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Criminalizing Dissent

President Barack Obama, referring to the violent attacks on protesters against the controversial election results in Iran’s just-completed presidential election, this week lectured Iran’s government, saying, “Peaceful dissent should never be subject to violence.”

Referring to the tens and hundreds of thousands of frustrated and angry Iranians who have taken to the streets accusing Iranian authorities of rigging the election in favor of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Obama said that “the Iranian people and their voices should be heard and respected."

But there is a certain hypocrisy going on here.

Just days ago, the ACLU of Northern California issued a <a href=”http://www.ibabuzz.com/politics/2009/06/10/defense-department-sees-protests-as-terrorism/”>press release</a> announcing that it had filed a complaint  over a Pentagon anti-terrorism training manual. That training manual, aimed at Pentagon personnel, describes domestic protests as “low-level terrorist activity.”

As Staff Attorney Ann Brick and ACLU Washington National Security Policy Council member Michael German write in their complaint letter to the Department of Defense, “For the DoD to instruct its employees that lawful protest activities should be treated as ‘low-level terrorism’ is deeply disturbing in and of itself. It is an even more egregious insult to constitutional values, however, when viewed in the context of a long-term pattern of domestic security initiatives that have attempted to equate lawful dissent with terrorism.”

The ACLU has documented that the government has been and continues a policy of spying on legitimate peaceful protest organizations—particularly those that have been opposing America’s wars and its military policies, and the new president has said nothing and done nothing about terminating this egregious assault on First Amendment freedom of speech and assembly. Given that President Obama has also done nothing since taking office to undo the USA PATRIOT Act, which codifies much activity that traditionally would have been called dissent as a crime, or to publicly reverse the policy of the last eight years during which non-violent protest organizations have been spied on and infiltrated by agents of the military and by the FBI, and during which actual protesters have been harassed, penned into fenced-off “free speech zones,” assaulted by armed police and arrested, his pontificating to Iran about the sanctity of dissent rings particularly hollow.

Imagine, if you will, what this government’s response would be to having hundreds of thousands of American protesters gather in the center of Washington, DC without a permit, to protest the policies of the national government.  There would be riot police in the thousands, some mounted on horseback. There would be federal troops. There would be police charges against demonstrators. There would be tear gas and arrests.

How do we know this?  It happens every time there are major protests in Washington—even when protests are granted permits.

This writer spent three days in the Federal Detention Center at Occoquan, VA, back in 1967 for participating in a peaceful anti-war protest at the Pentagon that year. I was one of hundreds at that event who found himself, as a peaceful demonstrator, confronting armed federal troops with fixed bayonets at that event.  Not much has changed since ‘67, as others have met the same fate over the years in Washington and around the country. Certainly there is every reason to assume that, if the public finally loses patience over the current administration’s continuation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its failure to really tackle the health care crisis, and its limp response to the economic crisis, and if people descend on Washington or perhaps New York City en masse to protest, those people will be met with the same kind of draconian, police-state style response that protesters have met in the past–or that protesters are being met with in Iran today.

If the Pentagon is teaching its people to equate protest with “low-level terrorism,” how different, really, is Washington from Tehran?

DAVE LINDORFF  is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at dlindorff@mindspring.com

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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