Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Democracy is No Place for the People

Americans love democracy so much that some will kill or attempt to harm those who they think oppose it.
(Image from Flickr, by dahnielson)

Yet what is it that they love so much?

If it is the notion that “The People” get make the social and political decisions that most impact their own lives, they are in love with a fantasy that has never existed. Democracy is about voting for others who get to make these decisions and almost always in the interests of the wealthiest subset of “The People.”

Yet even the part of democracy that does include “the people,” (e.g., voting or speaking at public hearings), includes them only so long as they glorify the system and do not challenge it. Consider the case of Oakland, California, which aborted a meeting of their city council last week rather than endure public criticism and protests of yet another murder of an unarmed black man by the police.

The most recent police shooting involved the death of teenager Alan Blueford, who was killed by police in April, just prior to his high school graduation. Police say he had been brandishing a gun. His family and witnesses deny the charges and are demanding a full investigation, accusing the police of lying. Blueford’s mother said she wanted changes in how the police department is run so that police were more accountable to and had deeper understanding of the communities in which they work. She also accused council members of turning their heads when she spoke of her grief and expressed outrage and frustration that they would shut off the microphone when she spoke. (Blueford’s comments were broadcast on KPFA’s “Letters and Politics,” on October 3, 2012.

Meanwhile, a recent court-ordered report blasted the Oakland police department for failing to make adequate improvements in how it addresses deadly force by police, and in another lawsuit, lawyers are expected to ask for federal oversight of the Oakland police department for failing to make court-ordered reforms.

The city council met again yesterday in closed session to decide how to prevent such disruptions of its meetings in the future. When the closed door session ended and the “public” portion of the meeting began, attendees found the balcony closed and the doors barricaded, with seating reduced by 50% and more than 100 people barred from getting inside.

One might argue that the city council has important business to attend to and that it cannot be hampered by protests or filibustering by unelected members of the public. The public be damned if they cannot understand this simple fact. After all, they elected the council members and should be satisfied with what the council members do and how they do it.

Yet it seems as though some Oakland residents have a different understanding of democracy, one in which they get to directly influence the agenda and decisions made by their representatives. If the city council cannot be bothered to prioritize and resolve the problem of police violence, then perhaps they need more forceful persuasion by having to face so many angry, frustrated and grieving constituents that they must stay extra late just to hear them all, let alone have time for their other business.

The Oakland city council’s new policies are designed to have the opposite effect. It will become harder for residents to use the democratic process to air their grievances or to use their voices and bodies to disrupt or commandeer council meetings. However, this won’t be a substantive change from the status quo. The elected officials will continue to be the ones who make the decisions, listening or not to the concerns of their constituents. But when they choose to ignore “the people,” they will now do so with less blowback. Their decisions will still heavily favor the interests of the city’s wealthiest business leaders, but now with less public oversight and scrutiny. And “the people” will not have any less say in the policy matters that affect them; it will simply be more difficult for them to irritate their elected leaders when things don’t go their way.

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