Civil Liberties  
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Disgrace at Freedom Plaza

A look back at the tactics police used to deal with peaceful dissent at the World Bank protests raises some disturbing questions.
 
 
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The week before last, I was illegally arrested along with more than 600 others, the vast majority of whom had committed absolutely no illegal act and had not planned on being arrested. WARNING: Sitting in a park watching people drum and dance is now a crime.

At 8am on Friday, Sept. 27, I went into downtown Washington DC, curious to figure out what the Anti-Capitalist Convergence was all about. I had heard they were planning some marches and rallies that day and even though I knew they did not have permits for these actions, I thought I would go check them out from the sidewalk for an hour or so before going to work. I have been to dozens of demonstrations and several recently in DC, and I thought I knew the drill -- the cops humor you for a while and then get ticked off and give you few minutes to disperse and arrest those that don't. So I wasn't too worried.

I passed by some people getting arrested in front of one of the IMF buildings, watched for a second, and then got the heck out of there -- I support these guys and what they are protesting with all my heart, but I really wanted to get to work by 11 a.m. and had no interest in getting bullied or arrested by the cops. Besides, there were permitted rallies and marches the next two days being organized by the Mobilization for Global Justice that I wanted to participate in. I stopped by a café (not Starbucks!) and grabbed a little yuppie cappuccino and biscotti, and kept walking. I had heard there was going to be a "die in" in Freedom Plaza at 10 a.m. -- street theater in which people dress up as Palestinians, Afghans, Iraqis, Columbians and other victims of American supported terror and injustice -- and I thought I would watch that from a distance before going to work.

I got to Freedom Plaza a little after 9, and saw a group of people dancing and drumming, and went over to watch. Hundreds started converging on the park. I was so impressed with the undergrads and even some high school students (at 28, I was one of the oldest people around) who were there, and as I heard them speaking articulately about the connection between consumerism in America, the World Bank, globalization and global poverty, I felt inspired and hopeful. Don't believe anyone who says these demonstrators don't understand the issues, or are not a movement, or that they have no connection with each other. They do.

I saw about a dozen people march into the street chanting anti-World Bank and IMF slogans, and they were immediately pushed back to the park by the cops. I got as far away from that as that as I could; again, I did not want to get arrested. Around 9:15 I noticed hundreds of cops in riot gear surrounding the park. It seemed absurdly disproportionate, because the vast majority of the people in the park were clearly not trying to do anything illegal.

So there I am, holding a cappuccino in a park surrounded by police, saying to myself, OK, it is time to get out of here. The police refused to let me out. Some cops on one part of the park said, "I don't care where you have to go, you made the choice to come down here and you are not getting out." I went to try a different side of the park, and there I heard the cops saying to others like me who were trying to leave, "We will make an announcement soon letting those who want to leave, leave, and the rest will be arrested."

Meanwhile, they were closing in on us and it was getting pretty tight. The cops were getting all worked up, and the protestors started to chant, "We want to leave peacefully, we want to leave peacefully!"

Before I knew it, these huge officers from Chicago, Boston, DC, and federal Park Police where pulling out their batons and whacking people. The protestors chanted "Shame! Shame! Shame!" in response. Then it got really ugly and scary. The police yelled, "There are only two ways you are going to get out of here -- by volunteering to be arrested, or by being arrested by force."

Bewildered people lined up near me to get "voluntarily arrested." The woman standing next to me was a photographer who had come across the activities in the park on her way somewhere else, got out to take a picture, forgot her press badge and found herself in handcuffs. I later heard of several passersby this happened to; and many hundreds of others who, like me, just wanted to check out and support the demonstrators on Friday, who were sitting in the park that day but who were really in DC for Saturday's and Sunday's events.

Empty DC public transit buses came out of nowhere and lined up near the curb. Cops lined the way to the first bus. I was grabbed by the neck by a huge man wearing gloves and forced toward the bus. He tightened his grip when I tried to look behind me, and yelled not to look back. I wondered if that was because someone was being beaten. A few minutes earlier, I saw a tiny woman who couldn't have been more than about 20 years old and 100 pounds shackled and punched in the back. Others were slammed to the ground and were bleeding.

We got on the bus and were handcuffed behind our backs. I ended up on the bus handcuffed like that from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at which point we were brought into a large gym at the Police Training Academy in SW DC, where we were shackled right cuff to left ankle (so we couldn't stand up) for 20 hours, lying on mats. Many of us were denied food and access to lawyers. We were not told the charges against us for hours after being detained. "Failure to obey a police officer" ended up being the charge. Of course, we had never been given an order to obey in the first place.

I am sure if I had been a person of color or poor or arrested for possession, or for being homeless, I would have been treated far worse -- I'm not saying we suffered police brutality. But we were treated like crap nonetheless, especially given the minor charges against us. This was clearly meant to intimidate protestors from ever getting out on the streets again. Judging from the conversations I had with those around me, the police instead taught a lesson in how to radicalize college students. The message coming from the police is: If you go to a demonstration, permitted or not, peaceful or not, whether or not you are planning a non-violent direct action or even if you are just walking by, you have no rights if the cops decide you don't.

"You are not allowed to hold me for more than 12 hours without giving me food, it's against the law," I told the officer standing over me. He laughed in my face and said "Don't talk to me about the law."

The officer was right; in this disturbed and unjust scenario they could do whatever they wanted. If they could arrest us by simply ignoring our supposed "constitutional rights" to freedom of speech and assembly, not read us our rights and keep us from our lawyers, of course they could deny us food.

Some of the people arrested decided not to take the charge and ask for a day in court. I decided not to go to court and just pay my $50, plead "no contest," and get the hell out of jail. Others refused to give their names at all and may still be in detention, I really don't know.

The truth is that protecting property and keeping traffic flowing trump civil liberties in the U.S., now more than ever. I personally have not paid enough attention to our eroding rights post-Sept. 11. It is true that Americans do get all self-righteous (rightfully so) about "our rights and liberties" from time to time. I found myself inspired by the other protestors and also mad enough to say somewhat dramatically to my arresting officer when he told me I shouldn't have been in the park that day: "I'm a proud American. Dissent is an American value. This country was built on protest and dissent, and doing both are acts of patriotism. What was the Boston Tea Party, anyway?" That didn't go over too well. I got laughed at.

On the other hand, when 600 people are arrested in a park, the news reports the incident as if it were a victory for the police department and the city, and somehow the public seems to agree that we "shouldn't have been out there protesting."

Says who? When thousands of German college students march through the streets protesting a college fee hike as happened a few years ago, do German citizens watching the events on TV get uniformly angry at the protestors? Do they say, as DC residents did, "What's wrong with these demonstrators, why don't they just stay out of the city and leave us alone?" Do the protesters get arrested, or are they allowed to march peacefully down the street without a permit for a while?

When Egyptians and Jordanians get arrested in their countries by the hundreds simply for peacefully demonstrating in support of the Intifada or against their governments' relationships with the U.S., doesn't the State Department human rights report cite that as examples of civil rights and free speech violations? (It does, I've read it).

What's the difference between them and us?

Shawna Bader is a community activist based in Washington DC who works in the field of international health and development.