Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

What Democracy Looks Like, Cont’d

November 21st, 2011 · 7 Comments

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.

Tags: Sociology



7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 royal // Nov 22, 2011 at 12:03 am

    If a democratic government is producing outcomes I don’t like, it’s not truly democratic. If people don’t fall on the same side of issues as me, or prioritize their issues the same way I do, that’s not REAL democracy. The main way you can tell when a democracy is fake, when it’s inauthentic, when it’s hijacked by a small cabal of insidious interest groups is quite simple, that only a 1%er could disagree with it: If it’s producing legislative outcomes you don’t agree with. Then that government is no longer in the interests of the people.

  • 2 Freddie // Nov 22, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Feel free to ignore this or consider it faint praise, but the mere fact that you are considering these issues with equanimity and discrimination is very encouraging, compared to many.

  • 3 Tybalt // Nov 22, 2011 at 11:43 am

    So now you’ve moved on to chiding Occupy for their blatant abuse of power, over something that hasn’t even happened yet.

    I have to say, ruminating over counterfactuals concerning how a tiny gang of hippies might conceivably abuse the oh-so-awesome power they have arrogated for themselves, is pretty low on the scale of Things We Ought To Be Kinda Worried About Right Now.

    I mean, I dig what you say – but I sure will be glad when you move along to talking about the response to Occupy. Something infinitely more interesting.

    Not to be tiresome, but I think in response to the “Who elected you?” question, an Occupier would say, if you wish to “vote” in their manner, show up at a General Assembly and participate. Now like you, that’s not the kind of democracy I want – but we ought to at least recognize that despite formal differences there is a strong democratic content there.

  • 4 K. Chen // Nov 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    I think this is actually a direct outgrowth of a lack of leadership in the Occupy movement. Without some sort of leadership structure to filter good ideas from bad, (or at least actual ideas from random bursts of id) its just a bunch of people imitating what protestors look like, instead of actually being a protest movement.

    I was actually with an Occupy sympathetic (or recently so) friend downtown when he got invited to join in the B&E and get arrested. The action alert was apparently a jumble of nonsense. If your inside baseball is incomprehensible to insiders, something has gone terribly wrong.

  • 5 royal // Nov 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    OWS claims to be acting on behalf of 99% of the (income-earning, 18+) population. Once again – who elected them to this representative legislative role, channeling the interests of 250 million+ people?

    If all the US voting-age population participated in these events, you’d see outcomes consistent with the general status quo.

  • 6 MFarmer // Nov 23, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Because OWS doesn’t represent but a relatively small group of people, its insignificance is outweighed only by its delusions of grandeur. As someone who particpated in the 60s’protests, I find the same lack of seriousness and philosophical foundation as I eventually found in the 60s movement. One of their few ideas of substance, the rigged game at the top, lacks understanding of cause and effect — otherwise they’d be calling for limited government and a free market, rather than hating on cartoon versions of Wall Street Fat Cats.

  • 7 ティンバーランド // Dec 22, 2011 at 8:28 am

    Feel free to ignore this or consider it faint praise, but the mere fact that you are considering these issues with equanimity and discrimination is very encouraging, compared to many.