Unlawful Dissent

Only a month after swearing in, President Obama was given the first “Economic Intelligence Briefing” by his sunny CIA director, Leon Panetta.  The goal was to prepare policymakers for the blowback from an electorate reeling from unemployment and looming bank failures.  The director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, told a Senate panel the same week, “Our analysis indicates that economic crisis increases the risk of regime-threatening instability if it continues for a cone-or two-year period.  Instability can loosen the fragile hold that many developing countries have on law and order.”

As the financial crisis worsened, there were successful revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—all in part catalyzed by deepening economic troubles—while in Yemen, consistently ranked the poorest country in the Middle East, President Saleh was finally forced out.  Meanwhile, protestors in Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Lebanon all echoed an economic refrain and were met with varying degrees of severity and compromise by their governments.

Africa and the Gulf were astir and in the months after the initial crisis, it was the developed world that took the lead in scrabbling at the roots of “instability” through new ordinances, laws, fines, and security measures aimed to control and limit dissent.

In the US local and state governments have passed numerous initiatives that limit, in various ways, the ability of people to express dissent.  Every high school should know about the famous Alien and Sedition Acts.  But the government has gone further since 2001 in using old and new laws in its arsenal of legislation:  The Espionage Act, The FISA Amendment Act, The Authorization to Use Military Force Act, The Patriot Act, warrantless surveillance, and the recent NDAA, National Defense Authorization Act.  The latter was signed with a reservation by President Obama who said, “I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists.”  While the bill was opposed by leaders of the FBI, the CIA, The Director of National Intelligence, and even Obama, it stubbornly survived.  The Act declares that “covered persons” who “substantially supported” al-Qaeda or “associated forces” in hostility against the United States can be subject to indefinite detention.

In May, the US District Court Judge Katherine Forrest (an Obama appointee) ruled a section of NDAA unconstitutional, finding that broad and vague language threatened US citizens with military detention for First and Fifth Amendment-protected speech and associations.  The House subsequently rejected a (rare) bipartisan amendment to bar the military detention of people apprehended on US soil.

Obama clarified that he would not use the law on American citizens but that was not good enough for Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky and other writers and activists who had filed the lawsuit fighting the NDAA as unconstitutional.

“[NDAA] expands the capacity of the power of the state to define who is a ‘terrorist,’” Hedges argued before Forrest’s decision.  “Corporate elites understand that economically, things are about to get much worse….they don’t trust the police to protect them.  And they want to be able to call in the Army.  If this bill goes into law, they will be able to do that.”

At the local level, American activists are experiencing legislative action that gives city governments expanded police power.  Jake Olzen, a writer for Waging Non-Violence and a Chicago organizer said, “We’re seeing a trend where there are now laws on the books that–when applied–give the state heavy-handed consequences for basic first amendment activities.”

In 2003 Chicago police had allowed protests against the Iraq war to continue without a permit but arbitrarily decided when protests should end.  They made arrests without being clear about when demonstrators should disperse.  Consequently, in Feb. 2012, Chicago agreed to pay a $6.2 million settlement to the protestors after a class action lawsuit was filed.

Joe Baker of Occupy Chicago argues that the use of state force has broadened the base of political activists to include the anti-war movement, civil libertarians, labor, immigrant supporters, anti-police brutality and wrongful conviction forces, and even national figures like Jesse Jackson.

“More and more, the government’s use of raids, subpoenas and courts to criminalize political activism and label it as ‘terrorism’ is driving activists away from the Democrats and electoral politics,” Baker said.

After millions were spent on police overreach, Chicago’s leaders did not want to make a similar mistake before last spring’s NATO summit.  On Jan. 18, the city council of Chicago prepared for the $60 million gathering by passing an ordinance requiring demonstrators to “supply a description of the size and dimension of any sign, banner or other attention-getting device that is too large to be carried by one person.”

This ordinance expanded the mayor’s power to police protest and was nicknamed “sit down and shut up.”  Chicago has also required demonstrators to obtain $1 million insurance coverage to “indemnify the city against any additional or uncovered third party claims against the city arising out of or caused by the parade and agree to reimburse the city” for damages caused by demonstrations.  Fines ranged from $200-$1,000 and/or ten days in jail.  Local CANG8 (Coalition Against NATO/G8 War & Poverty Agenda) and Occupy Chicago were then able to organize a mass campaign around civil liberties.

