conversation, the occasional individual nestled in a sleeping bag reading, folks staring at computer screens, and lots of people holding handmade signs protesting everything from greed, the war in Afghanistan, the Keystone Pipeline, and the burden of student loans to inadequate services for the disabled. It was a peaceful, quiet gathering, except for the steady drumbeat from the west end of the park. There might have been a thousand people all told, nearly half of whom seemed to be curious tourists and passersby. I did not leave with the feeling that a revolution was imminent.

On returning to my home in Portland, Oregon, I decided to visit the Occupy Portland encampment, just for comparison’s sake. Here the protesters have occupied two adjacent blocks, an area probably about the same size as Zuccotti Park in New York. But Occupy Portland had a very different feel than Occupy Wall Street.

On approaching the Portland encampment, the most striking difference was the quality and density of the tents. In New York, one sees a lot of black plastic. Here in Portland, many of the tents look straight off the REI shelves. When I strolled along the walkways that bisect the parks diagonally, I saw other differences. There seemed to be far fewer protesters than in New York, but perhaps they were snug in their comfortable tents. Those I did see were much younger, on average, than those we saw in Zuccotti Park. But as they say in the TV series, Portlandia is the city where young people come to retire. The smell of marijuana was in the air, but the users could easily be registered under Oregon’s Medical Marijuana Act. And there were far fewer signs here than at Zuccotti Park, so it was difficult to get a good feel for what is being protested.

But these and other differences between the New York and Portland occupiers are superficial. I suspect that if businessman and financial commentator Peter Schiff talked with Portland occupiers, as he did with Wall Street occupiers, the conversations would be similar and his defense of capitalism would fall on equally deaf ears. Like Schiff, I think the Occupy Wall Street protesters and their progeny in Portland and elsewhere have some legitimate beefs. Their shortcoming, and it is a big one, is that they do not seem to understand the causes of the conditions they protest. Instead of disparaging and inconveniencing mostly good people working for an honest living by disrupting American civic life, they should be protesting in Washington, D.C., Albany, and Salem against the crony capitalism that has corrupted our governments and put our economy in a tailspin.

If they understood that government, not capitalism, is the problem, they would find that they have something important in common with tea partiers. Then we might begin to bridge the chasm that divides our politics and ensures that government will remain an obstacle to job creation and economic prosperity.

One other thing that unites the occupiers of Wall Street, Portland, and cities across the nation, but distinguishes them from tea partiers, is that almost everywhere they are in violation of the law. They have set up camps in public parks in brazen violation of city ordinances and without any effort to comply with the rules — rules that most other protesters, including tea partiers, routinely accept. The San Diego News reports that police have evicted occupiers from Civic Center Plaza and arrested 51, but the protesters in Portland know that the mayor and city council will be sympathetic to their cause and thus tolerant of their illegality.

But the occupiers aren’t just defying the law because they know they can get away with it. Indeed, many of the occupiers are likely hoping for a confrontation with government, like the one that occurred in San Diego, so they can claim their civil disobedience is in the honored tradition of the civil rights movement. That is also the explicit strategy of Bill McKibben and the Keystone Pipeline protesters who plan to surround the White House on November 6.

In both cases they have gotten it wrong. Civil disobedience is justified and effective when the law is illegitimate as tested against a higher standard like the Constitution, not when one merely disagrees with the law on policy grounds or believes other laws are not being enforced against alleged violators. Breaking the law in protest of others getting away with breaking the law is simply incoherent. And breaking the law so as to violate the rights of other citizens (these occupied parks are, after all, open to use and enjoyment by all citizens) is an act of greed in the name of protesting greed.

What the occupiers should want is reform of the tax laws and regulations that allow some in the top 1% and in every other tax bracket to pay little or no taxes while government picks winners and losers at every income level of American society.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.