The Right to Protest in Peril

The only defense against an assault on our rights lies in mobilization and organization.

Originally posted here

New York police arrest a Wall Street occupier (Sam Lewis)
New York police arrest a Wall Street occupier (Sam Lewis)

THE U.S. Constitution forbids laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

But that’s not stopping Rahm Emanuel.

If Chicago’s mayor has his way at a January 18 City Council meeting, local ordinances will be twisted into tools of repression, ready to be used against any organization or group of individuals that wants to express dissent.

It won’t take much for a protester to be labeled a criminal in Emanuel’s Chicago–using a sound system or carrying a banner that wasn’t registered in advance, not providing an official marshal for every 100 people attending a rally, letting a demonstration last more than two hours.

Emanuel’s proposals are supposedly in preparation for demonstrations expected at a joint summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations and the NATO military alliance that will take place in May. But the shredding of civil liberties isn’t temporary, as Emanuel once claimed. It will be permanent if the City Council goes along–and the impact will be felt by unions, community groups, antiwar activists, social justice advocates and more.

Outrage at his sneak attack on the Constitution forced Emanuel to back down on a few things–the minimum fine for violations of parade permits, for example, would only increase by four times, instead of 20 times. But even if this is viewed as a “concession,” what was left untouched is still an incredible criminalization of the right to protest.

In a society that truly represented the will of the people, such proposals would be laughed off as a relic of the past, when countries were ruled by emperors or dictators. But no one’s laughing in Chicago.

In Chicago, the assault on the Constitution is being led by one of the most powerful Democrats in the country, and every one of the City Council members who will vote on Emanuel’s proposals is a Democrat, too. Some have told activists that they have misgivings about Emanuel’s power grab. Good–they ought to. And now they have a chance to put their money where their mouths are, and vote against an attempt to criminalize protest.

But Rahm Emanuel is likely to get his way, thanks to fellow members of the “party of the people.” Because we live in a country where political and business leaders love to preach about freedom and liberty publicly, but behind closed doors will do just about anything to undermine them–especially when their power and privilege is being questioned.

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THE ASSAULT on civil liberties underway in Chicago isn’t the exception. There are plenty more examples, and they run straight to the top of political system in the “world’s greatest democracy.”

On the last day of 2011, Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)–one provision of which grants the military, at the discretion of the president, the power to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens.

After three years in office, Obama can be judged an unmitigated disaster for civil liberties. In addition to signing the NDAA, Obama has ordered the extrajudicial assassination of at least one U.S. citizen, escalated the use of unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere, and waged war on whistleblowers like Bradley Manning, who uncovered abuses and illegal actions by the U.S. military.

The one-time constitutional law professor has not only refused to roll back the worst abuses of the Bush administration, as he once promised, but he has actually escalated those attacks. As legal scholar Jonathan Turley wrote, “In time, the election of Barack Obama may stand as one of the single most devastating events in our history for civil liberties.”

Of course, the administration insists that Obama’s policies are intended to be used against the “bad guys”–extremists and terrorists. We’ll hear some variation of that same excuse coming from Rahm Emanuel and his backers on the City Council–that the criminalization of protest in Chicago is part of an effort to contain “outside agitators” who are “bent on violence.”

But it’s amazing how easily peaceful protesters can be painted as dangerous extremists.

Consider the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), a law quietly passed in 2006 at the behest of the agriculture and biotech industries. AETA labels as “terrorist” anything done “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise,” as well as “economic damage” to such an enterprise. Activists say the law is so broad that they could be targeted just for secretly videotaping abuses against animals at factory farms, since this could affect companies’ bottom lines.

That’s how peaceful protest gets conflated with terrorism.

We witnessed a similar dynamic throughout the fall, as the Occupy Wall Street protest movement spread around the country. When it became clear that Occupy couldn’t be dismissed, local officials, aided by the media, stirred up a slander campaign, accusing activists of everything from tolerating violence to causing a public health hazard. The slanders were prelude to a crackdown–in city after city, Democratic mayors ordered police to raid the Occupy encampments and arrest anyone who got in the way.

Our kind of democracy–the bottom-up kind, based on the idea that people have a right to stand up for jobs and better schools, for health care and Social Security, for programs to aid the most vulnerable in society–isn’t the kind that politicians respect. To them, “democracy” is limited to pulling a lever in a voting booth every few years or making a financial contribution to their reelection fund.

It’s exactly when dissent becomes tangible and concrete–as it has with the upsurge of the Occupy movement in the U.S., not to mention the example of millions of people in Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria and elsewhere taking to the streets to demand justice–that our free speech rights get put on the chopping block.

The Occupy movement was the most invigorating example of grassroots democracy in years, if not decades. But when it became a threat because it was growing and challenging the status quo, political leaders were ready to shut it down–and almost all of those leaders were Democrats, the mainstream party supposedly committed to guarding civil liberties.

As Occupy Chicago activist Evelyn Dehais stated at a press conference that challenged Rahm Emanuel’s power grab:

Whether these measures are temporary or permanent is beside the point. The fundamental freedoms upon which this country was founded cannot be dismissed or negotiated at any time, for any reason, and certainly not in the name of convenience.

This is an effort by the mayor’s office to manage dissent in a city where the mayor has given his constituents ample cause to dissent. He has stripped the people and the communities which he was elected to represent in the name of austerity, while championing the 1 percent and a $65 million dollar price tag for the NATO-G8 summit. And now, with a duplicitous excuse of “public safety,” he seeks to strip Chicagoans of their voice as well.

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MANY PEOPLE will think these latest assaults on civil liberties are an aberration from the real traditions of democracy in the U.S.

That’s not true. The U.S. state has always been willing to use violence and repression.

Just how violent and repressive becomes obvious in times of war, when violations of the Bill of Rights go nearly unquestioned. During the First World War, the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 made it a crime to interfere with the war effort or with military recruitment, and forbid the use of “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” about the U.S. government, the flag or the military.

But similar attacks on our rights are familiar in peacetime, too. The Palmer Raids, in which thousands of leftists and radicals rounded up and deported in 1919 and 1920, came after the end of the First World War. During the 1950s and ’60s, the federal government carried out a witch-hunt against socialists, communists and civil rights activists. The FBI’s COINTELPRO was aimed at a domestic enemy, even as the war against “communism” was being fought overseas.

Those in charge of the government and institutions of power in a capitalist society prefer to rule by consent. But they are all too willing to turn to repression and coercion if they feel the need.

The only defense against these attacks on our rights is in our numbers and our mobilization.

It’s important to remember all the lies and dirty tricks and arrests and state violence couldn’t stop the upsurge of the civil rights movement or the anti-Vietnam war movement. Despite all the brutality and repression the state could muster, these movements succeeded–in destroying the system of apartheid in the U.S. South and ending an imperialist war halfway around the world.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin King responded to critics who questioned whether he was wrong to defy the law:

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

On January 18, Rahm Emanuel wants the Chicago City Council to go along with his sit-down-and-shut-up plan for anyone who disagrees with him.

It’s more important than ever that we say “No!”–to Emanuel and all the other political leaders who want to criminalize the right to protest.

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