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Pussy Riot, Protests and Occupy Columbia

By Kevin Fisher
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 |
Life is full of coincidences, but I may be the only person in the world who can say this: I was in Moscow during the trial of Pussy Riot, and in Columbia during the arrest and ensuing legal proceedings involving the Occupy Columbia protesters.

These encounters with history make me feel a nostalgic kinship with Mr. Peabody, the on-the-scenes-of-history cartoon character of my youth who is about to re-emerge in a new animated feature film. If, like me, you remember the cool dog with glasses who appeared in the same show as Rocky and Bullwinkle, you’re hoping Hollywood does him justice all these years later.

In the meantime, I’ll get in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback machine and take you along to Moscow during July of 2012. As the Pussy Riot trial was underway, we visited the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, where the band had launched its protest against Vladimir Putin, who they said was attempting to take Russia back to the dark days of the Soviet Union, both domestically and internationally. Gee, think they were right?

As Putin’s troops move to take the Ukraine and dissent in Russia is increasingly crushed, we should pause for a moment to celebrate what Pussy Riot did in Moscow and what Occupy Columbia did here.

Which is not to say either was totally in the right. Having stood in the silent, sacred and spectacular Cathedral of Christ the Savior and observed the environment of religious reverence there, I can assure you that many Russians — including anti-Putin Russians — felt it was not the place for Pussy Riot to attack him.

But it was Putin’s overreaction to the event that made Pussy Riot famous and elevated their protest. So it went in Columbia as well, as the Occupy Columbia group and its protest were elevated late in 2011 when Gov. Nikki Haley overreacted and had members of the group arrested for violating a law against camping and sleeping on the State House grounds that it turned out did not exist.

In the midst of a sudden monsoon that added drama to the moment, 17 Occupy Columbia protestors were handcuffed and removed from the State House grounds. Once it was determined that no law had been violated, the charges were dropped — and a law was passed by the Legislature to prevent future overnight camping and sleeping on the State House grounds.

Make no mistake: I agree with Gov. Haley and the Legislature that protesters should not be allowed to sleep or camp on the State House grounds. Those grounds belong to all of the people, and should not be occupied, literally, by any of us.

That said, I also oppose any restraint on the right of Occupy Columbia or any other group to protest at the State House as long as they do so peacefully and in a manner that does not infringe on the rights of others. From school children to average citizens, everyone should be able to visit and enjoy those grounds, unobstructed by tents and Port-a-Johns, etc.

Putin got his revenge on Pussy Riot, with two of the young women sentenced to years in prison for “hooliganism.” The sentence was condemned around the globe, and Putin backed off it as the Sochi Olympics approached, issuing pardons and releasing the two young mothers. (Of course, band members were later roughed up when they tried to protest at the games.)

Meanwhile, here in Columbia the charges were appropriately dropped against the Occupy Columbia protesters, who then went on to sue Gov. Haley for having them inappropriately arrested in the first place.

In a victory for the rule of law, the state of South Carolina recently agreed to settle with the Occupy Columbia protesters for $192,000. Gov. Haley refused to endorse the settlement, a mistake on her part that made her look vindictive.

While Occupy Columbia had its shortcomings, philosophically and otherwise, it was a good thing. Authority needs to be challenged, be it from the left by the Occupy groups or from the right by Tea Party groups, both of which have contributed some valuable hell-raising to a political system much in need of it.

An old John Mellencamp song says, “I fight authority, authority always wins.” But as Occupy Columbia showed both in beating the rap and collecting the $192,000, authority doesn’t always win after all. Good for them.

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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