Monday, January 16, 2012

Occupy the … wait, where's our stuff? Do I smell gas?

[For much of this post I'm going to be taking the Portland Police at their word, as a result I will say things that are completely absurd. This is because what the police said was completely absurd. In the second half of this post I will discuss the issue seriously.]

While people were distracted by the New Hampshire Primary, thinking it an important part of our democracy and considering it to have important implications on our future, someone took that moment to rob and vandalize the local Occupy. Visual media was stolen, gas lines were cut.

The police responded by laughing in the faces of the people who reported it.

The visual media was of two forms, one was professionally made advertising grade signs that could have been used for years to come, should there have been a need, had they not been stolen. The other more numerous form was that of hand made art scheduled to be used in an art opening in Kennebunkport in April.

The police explained that signs have no value, which would come as a surprise to those who make signs for a living as well as every business that has never had to purchase a sign in the history of the word. Signs cost money to make and thus have very specific monetary value associated with them, but the police had apparently been watching a movie that had a representative of Hollywood-Zen in it because to them money isn't value, and stuff is just stuff, so losing stuff that's worth money isn't losing anything of value, so thus nothing was wrong and they didn't have to open an investigation of the theft of stuff that's worth money.

The police had the same reaction to the art, in fact there is no evidence that they distinguished between the two. (Which is weird. The professionally made signs had definite dollar values attached to them -which, again, were dismissed as not counting- artwork doesn't have a definite price until it's actually sold and even then the price is only certain at the moment of sale.) Thus they have determined that art has no value. I am not affiliated with the Portland Museum of Art or any of the art galleries that exist in Portland, but I can't imagine any of them feel particularly pleased to learn that according to the police art has no value and thus art theft does not need to be investigated.

You'd think the police would still investigate the breaking in that would be involved, and thus those with art could comfort themselves that there would be some kind of investigation, but then we have to consider how they treated the gas lines. But we'll get to that later.

Before we go there, there was an explanation beyond simply that nothing that was stolen was of any value since monetary value and artistic value don't count. (I'd have to check, but I don't think they said what does count.) You see, since everyone was paying attention to the New Hampshire Primary, there was no one sanding in front of every piece of visual media staring at it and telling all comers, “Don't steal this.” As a result, it was considered unattended in a public place. Like a car left on the side of the street.

Makes sense, there was no attendant and the place was public. Perfectly valid reasoning, I'd say and I hope you would agree. But here's something you might not know: when someone takes something that's been left unattended in a public place that's ok so that's not a police issue. So says the Portland police.

By that logic there is an abandoned car on one side of my street and an abandoned pick up truck on the opposite side right now at this moment. I do not live in a private community, that street is public property. Thus, according to the Portland police if someone, not the owner, comes and takes either of them without the owner's knowledge or consent that is not a police issue and the police should not open an investigation. But cars and trucks cost money, you might protest. That would fall on deaf ears because the Portland police have determined that monetary value doesn't count.

Fortunately I live in South Portland, which is a different city from Portland, so I don't think that I have to worry about that same thing happening here.

Cars are the thing I think of being left unattended on public property the most, but a better analogy would be a bike. If someone were to come by a place where a bunch of bikes had been chained up, systemically cut every bicycle chain (the chains used to lock the bikes, not the drive chains), and then take all of the bikes, that would actually be a better analogy for what happened. The art and signs may have been left temporarily unattended, but they were not left unsecured. Now what they were secured with wasn't as durable as a bicycle chain (no one was actually expecting a robbery), and so cutting those things wouldn't be as hard. On the other hand it's hard to imagine enough bikes in one place in Portland to make the thefts equivalent in terms of numbers. Every single sign was stolen, every single artwork was stolen. The theft probably required a truck to move all the loot.

Anyway, monetary value doesn't count, artistic value doesn't count, and sentimental value sure as hell doesn't count.

So the next time you're in Portland, don't park on the street and bring your bike into the building with you. If someone asks why you have a bike in the elevator, just explain that the Portland police said that if you leave it chained up outside and it gets stolen they will not investigate because it was unattended in public and it doesn't have value. It costs money, but that's not value.

Ok, so I said I'd get back to the gas lines. After doing their whole, “What is anything worth? Sure it has monetary value but that's not real value, is it?” thing, and after explaining that anyone can steal any car parked at a city meter (a city meter is a sure sign that the space the car is in is city, and thus public, property) because it's been left unattended in public, the police were confronted with another concern. What about the cut gas lines?

It's a good question. They redefined “value” in such a way that you could rob a bank and they'd go, “Eh, it's only money. Nothing of value was lost,” and thus not investigate. They've used a version of “unattended in public = will not investigate” which makes it so that every car in the city parked on a city street, and there are a lot of cars parked on the street, or in a public lot (like say the police station's lot) is now fair game. But surely they still recognize that cut gas lines are dangerous and if someone goes around cutting gas lines that needs some kind of follow up, right?

No. Of course not. That's when they laughed. If someone cuts a gas line in Portland, the police will not investigate. They will laugh at the person whose gas line was cut.

And that is truly disturbing.


