It’s no secret that for the past two months, the Occupy movement has been entrenching itself about as much under the skin of the Tea Party as they have in the nation’s parks and plazas. One of the Tea Party’s most common criticisms has been that the Occupiers are nothing by layabouts whose only ambition is a free ride from big government. It’s this very argument that inspired Michelle Bachmann to argue that ‘the essence of what Occupy Wall Street stands for is having other people pay for their stuff.’ It’s also behind the Richmond Tea Party’s accusation of favoritism from the city’s government toward the three-week encampment of Occupy Richmond.
Their complaint? That they were notified of an audit soon after demanding a $10,000 refund for the $10,000 that they’ve paid in permits and fees for their rallies in Kanawha Plaza—the same Plaza that hosted Occupy Richmond for three weeks before it was raided by city police and the occupants’ belongings were carelessly bulldozed. Not surprisingly, the audit is being used by the Tea Party as further evidence of the city’s double standard in favor of Occupy Richmond. Like most of the Tea Party’s critiques, this one is about as tenuous as it is hostile, and that’s why I was so utterly confounded to read the December 2nd FoxNews.com headline:
“Occupy Richmond to Tea Party: We’re on Your Side.”
Now, I don’t think that even their sympathizers would defend the Tea Party as being particularly well-reasoned critics, so why would their rival movement bother standing beside them now? According to a statement released on Occupy Richmond’s website, it is all about their shared values.
“Occupy Richmond believes in absolute free speech, including the right to criticize the government without fear of retribution … Not only do we call on the city to drop the audit, but we also demand the immediate refund of any money paid specifically to secure the Tea Party’s free speech and assembly privileges.
Don’t get me wrong, I commend Occupy Richmond’s altruism, and I appreciate the good press that can come from their taking the moral high road. The problem I have with the show of support is the damage it does to the Occupy movement by de-politicizing and de-contextualizing their struggle for public space. What this statement implies is that the movements are similar not only in their populist approach, but also in their political make-up and relationship to government. This is simply not so, and something that mustn’t be confused.
Like I argued in an October 23rd post, the Tea Party has emerged out of radically different conditions than the Occupy movement. Namely, they are based on the free and rampant accumulation of wealth, rather than the common good. They are supported by powerful politicians and even more powerful corporations. This is precisely what allows the Tea Party to pay for their legal right to hold rallies without fear of being violently evicted. And it’s precisely the lack of this kind of support that has made the Occupy movement such a moral force in American politics.
It’s not about the money, not that the Tea Party can’t afford it. It’s about what makes a public space into an occupied space, into a political statement in itself. By sticking themselves in the same boat as the Tea Party, Occupy Richmond isn’t just ignoring their contention with the Tea Party, they’re white washing the fundamental antagonism that made them necessary in the first place.