“The move by Emanuel to restrict protest has to be seen within the context of the repression of dissent,” Baker said.  “The attacks on Arabs and Muslims over the past decade, the violent repression of the protest at the RNC in 2008, the raids and grand jury repression that my wife and I and 22 other anti-war activists have lived through, and more recently the attacks by local police and the FBI on the Occupy Movement and the anti-NATO protest here in Chicago.”  In preparation for NATO’s summit, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy described training 13,000 police officers for “mass arrests.”

Chicago is merely a recent effort; it was Seattle’s past that was prologue.  A harsh police reaction to the 35,000 WTO protestors in 1999 resulted in apologies from the police department.  But police violence has only escalated since Seattle and its “free speech zones” became the clever still-thriving means to corral and isolate dissent while maintaining a pretense of legitimacy.

Massive summits like these have been a business boon for local economies and politicians who, flushed with funds, then hear ear-kissing arguments from the weapons industry and other obvious beneficiaries of “law and order” policy.  Some examples:  It cost 98.7 million to “secure” the G20 in Pittsburgh.  For the 2002 WEF meeting in New York, $11 million was spent just on police overtime alone.  The 2003 IMF/World Bank meeting cost $14 million.  And for London 2009 G20, it cost $30 million.  An astonishing $1 billion was spent on Toronto’s 2010 G8/G20, half a billion of that for the Canadian Mounted Police.  There are other costs, too, not just for weapons and manpower.   Keeping the journalists tame and busy inside the pampered convention centers or hotels (rather than on the streets) is pricey, as was a snaking 12 kilometer $12 million fence for the 2007 G8 summit.

Such expenditures could be easily dismissed as a “partisan issue,” the boondoggle of reactionaries.  But it was Democrat Bill Clinton who proposed the government earmark of $15 million for the 2000 IMF security costs, funds later spent on a flood of overtime pay for police from cities neighboring Washington.  Tampa’s current mayor, also a Democrat, beams like an overfed cat when discussing the $50 million allocated for being the host city of the RNC.

But why so much overwhelming expense and force?  The hosts of the 2004 G8 summit in Georgia likely saw the tumult in Seattle five years earlier—with cops clad in body armor and using paramilitary tactics—as far too permissive and hoped to maintain an appearance of absolute order.  After accepting $25 million for increased security (smuggled into an Iraq appropriations bill) Governor Perdue declared a state of emergency.  Accordingly, Savannah and Brunswick, cities near the site of the summit “looked like military-occupied cities.”  Police disguised themselves as protestors while 136 state and local agencies deployed roughly 11,000 patrolmen, security, and military.  These agents were given extensive power to stop any protest.  Subsequently, the National Lawyers Guild produced a report detailing then Attorney General Ashcroft’s unwillingness to prosecute police brutality or exercise federal prosecutorial oversight of national, systemic police violations of civil rights.

Before protests like these have even begun, police have preemptively confiscated literature, signs, banners, and even the cheeky means of attracting dissent.  A 2004 NLG report described how policing tactics during demonstrations include “conducting mass false arrests and detentions; employing pop-up lines; using dangerous rush tactics with police on motorcycle, bicycle, and horseback; and using deadly “less lethal” weapons.”

Even mocking America’s decadent and hypocritical leadership, a political pastime since the Constitutional Convention, is now under assault.  While presidential puppets, ludicrous masks, and punchy political art have been a useful agent for translating popular contempt, in 2000 at the Republican national Convention, police raided a trolley barn in Philadelphia and arrested 75 puppet makers.  And this month, in preparation for the Tampa Republican National Convention, the police department has gone further by essentially getting the police department to declare  puppets illegal in the event zone near downtown.

A proliferation of special ordinances for public spaces—sidewalks and streets—have incrementally limited the already scanty space for assembly.  Such rules are swiftly passed on the eve of an event but can result in broad, interminable prohibitions on protected constitutional activity long after the convention balloons drift away.  A notable example is the RNC 8 episode.  Through the controversial testimony of an informant, eight activists were charged with “conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism” under a never-used Minnesota terrorism law.  No terrorism charges stuck.

Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, sees a double standard in treatment for reactionary and activist protestors.

“Something is terribly amiss when you can come to a presidential nominating convention with a pistol under your shirt, but police can detain you for brandishing a puppet,” she wrote in an email.

