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War on Dissent

Gag the Public!

by WALTER BRASCH

On a blatant campaign of exploiting 9/11, and a subversive campaign to undermine the nation’s civil liberties, George W. Bush expects to win a second term. Jingoism is encouraged; dissent is not tolerated.

As Texas governor, Bush established "protest zones" far removed from where he spoke. He continues that practice as President. Anyone with a message not in agreement with the administration’s beliefs is isolated, some as much as a half-mile away, during presidential and vice-presidential public appearances. However, according to a ruling by the federal district court in Philadelphia, all persons, no matter what their personal or political views, must have equal access under the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and the right of assembly. That part of the Constitution has often been overlooked by the Republican administration and by local police.

In Columbia, S.C., a fifty-four-year-old man was arrested at a campaign rally for carrying a sign, "No More War for Oil." In Evansville, Ind., John Blair, a photographer who had won the Pulitzer Prize, was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest for holding a 30-inch by 40-inch sign, "Cheney-19th Century Energy Man." In Tampa, Fla., two grandmothers and a gay rights activist were arrested for peacefully holding protest signs. Near Pittsburgh, Pa., a sixty-five-year-old retired steel worker was arrested when he refused to go to a protest zone.

At every Bush­Cheney appearance, official or political, persons are pre-screened before being issued tickets, and then allowed into the rallies only if they aren’t critics of any of the administration’s policies. Thousands have been forced to sign loyalty oaths. In Albuquerque, Michael Ortiz y Pino, a Vietnam combat veteran, told the Associated Press he was also asked by the Republican organizers to identify if he was with any groups that were associated with veterans, pro-life/pro-choice, gun rights, or teachers. In Tucson, the Republicans demanded to know the race of some photojournalists before issuing them credentials. Those who question the necessity of providing personal data and social security numbers are told the Secret Service requires it. "We don’t require that information," Tom Mazur, Secret Service spokesman, says. Heather Layman, spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, says, "We just want to assure a positive experience for those attending."

In Scranton, Pa., a woman was ordered to remove a small metal peace button from her lapel. "I was told it was an unauthorized symbol," says Jean Golomb, who bought it at a Hallmark store. In Saginaw, Mich., a woman was thrown out of a Bush rally because she had a rolled-up pro-choice T-shirt. Barbara Miller says she was told, "We don’t accept any pro-choice non-Republican paraphernalia at this event." On Independence Day 2004 at an official presidential appearance, all of it paid by taxpayers, Nicole and Jeffrey Rank were arrested when they refused to turn their T-shirts inside out so an anti-Bush message didn’t appear. Nicole Rank, an environmental scientist with FEMA, was later fired after receiving consistent ratings of "excellent."

In Hamilton, N.J., where Laura Bush was rallying the faithful to support the war in Iraq, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq was escorted out because she wore a T-shirt that declared, "President Bush You Killed My Son," and had the audacity to ask what the Republicans believed was a hostile question. Outside the auditorium, while talking with a reporter, she was ordered to leave, didn’t do so, and then was handcuffed and arrested on defiant trespass charges. Their cases are just a few of thousands throughout the country.

In Bloomsburg, Pa., two peaceful reporters were ordered to leave the grounds of a state university at a Dick Cheney rally; they were never told the reason, nor would the paid staffers identify themselves. At the Republican convention, paid staff, police, and Secret Service constantly harassed reporters, especially those from smaller circulation newspapers and magazines, and those who may have seemed to be the least bit non-compliant with the Bush­Cheney philosophy. Police often say they are acting under orders of the Secret Service or requests of the Republican campaign.

Outside the site of the Republican National Convention, and posing no physical threat to delegates or speakers, the police arrested more than 1,800 persons, mostly on charges of parading without a permit and disorderly conduct, both of them violations in the same category as unpaid parking fines. They were taken to an abandoned bus terminal, placed in a holding area of chain-link cages with razor wire on top. The concrete floor was oily from years of diesel fuel and antifreeze spillage, washed over by massive amounts of Clorox. Many of those detained later complained of rashes. There were few benches inside the cages, each of which held 30-100 individuals, forcing most of those arrested to take turns sitting on the benches and to sit or sleep on the floor; blankets were not provided. Food was usually corn flakes, warm and sour milk, rotting apples, and near-stale cheese or bologna sandwiches; persons had to share them with each other and, sometimes, the roaches in their cells. There were no trash bins, and portable restroom facilities were filthy. They were held for up to 60 hours until the end of the convention. In contrast, petty criminals are often processed and released on bail within 24 hours.

Democrat­Republican Thomas Jefferson said that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. During World War I, reiterating statements he had made for several years, Republican Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

George W. Bush almost boastfully says he doesn’t do much reading. Perhaps had he read and understood the words of two of this nation’s greatest presidents, his "rent-a-thug" campaign workers might not have thrown three peaceful women out of a campaign rally in Medford, Ore., and then threatened them with arrests. Their offense? They wore T-shirts that said, "Protect Our Civil Liberties."

This President’s opinion of dissent is perhaps the most compelling reason why he must not have another four years.

WALTER BRASCH, professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University, is an award-winning syndicated columnist and the author of 15 books, most of them about social issues, the First Amendment, and the media. His forthcoming book is America’s Unpatriotic Acts; The Federal Government’s Violation of Constitutional and Civil Liberties (Peter Lang Publishing.) You may contact Brasch at brasch@bloomu.edu or at www.walterbrasch.com