Imagine: one of the members of your peace group is arrested for blocking a parking lot driveway at a federal building. He or she may have or may not have blocked the driveway intentionally; regardless, the police arrest the person. There’s a court appearance and a fine to pay. But ten months later your organization is ordered to court again, this time with the intervention of Ashcroft’s Justice Department. Seems the feds believe your organization endangered the lives of federal employees. A misdemeanor turns into a serious felony. If convicted, your organization could lose its tax-exempt status and be forced to report its activities to the government.
Sound ludicrous? Not in America, you say?
In April, 2002, Greenpeace activists boarded a commercial ship off the coast of Florida. The ship was transporting mahogany illegally exported from Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. The activists unfurled a banner stating: “President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging.” The activists did not engage in violence or destroy property. Minor charges against individual activists were settled last year.
Enter Ashcroft and the Justice Department.
In July 2003, the Justice Department filed criminal charges in Miami federal court against the entire Greenpeace organization under an obscure 1872 law originally intended to end the practice of “sailor-mongering.” In 1890, an Oregon court described the purpose of the sailor-mongering law as preventing “the evil” of “sailor-mongers [who] get on board vessels and by the help of intoxicants, and the use of other means, often savoring of violence, get the crews ashore and leave the vessel without help to manage or care for her.”
“This prosecution is unprecedented in American history,” complained John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace in the United States. “Never before has our government criminally prosecuted an entire organization for the free speech activities of its supporters. If this prosecution succeeds, then peaceful protest — an essential American tradition from the Boston Tea Party through the modern civil rights movement — may become yet another casualty of Attorney General Ashcroft’s attack on civil liberties.”
If convicted, Greenpeace could not only lose its tax-exempt status, but be forced to regularly report its activities to the government. “Such a prospect must secretly delight many people in the administration who see the group as an ever-present irritant,” writes Jonathan Turley of the Los Angeles Times. “After all, it was Greenpeace that held the first demonstration at the president’s ranch after his inauguration, causing a stir when activists unfurled a banner reading “Bush: the Toxic Texan. Don’t Mess With the Earth.'”
The Bushites are steadfastly opposed to civil disobedience, an honorable form of activism with a long history — from David Thoreau refusing to pay war taxes to Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad and women earning the right to vote in the United States. Imagine participants of the Freedom Rides in the South and non-violent protesters against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama being charged as “sailor-mongers.”
If Ashcroft and the Bush Justice Department had their way, there would never have been antiwar demonstrations during the Vietnam War, or an anti-apartheid movement. The Women’s Pentagon Actions, the Pledge of Resistance, nonviolent civil disobedience actions at Diablo Canyon, the Livermore Laboratories, and SAC bases — all would be criminalized and severely punished.
Imagine Pax Christi USA, an international Catholic peace organization, losing its its tax-exempt status and forced to report to the government. Imagine Detroit’s Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton serving time in prison like the three Dominican nuns who were charged with obstructing national defense for painting crosses on a Minuteman III missile silo (Ashcroft wanted the elderly nuns to spend 30 years in prison, essentially a death sentence). Last year, Gumbleton urged the Pax Christi USA National Assembly to sign a civil disobedience pledge in opposition to Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq. The pledge was sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, Education for Peace in Iraq Center, Episcopal Peace Fellowship, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Lutheran Peace Fellowship, National Network to End the War against Iraq, and Voices in the Wilderness.
In fact, the Bushites have already attacked Voices in the Wilderness, the organization that brought humanitarian aid and medical supplies to the people of Iraq. Ashcroft and the Justice Department assessed a $20,000 fine against Voices in the Wilderness for violating the Iraqi Sanctions Regulations enforced under the international Emergency Economic Powers Act, which prohibits the delivery of goods and services to Iraq except under special license of the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. “Voices will not pay the fine, and we don’t want anyone else to pay the fine for us,” said a defiant Kathy Kelly, confounder of the organization.
Is it possible, due to growing opposition to Bush’s USA PATRIOT Act, that the Justice Department has decided instead to use arcane laws to go after its enemies? Section 802 of the USA PATRIOT Act stipulates that a person or organization can be considered terrorist if they engage in activity intended “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” and “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” In the above example, blocking the driveway of a federal building may very well be considered “intimidation or coercion” by the Justice Department.
Ashcroft and USA PATRIOT have come under increasing fire — and that’s why the Justice Department organized a 16-city tour to “correct misinformation” about the draconian aspects of the law. On the final day of this closed-door, invite-only dog and pony show, more than 1,200 demonstrators in Boston and 2,500 in New York City made their displeasure known.
Ashcroft and the Justice Department will likely continue to plumb the depths of out-dated law and fashion iron-fisted responses to the environmental and peace movements. Meanwhile, on the sidelines, organizations such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni — founded by none other than Lynne Cheney and the neocon Senator Joseph Lieberman — and Americans for Victory Over Terrorism will continue to target “groups and individuals who fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the war we are facing,” in other words professors, legislators, authors, columnists, and activists who exercise their rights under the First Amendment and oppose the homicidal madness of Bush and the neocons.