“When special ordinances are passed, protests should be aware that the rights we’ve long cherished are stripped away with the stroke of a pen,” she wrote.  “In the eyes of the police, ordinary objects, such as string or cardboard, are transformed into weapons.  Searches no longer require probable cause.  Intent can be imputed into the type of juice bottle you’re carrying.  Healthy speech becomes a terrorist threat.  The right to speech and assembly becomes a parking lot with a time limit.  Public spaces become private spaces.  One risks bodily injury or arrest merely for daring to occupy public forums and speak out.”

Lamentably, the US is not alone in the curbing and controlling dissent.  Conservative forces in other countries have been pushing for stronger state authority in handling organized demonstrations.  The Cameron coalition has pushed a “stability” agenda in the wake of the economic crisis that has left the country with its highest unemployment rate since 1994 and a biting austerity budget.

Cameron’s government slashed nearly 80% from higher education transferring costs to students.  Consequently, the government found itself rocked by disorder from below.  In March 2011, 250,000 people demonstrated in London in a show of public discontent

Police used an obscure law, “The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994” to assume broad powers.  The law requires that protestors remove masks and balaclavas or face arrest.  It also allows police to stop and search individuals without reasonable suspicion; blacks in England are 29.7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites.

The Anglo-Caribbean writer Darcus Howe told the BBC how his fourteen-year old grandson who was harassed by the police “countless times” as a result of the stop and search law.  The parallels between 2011 and a 1981 Brixton upheaval were numerous:  a conservative prime minister undertaking brutal cuts, the targeted searches of young black youths, and a fiery community response in the form of violence and looting.  During Howe’s interview, a BBC journalist insinuated that Howe was a rioter due to his presence in Brixton’s 1981 demonstrations.

The searches as well as Cameron’s cuts were cited by numerous demonstrators as igniters for the August 2011 riots in London’s Afro-Caribbean communities that put 2,987 protestors in stir and flooded London with over 16,000 police.  Thatcher ferociously denounced the 1981 Brixton riots and demonstrations in Liverpool and rejected the link between crime and social conditions, blaming the uprising on the liberalism of the 1960s.  “What aggravated the riots into a virtual saturnalia…was the impression given by television that…rioters could enjoy a fiesta of crime, looting and rioting in the guise of social protest,” she wrote in her memoir.

The Thatcher Cabinet even discussed jailing reporters over their coverage of the uprisings.  In 2011 when facing similar turmoil as a result of similar policies, Cameron resorted to the Manichean:  the city was comprised of “thugs”—those people “with no loyalty to society” who “feel the world owes them something”—and the “law-abiding.”  As buildings burned, Cameron offered police arbitrary power.  “Whatever tactics the police feel they need to employ, they will have legal backing to do so,” Cameron thundered.  “Nothing is off the table.”

Spain’s government has also been challenged by tens of thousands of people in the streets, vast numbers of whom are unemployed youth who’ve joined the ranks of the indignando movement since May 2010.  Jorge Diez, the Spanish Minister for Home Affairs, was inspired by protests on March 29th to reform the penal code to criminalize protests that “seriously disturb the public peace,” by labeling protestors involved in such acts as “urban guerillas.”  A minimum jail sentence of two years could be imposed on protestors instigating or carrying out violence and “serious disturbances of public order and intent to organize violent demonstrations through means such as social networking” would carry the same penalty as involvement in a criminal organization.

In Chile, Minister of the Interior Rodrigo Hinzpeter has urged Congress to approve a law that seeks harsher punishments for protestors.  This has come during repeated flares of student activism in the past year.  In August, police in Santiago used water cannons to break up marches by thousands of students protesting inequality associated with school privatizations—75 were arrested and 49 policemen were injured before hundreds of students were evicted from occupied schools.

The new law commonly known as “Hinzpeter Law,” which was approved by committees and will soon be debated in Chile’s Congress calls for 541 days to 3 years of jail time for individuals who are found guilty of doing what the Santiago students did—occupy public and private buildings.  It would also exact punishments for disrupting services or traffic.

“The problem with this law is that it does not define disorder,” Amnesty International Chile Executive Director Ana Piquer said.  “This means that anyone could be prosecuted, even those who protest peacefully, without guns or violence or any type of disorderly action.”

The controversy has quieted since October 2011 when a draft was made public.  Hinzpeter would criminalize occupations of public or privately owned buildings as well as rioting and damage to public infrastructure.  It was drafted by former Senator Miguel Otero—a member of the right-wing Renovation Party and current advisor to the country’s Chamber of Commerce—after marches last June resulted in clashes between police and students protesting for free education.  Students claim that agent provocateurs and undercover police incited violence during demonstrations.

