The Criminalization of Dissent

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?

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