The Union Leader's Thursday editorial on the Occupy New Hampshire trial in Manchester demands a well-informed response. If the editors had sat in the courtroom with us, perhaps they would understand this issue better. I'll try to explain what this case is really about.
As a witness at the trial and, in fact, a participant in the Occupy events, and as a current state representative elected as a Republican, yet respected by both sides of the aisle, I gladly share my perspective, as I did with the court in testimony.
The judge wasn't laughing, as he commented at the end of the day that this was a significant legal matter and requested serious written summaries. What did he see that the Union Leader editors didn't? The defense had made a solid case, using not the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but New Hampshire Constitution's Articles 22, 32 and 10.
Part I Article 22 of the New Hampshire Constitution, New Hampshire's version of the “First” Amendment, is much stronger than the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, requiring that free speech “ought” to be “inviolably preserved,” argued as a duty of the state to affirmatively defend free speech, not merely “make no law abridging” as in the U.S. Constitution.
Article 32 guarantees the right of assembly in an “orderly and peaceable manner,” which the Manchester police chief agreed was the case at the Occupy protest.
Testimony showed that getting elected representatives' attention is too difficult, and money is listened to more than people. Due to grievances not being heard, Article 10 is crystal clear: If government isn't working for the people, if we're sliding down the slope losing liberty, it is the duty of people to step up and do something.
What the Occupiers in Manchester's Veteran's Memorial Park were doing wasn't merely protest, it wasn't just “camping”; it was a political gathering, it was open debate, it modeled what a different solution could look like. Attendees, numbering in the hundreds before the authorities stifled this political convention, included union activists, libertarians, anti-war peaceniks, veterans, anarchists and politicos. Explicit discussion of legal rights occurred. The invoking of Article 10 was on the lips of everyone.
I know, I “human mic”- read Article 10 to the crowd, and they so passionately repeated it, cheering, liberals and conservatives alike, all understanding that was why they were standing in the park together. Video of this moment, entered into evidence, caused one neutral lawyer observing the trial in the back of the court to later say “(it) brought tears to my eyes” and a new understanding of what Occupy was about.
The Occupiers' trial isn't over if their dismissal motion is denied: Five arrested will have a jury trial, and a likely appeal. If dismissed, the park will be re-occupied. Otherwise, if the New Hampshire Supreme Court fails to uphold these fundamental rights, I fear we're in deeper trouble and a revolution will look more like the Arab Spring than our usual bloodless elections.
Rasmussen national polls indicate that only 20 percent of Americans believe we are consenting to our government anymore. So when the 80 percent refuse to consent as it's clearer and clearer rights are vanishing, Obamacare is a tax except when it's not a tax, and Citizens United says money is more important than people, what will that revolt look like?
Occupiers are seeking a revolution of consensus, nonviolence and, at least here in New Hampshire, diverse political views coming together in a new populism. My two years as a state representative showed, to my horror, that even our system, most representative, most open anywhere in the United States, is badly broken, and that money has corrupted all politics.
While change is possible, the molasses is hardening more and more like concrete. I am not alone; freshmen senators (resigning after one term) and a huge freshman class of representatives all learned through repeated defeats, that the status quo (of both parties) protects itself well.
Are we ready for revolution yet? No, but we near the cusp. Shutting down the Occupy protest only pushed things in the wrong direction, and probably in violation of constitutional rights. The court will have a tough time saying otherwise.
Rep. Seth Cohn is a Republican from Canterbury.