December 26th, 2011 10:40 EST
Government Wants You to Think its Records Are Private--They're Not
A way to wrest government from the political class
A litmus test is available to Occupy Wall Street to determine just how responsive government is willing to be or how repressive.
Occupy our town and city halls, our county offices. Not as a mob, not hit or miss, but carefully targeting issues and offices. Practice citizen journalism. Such a test will quickly paint a broad picture of the extent to which the people still own government.
Protesters might ask themselves who understands accounting, who can read a budget, who can write a report. Then decide what aspect of government should be examined. There doesn`t have to be a taint of corruption. Just shine a spotlight on something the protesters would like to understand "the police budget, for example.
Public offices belong to the people. The records in them belong to the people. But effective government requires that officials ought to be able to define the conditions under which access to public offices and records is allowed in order not to cripple day-to-day government. The protesters should understand and accept this. But they should also insist on access. The more the press and the public ignore public records the more secretive government becomes.
City after city has behaved as if the parks are the lawns of a secretariat, an official elite. The parks are in fact the village greens on which our Founding Fathers anticipated we would assemble and give our sentiments and complaints voice. Having witnessed this denial of the parks to the public that owns them we should now logically ask ourselves whether government at all levels believes it can deny us access to our public buildings and their records.
The U.S. Supreme Court has declared a corporation to be a person; would it declare a movement to be a person, a movement like Occupy? The question notwithstanding, individuals don`t forfeit their rights to know because they have joined a movement.
Every action, good or bad, leaves a paper or digital trail, or both. Those trails and the repositories in which they are kept belong to the people. The people have a right to examine them, to discuss them, to call them into question. They do not have a right to disrupt government "and thereby to defeat themselves. Government at every level resists sharing the record of its behavior. It seeks to convey the impression that the record is not public, that public inquiry is contrary to efficient government, that inquiries are unreasonable, but the truth is that the American government was designed by our founders to transparent, to be witnessed, to be examined, and to be changed when necessary. No better test of government`s demeanor toward the people exists at this moment in our history than public scrutiny of the records.
What records, you may ask? It would depend on the interests of the group making inquiries. Inquiries could be made in the smallest towns and in Washington at the various departments and agencies. It`s one thing to shout slogans, it`s another thing to shake the political foundations of the country by simply reading what the politicians and bureaucrats have done. Start with basics. What do we know about the parks that have been cleared of protests? What do we know about the police who cleared them?
We endure a mainstream press that no longer vigilantly examines these records. The Occupy movement can take over that function and use the Internet to discuss what it finds. Government may explain records, government should explain them, but it has no right to insist on an authorized version. The public has the right to examine the records and reach its own conclusions, and that is what it should now do. The press would like us to believe it no longer covers local and regional government except for laughs because it can`t afford to, but that`s half the story, as usual. The press didn`t inquire into the housing boom that resulted in a worldwide economic bust because it was deriving advertising revenues from banksters and developers. Its silence was bought.
This is the way to take government back from the official governing class, from professional politicians and their corporate masters.
Here is an example. The police in Albany have cleared the public parks of the public. Okay, let`s examine the police budget. They have interrogated the public and in some cases arrested members of the public. They have pepper-sprayed the public and in some cases provoked the public. Let`s examine the public money they`re spending to commit these acts against the public. It can be done. The public has the right. But it should be done smartly and lawfully. Find an accountant among the protesters, find a writer, find a computer analyst, and then demand access to the records "politely and insistently. What happens? We`ll see, and in the seeing we`ll learn just who government thinks it is serving.
The federal government often uses national security as an excuse to withhold records. What excuses will our towns, cities, counties and states use? We should find out.
All government is local. The right wing has demonized the federal government in Washington to distract the public from the abject failure of local government, dominated in wide rural and suburban areas by Republicans, to operate honestly, efficiently and economically. The Occupy movement can and should examine local government at every level, especially where there is a hint of wrongdoing. This is the way to reform our society, and the means are at hand. The occupiers come from all walks of life, all professions, all trades, and from among them can be formed task forces of citizen journalists.
In this way the Occupy movement can restore the vision of the Founding Fathers.
Government at every level seeks to convey the idea that its buildings and its records are off bounds to the public. We speak of the mayor`s office, but his office is our office and so is everything in it except his personal property. We speak of the county`s hall of records or the city`s, but they`re our halls of records. We paid for every cent. And while we do not have the right to disrupt, we have the absolute right to inquire. This is the way to make sure the records are public and government is transparent.
We hear politicians saying people don`t come to hearings, don`t attend meetings. They love it when we don`t participate and they love to score points deploring it. And they love it when we come to hear them and ask a few questions "they call that participation. But real participation means examining the records. It means reading the budgets and asking question. Oh, the treasurer says, I don`t have time to answer those questions. The hell he doesn`t. We pay him, and he damned well better respond to our questions. But that`s not what has been going on. With the demise of a vigilant local press, government has been getting away with the removal of government from the people. We need to get it back.
The federal government operates under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. It`s an imperfect law that enables the press to wrest certain records from the government that the government is unwilling to give up, but its very premise inhibits access and promotes opacity in government. Each state has similar laws defining access to records and ostensibly upholding the public`s right to know. But what underlies these laws is the idea that the public doesn`t have the right to know everything, and there`s the rub, because defining what the public does have the right to know is dicey business and full of loopholes.
These laws were enacted largely because the press and advocacy groups were having trouble getting records. But the press and these groups conceded a great deal of ground in order to get these laws passed.
In theory it should be much easier to access local documents. And the degree to which inquirers are thwarted tells you a great deal not only about the transparency of government but also its integrity. Where resistance to public inquiry is strong there is likely to be corruption. The political class likes to think of government the way Mafiosi think of the Mafia, as Cosa Nostra, our thing. But government is the people`s thing.
Djelloul Marbrook`s first book, Far from Algiers (Kent State University Press, 2008) won the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry. Artists` Hill, an excerpt from his unpublished novel, Crowds of One, won the 2008 Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction. Artemisia`s Wolf, a novella, was published by Prakash Books of India early in 2011. Alice Miller`s Room, a novella, was published in 1999 by OnlineOriginals.com (UK) as an e-book, and Bliss Plot Press of Woodstock, NY, recently published his novella, Saraceno, as an e-book. Orbis (UK), Smashwords.com, Potomac Review (Maryland) and Prima Materia (New York). His second book of poems is Brushstrokes and Glances (Deerbrook Editions, 2010). Recent poems were published by American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Oberon, Meadowland Review, The Same, Reed, The Ledge, Poemeleon, Poets Against War, Fledgling Rag, Daylight Burglary, Le Zaporogue, Atticus, Long Island Quarterly, ReDactions, Istanbul Literary Review, Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review, Damazine, Perpetuum Mobile, Attic, and Chronogram. A retired newspaper editor and Navy veteran, he lives in Germantown, NY, with his wife Marilyn, and has lifelong ties to Woodstock.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com