"What are we talkin' bout? Practice? We talkin' bout practice, man. We not even talking about the game," said former NBA superstar Allen Iverson almost ten years ago. His now memorable words came to mind when I read that Los Angeles officials are negotiating with Occupy protesters to break down the camp at City Hall Park and relocate it. Why will the many weeks' long peaceful protest and encampment be closed down, you may ask? Is it concern over public health? Nope. Is it a threat to public safety? Think again. It's the lawn.
"That's a piece of dirt, it's not sustainable ecologically and it's only going to get worse and worse," Chief Beck said, talking about the lawn surrounding City Hall. "We need to find either a different location or a different medium for them to use."
What are we talkin' bout? The lawn? We talkin' bout the lawn, people!
In cities across the country, mayors are looking for, and often finding, ways to justify trumping the First Amendment right of protesters. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg explained that the increasing number of tents erected in the park made it difficult for the emergency services to ensure the protesters' safety, and the New York police then moved in, under cover of night, to clear the park of protesters and tents. There are reasons to question just how persuasive Bloomberg's justification was, but it at least sounds weighty.
Our local elected officials deserve credit, tremendous credit, for working with the occupiers in instead of resorting to forcible evictions and mass arrests, as we've seen in other "Occupied" cities. Our elected officials have remained true to our constitutional values, and we applaud them for choosing a different path from their peers in New York and Oakland.
But, in balancing competing rights and interests, our elected officials must remember that on the one hand there is the First Amendment and the rights of free speech and assembly -- fundamental rights that are critical to the health and well-being of our democracy -- and on the other hand there is, say it with me, the lawn and its health and appearance.
(To be fair, as City Hall Park General Manager John Kirk Mukri outlined in a letter addressed to Mayor Villaraigosa: "Soil has become compacted and extremely dry in turf areas and around trees. Trees and other plants are suffering from a lack of water and nutrients... Physical damage has been caused to the irrigation system and controllers.")
I am from Southern California, born and raised here, and I know how fanatical we can be about our lawns. There is a teachable moment here: not only about whether the lawn surrounding City Hall was a wise use of water and money in a time of economic crisis, but more important, about how few interests should ever be permitted to trump our First Amendment rights.
What are we talkin' bout? The First Amendment? We talkin' bout the First Amendment, people!
Streets, parks, and other public areas and forums have been held open to the public for speech and assembly "from time immemorial." City Hall Park should be no different; in fact, it has been designated as parkland since 1927.
The occupiers are using City Hall Park for a constitutionally hallowed purpose: they are exercising their rights of speech and assembly to bring social, economic, and political problems to the forefront of City Hall's attention and to attention of the local community. By their continued presence, they are attempting to prevent these problems from being ignored and omitted from our political discussions. Whatever one may think of the merits of the protest and its message, there is no doubt that the occupiers have sparked a citywide and indeed nationwide debate. This is precisely what the First Amendment is designed to do.
I fear, and we should all fear, that in relocating the occupiers the City will undermine free speech and make it more difficult for those assembled to reach their intended audience -- all in the name of protecting the lawn.
Let's remain calm. There is something to see here. And it's our democracy at work. So let's remember that we are talking about the First Amendment, people.