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UN Envoy Sharply Criticizes US Local Governments for Repressive Actions Against OWS Protesters

I’ve seen all kinds of hand-wringing over how the focus on Occupy encampments holding onto or getting driven out of their physical space has unwisely shifted the focus away from their core message of inequality and an economy that doesn’t work for anyone but the top 1%. This is true to a certain extent, although the history of busted-up occupations in America shows that this never stops the activists from building a wide-ranging movement outside of that.

At the same time, however, it’s not like these protesters asked or deserved to get pepper sprayed, beaten, and otherwise brutalized when they decided to demonstrate against the activities of Wall Street banks and their government. They weren’t the first movers here; they merely voiced their dissent in a public space. And asking the protesters to give up on that aspect of things and move on to promoting their core message also asks them to give up on the rights to free speech and free assembly. Last time I checked, these are still nominally rights accorded to Americans, and if you give those away, it becomes less likely to have gains on any other rights taken away by government overreach. Why would the middle class benefit from government policy if their effort to speak out against injustice is so brutally and efficiently silenced?

So it is, then, that we have a United Nations envoy making the obvious point that many would rather avoid, that the responses to Occupy Wall Street and other protests go against the universal right of freedom of expression.

The United Nations envoy for freedom of expression is drafting an official communication to the U.S. government demanding to know why federal officials are not protecting the rights of Occupy demonstrators whose protests are being disbanded — sometimes violently — by local authorities.

Frank La Rue, who serves as the U.N. “special rapporteur” for the protection of free expression, told HuffPost in an interview that the crackdowns against Occupy protesters appear to be violating their human and constitutional rights.

“I believe in city ordinances and I believe in maintaining urban order,” he said Thursday. “But on the other hand I also believe that the state — in this case the federal state — has an obligation to protect and promote human rights.”

“If I were going to pit a city ordinance against human rights, I would always take human rights,” he continued.

It’s really not a stretch to say that the response shown to protesters throughout the country approaches human rights abuses. Rights begin at me and end at you; when my expression of rights imposes on yours, it’s up to government to mediate that exchange. But that’s not even close to where we are at with this. Instead, local governments have used outsized force to compel protesters to leave public space, often with violent use of force. That should not be tolerated.

While I’ve consistently said that the history of occupations in the United States tends toward repression (and that this only serves to increase the size and scope of the movement behind the occupations), that doesn’t make it right or even legal.

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David Dayen

David Dayen