Most notorious, though, is Russia’s cynical use of state operations to curb dissent amid popular ferment. For ten years Putin’s “managed capitalism” has resulted in standard of living improvements, a GDP grown tenfold, low unemployment, and the resulting rewards of high oil prices.  But political discontent among the country’s middle class has intensified.  The state media is seen as Putin’s mouthpiece and 58 attacks were reported on journalists in 2010 alone.  The iron limits of protest were best exemplified in the Pussy Riot sentencing, in which 3 members of a feminist punk band convicted of “hooliganism” after performing a protest song in a church.  They received a two year prison sentence in a penal colony.  Earlier, in 2007 Putin signed an “anti-extremism” law allowing for internet censorship and in 2009 five journalists were killed as a result of their efforts, one on July 13 in Siberia.

To counteract organized dissent, the Duma passed a new law raising fines for participating in unsanctioned protest.  The fine is what an average Russian earns in one year, roughly $9,000.  Putin signed the act increasing fines on June 8th, agreeing that the new law would protect the motherland from “radicalism.”  Internally, the counterstroke has reached deeper than at any point since the Soviet Union’s dissolution.  Access to websites of at least three media outlets that criticize Putin were blocked or disrupted on June 12 by hacker attacks while Moscow, a city that requires a permit for “legal” gatherings, often unleashes police to bust up protests.

Even in Canada, ranked sixth best place in the world to live, the state has clamped down on demonstration.  In a furious torrent this May, over 100,000 students poured into the streets after an 80% increase in the cost of college tuition.  The National Assembly of Quebec passed a special “emergency law,” Bill 78, which activists consider a violation of freedoms of speech, assembly, and movement.  This was undertaken three days after riot squads deployed tear gas and arrested several people on May 15. And while this law expires July 1, 2013, Section 16 requires organizers of protests involving 50 or more people to notify police about the protest at least eight hours in advance.  Section 25 states that fines can be issued between $1,000 to $125,000.

The new bill has been criticized both in and outside Canada.

“Moves to restrict freedom of assembly in many parts of the world are alarming,” said Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “In the context of student protests, I am disappointed by the new legislation passed in Quebec that restricts their rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly.”

In May, hundreds of lawyers took to the streets to denounce the law as extreme.  And a spokesman for the largest student association, CLASSE, denounced the school legislation:  “The bill that the government is proposing to table is an anti-union law, it is authoritarian, repressive and breaks the students’ right to strike…This is a government that prefers to hit…its youth, ridicule its youth rather than listen to them.”  In fact, students were told that “all necessary force” would be used to keep classes running as well as a legal injunction (submitted by students who wished to return to class) to violate the strike.

As the party conventions undertake the predictable nominating process and feathery rhetoric the real news will come from the streets and how its occupants are treated. Tampa expected nearly 15,000 protestors and has increased security, even buying armored vehicles, tactical weapons, and police bikes for rapid deployment.  It should be remembered that it was in Tampa, during a 2001 pro-Bush rally at Legends Field, that two grandmothers and another protester were arrested for holding up small, handwritten protests signs outside a “protest zone.”

The methods of democratic dissent are under well-funded assault through effective and adaptable tactics around the globe.  Luis Fernandez, author of Policing Dissent, sees no slowing of growing police power in the US either.  “The police tend to adapt quickly,” he said in an interview.  “As guardians of the public order, they are paid to figure out how to respond to civil disturbance.  Social movements, meanwhile, are more glacial in developing new strategies.”

There is swelling evidence of these strategies in the headlines:  unwarranted incursions into Muslim neighborhoods, the near militarization of protest sites, and recent revelations by William Binney, a retired NSA spook turned whistleblower, of a deepening apparatus of warrantless domestic spying.  In our time, not some Conrad novel, police are pro-actively infiltrating social movements—change-agents from the republic’s founding—and are attempting to subvert and dismember them.  Citizens around the world will need to consider the results of future “instability,” not just from the incompetence and greed of elites who invoke the dreaded word to reinforce their authority.  They will need to consider the unintended instability fomented by the costs of police encroachment upon dissent, legislating away the polite fiction of their inalienable rights, and the price of state neglect for society’s multiplying vulnerable.  If power yields nothing without a demand, the last decade stands as a bleak warning for those with claims to be heard.

Brett Warnke is an intern at The Nation magazine.