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The 'Occupy' Protests and the Burden of the City

As cities like Oakland and Atlanta crack down, remember the vital civic role city centers play


I woke up Wednesday morning to images of the Oakland Police Department violently repressing Occupy Oakland protestors with tear gas and flash grenades. Instinctively I rebel against that kind of treatment of non-violent demonstrators, and I have some not-so-fond recollections of receiving somewhat similar treatment over a decade ago in my student/protestor days. Still, as I’ve gotten older, wiser, and more interested in municipal government it’s become hard for me not to have some sympathy with big city police departments forced to grapple with mass protests. 


Mass protests do require a police presence of some kind. And the presence can be costly. The NYPD has spent millions on overtime related to the goings-on in Zuccotti Park. Occupy Philly had already cost Philadelphia a couple of hundred thousand dollars as of October 13. And of course the direct financial costs are just a small slice of the issue. The true cost isn’t the money spent on extra overtime so much as it is the drag on police department’s time, time that could be used on other crime-frighting activities. To opportunistic critics like Michelle Malkin, this is a reason to condemn the protests, but it should be seen as underscoring the vital cultural and civic role of city centers even in a largely suburban nation.


Nobody wants to occupy the strip mall or the office park or the park and ride lot. Not today and not ever. Core municipalities have a special role as gathering places, focal points, and hubs of activity. 


It’s part of what makes them exciting places to be, but it also gives them unique burdens. A suburban jurisdiction needs to police itself and provide parks for its citizens, but doesn’t worry about playing host to the various demonstrations, rallies, marches, and counter-protests that are at the heart of American civic life. But rather than support city centers, our political system tends to sap resources away from them. On a day-to-day basis, for example, taxpayers in cities are supporting state police agencies whose overwhelming function is to assist rural areas with investigations and patrol suburban highways. Transportation spending is needless biased in favor of new construction rather than maintaining older infrastructure in the center. 


Still, while we wait for reform protestors should be mindful of where the specific burden of their actions lies. The aim of civil disobedience is to inconvenience the people with the authority to redress grievances. The municipal governments of Oakland, Atlanta, and other “occupied” cities featuring tense relationships between demonstrators and the authorities don’t fit the bill. 

About the Author

  • Matthew Yglesias
    Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.