It was the 1 percent within their ranks that ultimately sank Occupy Syracuse
In the very week when the Occupy movement should have been focused on the second anniversary of the Citizens United court case, which legalized the buying of elections, the Occupy Syracuse crowd managed to direct public attention to the all-important issue of propane. Propane and Sterno are flammable and dangerous, but if we don’t soon come to understand and act to change the implications of Citizens United, democracy itself in this country may itself go up in smoke.
“Syracuse is a city with a long history of support for citizens’ rights, going back to abolition and woman suffrage,” said Councilor-at-Large Lance Denno, a former deputy fire chief who now heads the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee. Denno was on the scene downtown when Occupy Syracuse protesters and their supporters were expecting eviction, at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 18. The eviction, which Denno deemed unnecessary, took place in the early hours of the following morning, away from TV cameras and newspaper reporters. The only witnesses were Centro drivers and their early-morning passengers.
The woman suffrage movement culminated in the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The abolition movement achieved its goal of ending slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. Both of these social milestones, it should be noted, were achieved without the use of propane, a byproduct of gasoline and natural gas production, first patented in 1913 and which entered industrial-scale production in the 1920s.
Before and after the ouster of Occupy Syracuse from Perseverance Park, Councilor Denno held one consistent opinion, succinctly expressed. “The propane has to go, the protesters should stay.” Mayor Stephanie Miner, who had for months been supportive of the encampment, felt the need to remove the tents after Syracuse Fire Department inspectors found propane and other heating devices inside the encampment on several occasions. The protesters subsequently turned their chanting fury on the mayor.
Now, four months after they first occupied Perseverance Park, along South Salina Street between East Fayette and East Washington streets, the tents and other structures set up by the Occupy movement are gone, leaving just a few hardy souls with sleeping bags to carry on their protest through the night. As Barrie Gewanter, executive director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and a key ally of the occupiers put it, “Our tents are gone, but we are not.” For Gewanter and the NYCLU it is a matter of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech. But no one at City Hall is trying to deny the group their free speech rights.
Fire Chief Mark McLees expressed admiration for the group’s perseverance. “I don’t know how they keep it up,” said the chief before the removal. “It’s very tiring, and it’s cold. This isn’t Occupy Sarasota. It’s Occupy Syracuse.
“I’m going to focus on the safety aspect,” added McLees, noting that no matter which course he chose he would be seen as the bad guy. “If I let this go on, some parent is going to come after me because their daughter got carbon monoxide poisoning, or god forbid there’s a fire and someone gets killed. Some people by their actions put other people at risk.”
What we have here is a failure to communicate, and in this case the burden, it seems to me, falls on the occupiers. Gewanter acknowledges that there is no constitutional right to occupy a public space, only a right to express yourself and your points of view. Given that they are in a weak legal position, if the occupiers had wanted to stay out there in the cold, it was incumbent on them to comply with the common sense rules being laid down for them. Like no open flames inside flammable structures.
The culture gap between the city and the occupiers is so wide that I am surprised they hadn’t reached the confrontation stage earlier. Fire departments and police departments live and die by this thing they call a chain of command. Occupy Syracuse takes great pride in calling itself a leaderless movement.
Is it possible that the Occupy Syracuse movement, also known as the 99 percent, might be right—that they really are in a struggle with the 1 percent? But it’s not the banks, the Super Pacs and the corporate raiders they seek to expose, but rather the 1 percent in their ranks who seem to be unwilling to abide by basic safety rules. And without any authority other than a general assembly, how can this movement be trusted when it promises to police its own? That’s one reason why lots of seasoned local organizers have kept their distance from a movement whose aims they warmly embrace.
Right now the occupiers have succeeded in diverting attention from their issue—the unjust accumulation of wealth and income—to a petty argument over who brought Sterno into the tent. This is no way to organize.
Does this group have support from the public in Syracuse? Thus far I
have not seen a church, a business or a community center open its doors
to them. Is there no one with a parking lot who cares sufficiently about
their efforts to lend them a few square meters to pitch their tents?
Here’s our chance to find out.
Ed Griffin-Nolan, a columnist and therefore a member of the 99 percent, writes weekly in the Syracuse New Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.