Burning occupation

There’s been some complaint about the apparent lack of demands or goals on the part of the Occupy movement. Demonstrators seem concerned about everything from the environment to income disparity to corporate influence on government. When police moved demonstrators out of Zuccotti Park in New York City, foes declared a premature victory. They might as well have hung a “Mission Accomplished” banner over the park.

Occupy Reno, especially, seemed to come under ideological fire from people who demanded radical action—from the comfort of their sofas: “How can a radical group of culture warriors cooperate with the government to achieve their ends?” “The city shuffled them to Moana Lane pool where nobody can see them.” “That street is going to be under construction, and people will be avoiding it in droves.”

Well, let’s just say we’ve seen this tableau played out many times in the past, and groups that only engage in civil disobedience—or even outright lawlessness—are short-lived. But those who work within the system, using it to their advantage, are generally more enduring.

Reno Occupiers don’t have to look very far away or even very far in the past for an example of this. Remember in the latter half of the 1990s when the jurisdictions—including the federal government, Washoe County, and Reno and Sparks—were doing their damnedest to kill the Burning Man festival?

Even the anti-Burning Man rhetoric was similar to the anti-Occupy rhetoric: hippies, dirty, illicit sex and drugs, not paying their way, anarchists, blah, blah.

It’s hard to imagine a place that’s farther out of the public eye than the playa on the Black Rock Desert. And yet, that out of sight, out of mind spot became a fertile breeding ground for the Burning Man meme with all its First Amendment bullshit. There are “burns” all the way to New Zealand now.

The arguments this newspaper made at that time in support of Burning Man are virtually the same as this newspaper made last year when the Reno City Council ran the homeless people into the suburbs, and the arguments we’ll likely be making when and if the Reno City Council decides to kick the Occupiers out: This land is owned by the public, just as the Black Rock Desert is owned by the public, just as the city’s streets and sidewalks are owned by the pubic. If the people want to use their property—particularly to express political speech—it’s government’s responsibility to facilitate that desire.

Government officials, though through their own incompetence, took that park out of the public use. They used the power conferred on them by the people to invest hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to benefit the casinos instead of maintaining property held in the public trust. Occupiers have begun to turn that unused resource into Reno’s People’s Park.

Occupy Reno members were correct to work within the system to find a place to assemble and express themselves politically. They would also be correct to engage in civil disobedience, if that’s what it takes to make their points. The appropriateness of the Moana Lane Pool as a symbol for what’s gone wrong in this country—with its unused and unmaintained buildings, soil for gardening, water resources, expansive roof for solar power, geothermal well—almost appears as though there was method to the madness.

This is beginning to look more and more like a win-win for the Reno government and the Occupy movement.