Irvine City Council adopts Occupation

City governments have options in dealing with dissent, including the Occupy campaigns.  In Irvine, the heart of Orange County where I live, the City Council unanimously endorsed an agreement that will allow an Occupation in front of City Hall indefinitely.

The vote (5-0) followed a Council meeting in which the Occupiers offered testimony about their goals; the Councilors emphasized how impressed they were with the seriousness of the protest effort.

The activists were happy (see below):

Recall that Orange County politics generally veers heavily to the right when considering what this means.  A few notes:

1.  Irvine’s City Council, although chosen in nonpartisan elections, has been consistently comprised of 2 conservative and 3 vaguely liberal members.

2.  In a reasonably small city like Irvine, the Councilors can view the demonstrators as neighbors, not simply as constituents.  This should generate more civility, mutual respect, and tolerance.

3.  In a planned suburban community, the actual disruption (and attention) a small tent city in front of City Hall can generate is far more limited than in a dense urban environment.

All this said, what does the endorsement mean for the politics of the Occupy movement?  While the City Council vote made local news –and will probably circulate nationally for a while as a contrast to the forceful efforts to close Occupations in Oakland and Atlanta, it’s now up to the local Occupiers to generate attention and make meaningful politics.  This is no easy matter.

Long ago, social theorists considered whether tolerance could have repressive effects.  The basic argument was that democratic countries could treat dissidents like toddlers who need to cry themselves out: let them do so, release the pressure, and they’ll go away.

Although the concept of “repressive tolerance” has generally disappeared in academic social science, US governments have developed numerous ways to allow protest without disruption and, generally, to minimize the effects of protest events.  Cities have elaborate permitting systems for demonstrators; police departments generally negotiate with organizers before highly choreographed demonstrations so that only people who plan to get arrested will get arrested and demonstrations will start and end on time without too much hassle; and localities, including college campuses, can designate “free speech zones,” where advocates can advocate safely–and passersby can pass by.

The Occupy demonstrations have challenged the norms of ritualized protest, and local governments are exploring ways to manage the politics and the disruption.  It’s hard to think many mayors will look to Atlanta or Oakland as helpful models.  Is Irvine a viable alternative?

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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