Here’s another stark inequality that has come to characterize our nation: for every 99 Occupy Wall Street protestors who’ve been arrested, about one millionth of one fat cat has been arrested. Okay, I realize you can’t arrest a tiny slice of a fat cat, no matter how fat, so let me put it this way: Over a thousand Americans have been arrested around the country for protesting Wall Street in recent weeks, according to estimates. But after a half hour scouring the web, I can only find a handful of instances of financiers or speculators being arrested for causing the collapse of our economy back in 2008 – that’s out of the hundreds of thousands who work for the Money Industry. Not one of the titans of Wall Street – the hundred-million-dollar-a-year wizards who were manipulating our economy for their personal pleasure – have been perp-walked into a paddy wagon, much less prosecuted.
The internet’s aflame with this irony, so there’s no point in belaboring it.
More important, but far less noticed, is the nature of the crime for which most of the 99% protestors have been arrested: exercising what many Americans consider basic First Amendment rights – the freedom of speech and assembly. As we’ve witnessed over the last few weeks, in many places in this country you have no First Amendment right to walk down a street, sleep in a park, enter a public building. This isn’t anything new: under many court rulings interpreting the US Constitution, government can place “reasonable” restrictions on your rights, so as to protect the rights of others not to be disturbed.
That made sense back when “rights” belonged only to human beings.
But we now live in a new day, under a different view of the Constitution, courtesy of five members of the United States Supreme Court. According to their infamous decision in the Citizens United case, corporations have the same First Amendment rights as human beings when it comes to the freedom to express themselves by spending money to buy elections or influence votes.
There’s just one hitch to the Supreme Court’s equation of humans with corporations: when corporations exercise their First Amendment right to spend money, they completely overwhelm the First Amendment rights of humans. Sure, you can exercise your First Amendment right to donate a few bucks to a candidate for public office, or to a ballot initiative. But once a corporation opens its bank vault, your freedom of speech right is obliterated.
It used to be that the Supreme Court upheld laws that put “reasonable” restrictions on corporate spending in politics, under the theory that one person’s exercise of their rights should not disturb another’s. But Citizens United stripped that quaint notion from the law books. Until we amend the Constitution, the fat cats get to make the laws and break the laws. The rest of us have the right to remain silenced.
This travesty of democracy is now laid bare in cities and towns throughout the United States. There’s been plenty of fun poked at the strange hand gestures developed by the Occupy Wall Street supporters to substitute for applause or boos – so as not to disturb the peace of the nearby corporations. Protestors who dare to up the decibel level by using more advanced technology – a megaphone – in a public park in New York City, in the hope they can make themselves heard merely across the street, face arrest. Meanwhile, up in the executive suites, a small number of stupendously wealthy and powerful individuals order billions of dollars worth of lobbyists, lawyers and propaganda pumped into our democracy every year. It’s a deafening and unstoppable inundation… intended to make sure no one can hear what the rest of us have to say.