Broward News

Occupy Fort Lauderdale: Will It Float? (Or, When the 1 Percent Makes You Become a Pirate)

Some organizers with Occupy Fort Lauderdale are debating whether to hold a demonstration at the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show next weekend, possibly by banding together a flotilla of small boats and kayaks and peacefully floating by the marina.

But a few days ago, people on the group's Facebook page started floating an unusual idea: How about taking the occupation to the "high seas"?

The problem, it seems, is that no matter where you go on land (especially here in South Florida), you're on land that somebody owns. Either the government, which is free to create and enforce laws about its use, or a private citizen or company, in which case you're trespassing if they decide you should leave.

Could a roving flotilla à la Waterworld be the answer? The Pulp contacted a local maritime law expert to find out.

Robert M. Jarvis is a professor of law at Nova Southeastern University's Fort Lauderdale campus. "It's a very romantic notion," he admits, after chuckling for a while at the prospect of Occupy taking to the seas, "but it's not like you go on the water and you're free of all laws."

The problem? It takes a lot of effort to get out of the grasp of laws. First is the issue of the vessel. No matter where you go, even into international waters, says Jarvis, "You are always subject to the law of the flag" that the boat carries. If Occupiers were to, say, borrow a yacht from a supportive local citizen, they could go halfway to Greenland and still be under American laws.

Moreover, if you're on a boat that somebody owns and the owner starts getting pressure from the public because you're creating a "nuisance," they'll be likely to order you off -- at which time you'll be trespassing on their boat.

Let's take another scenario. Say the protesters assemble their own craft, a ragtag armada of kayaks, inflatable pool boats, rafts made of tied-together driftwood, whatever. They drop into the Intracoastal and float leisurely along, banging bongos and smoking weed peaceably demonstrating. They'll still be subject to two authorities: the Florida Marine Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard.

"All of these are going to work in cooperation with city officials" near where the flotilla is protesting, says Jarvis. In addition, the patrol agencies maintain the right to board your vessel at any time to conduct a search for contraband.

And even if you're not breaking any laws? "They'll say, 'These are not seaworthy vessels, and they are dangerous,' and they'll be taken off the water," Jarvis says.

They could always go farther, somehow paddling their vessels past Florida's jurisdiction into U.S. sovereign territory, and farther on, some 200 miles out, into the high seas. And then -- this is where shit gets real -- they'll face the same harsh reality faced by centuries of people who were fed up with not being able to escape somebody else's laws on land and took to the high seas in boats bearing no flag.

"They'd then be on 'piratical vessels,'" says Jarvis. "The definition of a pirate is someone not under the law or jurisdiction of any country. They could then be taken in by any country" and prosecuted as outlaws.

Which would sort of take the "Fort Lauderdale" out of "Occupy Fort Lauderdale."

But if they somehow come across a registered vessel or two of their own and don't break any laws and find a marina willing to dispose of their sewage? Then it's on, at least until enough wealthy yacht owners complain. Hey, they'll be less obnoxious than the people blasting Top 40 hits and throwing beer cans in the water.

Stefan Kamph is a New Times staff writer.
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Stefan Kamph
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