I’ll lay off Occupy and turn to the exponentially more objectionable treatment of them by authorities after this, but this is sort of what I was talking about in the previous post:
Authorities removed protesters Saturday evening from an abandoned school in downtown Washington that had been entered by members or sympathizers of the Occupy D.C. movement…. Earlier, it appeared that about a dozen people went into the three-story building, unfurling a large black banner from the roof of the three-story building, and vowing to stay inside the school until it is converted for community use.
One protester elaborates:
City officials have said they hope to have the building privately developed. Protesters said it should be kept for the public, perhaps to reopen as a homeless shelter.
“This building is not surplus, and we won’t allow the city to give it away or turn it into a boutique hotel,” said Abigail DeRoberts, a member of Free Franklin.
For those unfamiliar with D.C. geography, this is a little like demanding that a soup kitchen using only solid gold utensils be opened on Park Avenue. This is a huge property overlooking a park in the middle of D.C.’s downtown business district, and it’s not especially surprising that the city’s elected representatives think it maybe makes more sense to sell or lease it, reap a continuous stream of tax revenue, and use those funds to support social services—including homeless shelters elsewhere in the city. Maybe there are strong arguments against this, and if “occupation” is a short-term stunt to draw attention to the issue so that the public can be more engaged in further deliberation, fine, that’s how protest works. If “we won’t allow the city” means “we’ll exert political pressure by mobilizing opposition and advancing arguments,” fantastic.
But if that’s a “won’t allow” in the sense of actually trying to seize the space for the use your group thinks is best, I find myself again thinking: Wait, who elected you? There are cases where even a formally democratic decision might be so invasive of fundamental liberties that people are justified in attempting to just directly block implementation of that decision. But choices about how to use a public building don’t really seem to fall in that category. This is a decision involving a whole bunch of stakeholders—including those dozens of community activists and various folks who hate boutique hotels, but also developers and business owners and their employees and customers, surrounding businesses that might benefit from a hotel, beneficiaries of other programs that rely on tax revenue, and a broader taxpaying base (most of whom are unlikely to personally invest a whole lot of time and thought on this particular question). I’m familiar enough with D.C. local government not to be excessively sanguine about their making the right call, but they’re the ones actually elected to balance all those interests. So when a few dozen—or even a few hundred—people say “no, we won’t allow it” on the premise that they speak for “the community,” I think it’s fair to say: “Wait, no, you don’t.” And again, I get worried when a group is so convinced that it represents the authentic voice of the people that it thinks it has a mandate to override, as inherently illegitimate, any political decision it doesn’t like.