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The Crisis of Public Dissent

As I stood among the half-million protesters in the blistering heat of Manhattan’s streets on August 29, 2004, it seemed difficult to imagine that the right of public dissent was threatened. However, over the next few days and nights demonstrators in a variety of locations throughout New York City would experience militarized responses by the police, resulting in nearly 2000 arrests. Although the mass mobilizations before and during the Republican National Convention (RNC) reflected an overwhelming commitment to non-violence and creativity on the part of the demonstrators, the political managers of the city and the RNC were determined to preempt any disruptive protests, irrespective of the provisions of First Amendment rights.

It was out of a fundamental concern for those constitutional rights of freedom of speech and assembly that I finally made the decision to go to New York for the demonstrations. Although family and friends constantly reminded me not to get arrested, I felt confident that I could avoid any arrest situation. Little did I realize that even those not planning on getting arrested could not escape the extralegal tactics of the police. From elderly War Resister League protestors to National Lawyers Guild legal observers to unwitting bystanders, people were unsuspectingly pounced upon and arrested without being given the option to leave the scene. In effect, the criminalization of dissent, nurtured by a repressive government and reinforced by the hysteria created around the “war on terror,” was made operational by the security apparatus of the state, from the Secret Service to the FBI to the New York Police Department (NYPD).

For close to 2 years prior to the RNC the 36,500 strong NYPD received training in what the authorities called “rapid response” policing. In reality, what was occurring was the creation of a militarized police force committed to interdiction of any and all threats, whether legal or not, non-violent or not. Sophisticated surveillance techniques from the air, via the Fuji Blimp, and on the ground kept the cops in their militarized interdiction mode. Operating out of this mode, Brendan Galligan of the NYPD Aviation Unit commented to a local television reporter of “looking for roving mobs of people traveling in unison that might indicate some sort of problem for the ground troops.”

The transformation of police into “ground troops” was an outgrowth of the establishment of the Homeland Security State apparatus. In turn, Homeland Security recommended that local police view critics of the Bush’s war on terrorism as “potential terrorists.” Mike van Winkle, the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center spokesperson underscored how public dissenters from Bush’s policies could morph into real terrorists. “If you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that’s being fought against is international terrorism (all of Bush’s wars, of course),” asserted the atavistic Mr. van Winkle, “you might have terrorism at that protest. You can almost argue that a protest against that is a terrorist act.”

Beyond the kind of hyper patriotic attacks which label any and all opposition during wartime as “treasonous,” the thrust of Bush Administration repression is to criminalize dissent. After Attorney General Ashcroft eliminated restrictions on FBI surveillance of US citizens in May of 2002, FBI agents have more zealously investigated anti-war activists. According to a US Senate report on the impact of Ashcroft’s ruling, the FBI has adopted the “belief that dissident speech and associations should be prevented because they were incipient steps towards the possible ultimate commission of an act which might be criminal.” Hence, we are reverting to the sort of guilt-by-association that marked the ideologically-driven anti-communist crusades of the Cold War era. Given that orientation, it is not surprising that the FBI was targeting groups of anarchists even before they traveled to NYC to take part in the protests. And, once they were near the RNC, police preemptively arrested a number of the known anarchists, charging them with outlandishly made-up charges.

Beyond FBI tracking of anarchists, the kinds of arrests made during the RNC suggest that even the mildest forms of dissent will not be tolerated if they threaten, albeit symbolically, the established order. So, when several hundred people led by the War Resisters League attempted to march peacefully two-by-two on the sidewalk from the World Trade Center, police surrounded them with orange netting and arrested them. Sent off without being charged and read their rights to a filthy holding pen on Pier 57, a former bus terminal, many were kept for 24 hours even though a New York Supreme Court Justice ruled that protestors must be released. The city authorities obviously were prepared to act outside of the law in order to enforce the Bush regime’s vision of a uniform society.

Years ago, during World War I, another polarized time in the United States, social critic Randolph Bourne reflected on the terrible repressive forces unleashed by war: “War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd instinct.” Reinforcing such conformist tendencies, the Wilson Administration, on its own mission to “civilize” the world, legislated earlier forms of the Patriot Act, in 1917 and 1918, which led to prosecuting thousands of radical dissenters from the Industrial Workers of the World to the Socialist Party.

Once more, this country faces a test over whether or not the Bill of Rights can withstand the concerted efforts of the government to destroy it. While mass mobilizations and demonstrations may only convey symbolic power, they do represent an important dissenting moment of expressive solidarity. Public dissent, therefore, is a crucial element in developing an empowered citizenry and an alternative vision of political life. Given what happened in New York during the Republican National Convention, we have to repeat at every occasion and in every place the shouts heard echoing through the streets of Manhattan: “Whose Streets? Our Streets!”

FRAN SHOR teaches at Wayne State University. He is a peace and justice activist in numerous organizations. He can be reached at: aa2439@wayne.edu