On October 7, all charges were dropped against 227 people jailed as part of a mass arrest on August 31st, the second day of the Republican National Convention.
Protest leaders had conferred with police on-site and gotten approval for a march, but minutes later the whole group -- including media, legal observers, and tourists -- were arrested, allegedly for blocking the sidewalk.
Simon Harak, a coordinator with the War Resisters League who was arrested in the protest, said, 'There was no basis for the arrest. We were not in violation of any law. We were in the process of beginning to exercise our freedom of speech.'
Harak spoke of being flex-cuffed and sitting in the sun for two and a half hours. He said that many were held for two days or more in a filthy holding area on a Manhattan pier. 'What had we done?' He asked.
Police conduct was so unusual that Judge John Cataldo of the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, held New York City in contempt -- a highly unusual action -- on Thursday, September 2, finding that more than 550 protesters were held over 24 hours without charges filed.
'The overall process, particularly for people arrested on August 31st, raises serious concerns that there was an effort to detain people until after Bush spoke on Tuesday night,' said Bruce Bentley, the RNC mass defense coordinator for the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.
Inside Madison Square Garden, President Bush invoked traditional American values of liberty, freedom, and democracy, while innocent people languished in jail. Even in a largely polarized election season characterized by war in Iraq, threat of terrorism, and mounting evidence of voter fraud, the events at the RNC stand out as particularly blatant violations of the bill of rights.
Unfortunately, New York is not alone; a 114-page report released this August by the National Lawyers Guild titled, 'The Assault on Free Speech, Public Assembly, and Dissent' argues that policies suppressing free speech have become the norm. The report details sixteen large-scale street demonstrations during the last five years in which they charge the government with gross violations of constitutional rights. It states: 'The uniformity of approach and the zealous and relentless application of such tactics suggest a much more serious and organized threat to civil liberties than many may realize.'
The Bush Administration has acknowledged their attack on civil liberties as justified in a time of war and terror. In January of 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft, the top law enforcement official in the country, claimed that his critics, and critics of the Bush Administration, 'aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity... diminish our resolve, [and] give pause to our friends.'
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg echoed Ashcroft and stirred the ire of protesters before the convention when he said, that when people 'start to abuse our privileges, then we lose them.'
As Harak responded: 'Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly went from being a constitutional right to being a revocable privilege to being a criminal activity.' During 16 demonstrations cited in the National Lawyers Guild report -- in addition to the RNC demonstrations -- civil authorities are taking up military tactics to control crowds.
The big story here is a massive erosion of constitutional rights -- with First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment protections being suspended -- for many who are expressing opinions contrary to those in power.
'A function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute,' wrote Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. 'It may indeed serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging.'
Many have argued that rights must be abridged in times of great danger and war. Yet this country has been on a 'high' or 'elevated' terror alert for over two years. If war, such as the war on terror, has no end, then at what point do citizens regain the 'privilege' of dissent?
- National Lawyers Guild
- The Assault on Free Speech, Public Assembly, and Dissent A National Lawyers Guild Report on Violations of First Amendment Rights in the United States