Now, in all seriousness, do I think that the police would refuse to investigate a stolen car because it had been left unattended in public? No. Do I think they really believe their pseudo-Zen bullshit* line of reasoning about not needing to investigate because monetary value isn't real value? No. Do I think that the police would have done the same thing if the art were being used in an art opening instead of just scheduled to be used as such? No.

I don't think they meant what they said. I don't think that the believe monetary value isn't real value, I don't think they believe that art theft doesn't count, I don't think they believe “unattended in public” means “steal this and the police will let you get away with it.” I don't think they believed any of it.

I think what probably happened is twofold.

First, I think that they consider the members of the occupy movement to be people without worth and therefore they assume that the occupiers' stuff is likewise worthless. I don't think they actually considered what they were saying when they pronounced the monetary value of the stuff stolen to not equate to real value. I think instead they saw the lack of value of the stuff stolen to be a consequence of the lack of value of the people it was stolen from.

I think it was that simple. The occupiers have no value so their stuff must have no value. Therefore one doesn't have to tally up exactly what the dollar value of the stolen stuff is, you've already determined it has no value. Monetary value doesn't even enter into the reasoning and gets dismissed entirely. Of course they don't have anything of value, just look at them. Who cares how much it costs?

Yes, they said that monetary value doesn't count for anything, but I think that was more collateral than the central thrust of their argument. I think it was just something they had to have in order to maintain their original conclusion of, “The occupiers couldn't have had anything of value in the first place.” Given that some of the stuff taken had clearly identifiable monetary value, one needs claim that monetary value doesn't count to maintain that belief.

That's not good, and it shouldn't happen, but at least it only involves threats to property. The problem is that that can't be the whole story because of the gas lines. It doesn't matter whether you consider someone worthless or the best thing ever, if their gas line is cut that's dangerous.

That cuts across any class divide. It cuts across judgments of the person, it is a pretty much universal truth. A cut gas line is dangerous. It doesn't matter if you think there's no way someone could possibly have anything of value to steal, if their gas line was cut that's a very clear problem. It's a threat that needs to be taken seriously.

And yet, it wasn't. That brings me to my second thought about what really happened.

I think that the police simply don't like the occupiers and so were thinking about it just in terms of how they could get out of helping the occupiers.

I don't think they were thinking about the larger implications of their words but are instead looking for excuses to ignore the occupiers. The city of Portland runs on people leaving things unattended in public. If you shut down people's ability to do that the parking garages would probably squee with joy but the city would simply not be able to function the way it does now. It wouldn't work, it would break down. (And the city would lose all parking meter revenue.) Eventually some sort of new normal would emerge, but it wouldn't be like the way things are now.

I don't think they were thinking about the fact that what happened is exactly the same as stealing a bike someone chained up outside while they went inside.

I don't think they thought about what would happen if everyone was as dismissive of monetary value as they were right then. If money has no value, then why would someone trade something that does have value (like good or service) for it? How would the police be paid? How would someone buy food? I don't think they thought that one out.

I definitely don't think they thought the gas line thing out. The occupiers were all ok, no one got hurt by any of the cut gas lines, so they weren't confronted with what could have happened and I don't think they even briefly touched on it in their minds. I don't think they thought about what would really happen if they gave a blank check to anyone and everyone to go around cutting gas lines in the city of Portland.

I don't think they thought about any of this because I think they'd determined that this was a one time thing. Get rid of the occupiers as rudely as possible and never think about what was said or done again. They didn't think about how things would go if they honestly started treating cut gas lines the way they pretended it was normal to treat them for this one, because I don't think they intend to do that.

If a random person is robbed I think they'll respond. If a random person has her gas line cut, I think they'll investigate who did it. I don't think they refuse to do their jobs in general, I think that they've made a special cut out for crimes against Occupy Maine.

That's why everything in the first section of this post is so absurd. Of course they're not actually going to stop investigating stolen cars, they just pretended that they follow a set of rules that would inevitably lead to that so that they could avoid investigating this one thing. They probably never even considered what the effect would be if they actually tried to follow those rules when it came to things like auto theft.

Of course they don't actually believe that monetary value counts for nothing, they just said that so they could avoid opening this one investigation. If anyone outside of the occupy movement is robbed they're not really going to say, “We can't investigate this unless what was stolen had value, can you prove to us it has value? Its dollar value doesn't count.”

Of course they don't think that cut gas lines are something to laugh at in general, they just think it is when the gas lines that were cut belonged to members of the occupy movement.

That's not good. It means they're choosing what crimes to investigate based on the victims. If the police don't like you then someone can rob you with impunity. Worse than that, someone can cut your gas line.


* Note well that the I'm not calling actual Zen bullshit. I am saying that when a police officer refuses to investigate a theft because material things have no value no matter how much money they might be worth, that's bullshit.  It's also the kind of thing I might expect to hear from a Zen character written by someone who knows nothing about Zen.


I am not affiliated with Occupy Maine, though I am related to someone who is.
You can find Occupy Maine's website at:

1 comment:

  1. Have you sent this or are you planning on sending this to the Portland newspaper(s)? Because, seriously, I think this needs a wider local audience if only because they're the ones who can put pressure on the police to actually do their jobs.