Andrew B. Wilson

What does it mean to ‘occupy Wall Street,’ “occupy KC,” or occupy any one of dozens of other cities.

Plainly, it is more than the exercise of peaceful assembly and free speech. The protesters have had almost two months to express their complaints about corporate greed, income inequalities, and the whole notion that life isn’t nearly as fair as it ought to be. What more can they possibly say that they haven’t already said (however obtusely) a hundred times?

In the root sense of the word, to ‘occupy’ a place is to seize it from someone else. In just that sense, the Soviet Union ‘occupied’ Poland in September of 1939.

In the public theater going on in our cities today, the occupiers lay claim to the ground that they occupy — chanting “Whose Streets? Our Streets” and refusing to leave, regardless of city ordinances forbidding the pitching of tents in public places and regardless of the entreaties of elected officials asking them to leave.

According to their argument, the occupiers have reclaimed public space for the “99%” — meaning everyone outside the tiny group of people (the richest “1 percent”) who supposedly control almost all wealth and power. Of course, it is preposterous for the protesters to claim that they speak for 99% of the country — or, indeed, for anyone other than themselves.

Nevertheless, in cities across the country, mayors and other public officials have gone along with this fiction and bent over backwards in trying to accommodate the occupiers.

That was the case in my home city of Saint Louis, where 60 or so protesters were camped at Kiener Plaza, two blocks away from the city’s baseball stadium. At first, Saint Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a Democrat, went out of his way to welcome the “Occupy residents,” as he called them. He offered the occupiers a free permit to gather at the plaza and openly expressed his willingness to overlook the violation of various city ordinances.

Said the mayor in a blog post on Nov. 4:

During the weeks it has been camped here, Occupy St. Louis has had the opportunity to make its points heard during some very high profile events, including a presidential visit (on Oct. 5) and the World Series.

I emphatically disagree with those who say that allowing the encampment to remain during those events showed St. Louis in a bad light . . . Moving the Occupy residents simply to deny them a chance to tell their story to a large audience would have been wrong-headed and wrong-hearted.

But with the Christmas season drawing near (a big event at Kiener Plaza), the mayor wearied of the street theater. He announced that he would put an end to the occupation — promising only to give the group 24 hours’ notice before police would be called. In response, the Occupy St. Louis group accused the mayor of bending to the will of corporate leaders — the dreaded 1 percent. At a meeting with the mayor’s staff, occupiers expressed their outrage by showing up with money taped to their mouths.

The drama ended in the early morning hours of Nov. 12. That is when Saint Louis police arrested 27 remaining protesters and cleared the plaza of tents and signage.

If any moral may be drawn from the “big-hearted” mayor’s falling out with those he so recently lauded as having “important things to say about the direction of the country,” it is this: You can please professional agitators and self-proclaimed victims some of the time, but you will never be able to please them all of the time.

In truth, the protesters in Saint Louis and other cities have no claim to special treatment in the use of parks and other public places — apart from their willingness to flout the law.

The violation of city ordinances may sound like no big thing — against the immensity of the First Amendment guarantees of free assembly and free speech.

But no one ever denied free speech to the protesters. It is they who put the liberty of others in jeopardy. City ordinances that prohibit the pitching of tents in public places ensure that no one group can seize these places and deny or inhibit others in the use and enjoyment of the same space.

In other places around the country, city officials should follow the Saint Louis mayor’s example: They should strike the tents and stop coddling the occupiers.

Andrew Wilson is a resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri Public Policy.

About the Author

Andrew Wilson
Fellow and Senior Writer

A former foreign correspondent who spent four years in the Middle East and served as Business Week’s London bureau chief during Margaret Thatcher’s first two terms as Britain’s prime minister, Andrew is a regular contributor to leading national publications, including the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal.