A Green Party mayor cracks down

March 8, 2012

Brian Kelly reports on the steps by New Paltz, N.Y., Green Party Mayor Jason West to shut down that city's Occupy encampment.

GROWING UP in the Hudson Valley under the reign of conservative George W. Bush, Green Party Mayor Jason West stood out as someone who seemed willing to stand up for principle. He violated New York State law when, in his capacity as mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., he married lesbian and gay couples, becoming part of a nationwide debate on marriage equality that continues to this day. In a conservative environment like upstate New York, this was very significant, especially for LGBT youth who suffer from depression and high suicide rates.

When Occupy Wall Street led to a Occupy movement that spread across the country this fall, an encampment was set up in New Paltz, gaining steam from the already strong Occupy Poughkeepsie camp on the other side of the Hudson River.

On December 15, 2011, in response to the birth of Occupy New Paltz, Mayor West wrote: "The [New Paltz Village] Board is...unanimous in our opinion that, given the clear First Amendment protections covering the occupation, we do not have the authority to remove the encampment. By any measure, Occupy New Paltz has the community's blessing."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a similar position during the first month of Occupy Wall Street, when on October 10, 2011, he was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying he'd allow Occupy Wall Street to stay indefinitely: "The bottom line is--people want to express themselves. And as long as they obey the laws, we'll allow them to."

West reversed his position last month when he capitulated to calls for "law and order" and evicted Occupy New Paltz, having several of its members arrested. In doing so, he put himself in step with Democratic Party mayors across the country--as well as billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg--whose ruling class offensive shut down most Occupy encampments around the country.

Compared with his remarks last December, West's comments in February showed a marked change in tune: "[T]hey are no different than a little league [team] or Girl Scouts...[T]here are liability concerns," he told the New Paltz Oracle.

West called Occupy New Paltz a group of "inexperienced" protesters who didn't know how to organize or choose targets. His comments mirrored those of representatives of the 1 percent across the country whose claims that Occupy is a "health hazard," a "liability," and something to be "feared" could not be further from the truth.

Anyone in touch with the current state of our economy and the ruling class's program of austerity and repression knows that it is the rich who are the real threat to health and safety: they are the ones cutting our wages, closing our schools and health clinics, promising to gut Social Security and Medicare, and waging wars all around the world.

Asked about West's reversal, Occupy New Paltz member James T. commented, "I don't understand how it's a First Amendment right one day and is illegal only two months later. How does that work?"

JASON WEST'S actions should not be sugarcoated. What if a member of Occupy New Paltz, unbeknownst to West, was on parole or probation? What if a member was an undocumented immigrant? What if the police went further in their actions than West wanted or expected (as is evidenced by the brutality exhibited during evictions across the country, as well as on a daily basis in communities of color)? In any of these instances, the eviction would have quickly led to events well beyond West's control.

It is true that Occupy is inexperienced. It is a new movement! Anyone who supports Occupy realizes this, and sees the growing pains it is experiencing as fundamental to its eventual success. People learn through struggle, through practice, through making their own mistakes. That is how our movement will learn how to grow, how to articulate our concerns, and, eventually, how to win.

Occupy can do without police repression, be it backed by Republicans, Democrats, or even local Green party politicians. But repression does teach us an important lesson about the role of government under capitalism.

Mayor West commented to the Oracle, saying that it is not the "Board's job to hold [Occupy's] hand." This is true. The role of the capitalist state, even its local arms, even governments headed by self-identified progressives, is to: maintain "law and order" and "business as usual"; repress those who resist these atrocities; condemn any resistance as "crazy," "a hazard," "a liability," "un-American," "inexperienced," etc.; and, protect the interests of our enemy: the 1 percent, the capitalist class.

What causes progressive politicians to take actions so contrary to their stated principles? Occupiers dealing with local politicians everywhere should ask themselves this question.

No matter how progressive you claim to be, the pressures of participating in the capitalist state are great, especially if you are not attached to a mass workers' movement. You have pressures on your position from people of various class backgrounds, especially those antagonistic to the interests of the 99 percent (pressures from landlords, owners, bankers, and so on). The structures of government force you to carry out policies that violate your principles and, over time, you begin to apologize for those policies.

That is why we must understand change as coming from below, from the people themselves, and not from politicians from on high.

OCCUPY HAS a basic right to set up camp in public space and express our grievances. It does not need permits. It does not need "insurance policies" (certainly not at a recurring price tag of $600). Our predecessors fought and died for the cause of progressive social change and the right to utilize our basic rights.

The former slave and radical abolitionist Frederick Douglass had words for those who favor "law and order" over struggle. In 1857, Douglass wrote:

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

What Occupy needs is to be given the space to learn and grow on its own. The transformation that has occurred in Occupy groups across the country--from a focus mostly on encampments to work around concrete issues facing working people like foreclosures, deportations, police brutality, women's rights, and the like--proves that learning through struggle does work.

Occupy should make it known that those who side with the police and the calls for "law and order" of the bosses are not on our side and not welcome in our movement. There is no place in Occupy for those who will turn our comrades over to the police. To allow such actions go unchallenged would be to open up our movement to further repression and infiltration.

Moreover, as a registered member of the Green Party, I urge Greens everywhere to review West's actions and formulate an appropriate response. Either we stand with Occupy or we remain silent at a critical turning point in history. As the late historian and socialist activist Howard Zinn pointedly noted, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." We should heed his advice.

Contact Mayor West to express your opinions of his attack on Occupy New Paltz by calling 845-255-1413 or e-mailing mayor@villageofnewpaltz.org.

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