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Fighting for Americans' Right to Dissent: A Review of 'Hell No'

Authors Michael Ratner and Margaret Ratner Kunstler examine the detrimental impact that criminalizing lawful dissent has had on social movements.

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In a post-9/11 socio-political climate, terrorism is often used as a justification for squelching dissent, the deterioration of protections from unwarranted surveillance, and the denial of the right to due process of law. Even President Barack Obama has argued that surveillance is a necessary tool to fight terrorism and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 -- which prohibits the provision of "material aid" to groups deemed by the State Department to be "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" -- was passed by the Clinton administration. This shows that the maintenance of power and control is not contained by party lines.

It should also be emphasized that "material aid" goes beyond monetary support and includes "expert advice," such as workshops on peaceful dispute resolution. So, according to the U.S. legal statues, it is considered a crime to provide humanitarian aid and peaceful literature to entities that our government believes may be tied to terrorism. Yet it is the prerogative of our elected officials to support despotic and draconian regimes.

A challenge the authors of Hell No confront is making the case for why their arguments matter, particularly in the face of newly emerging tactics for making change that are lauded by the media and adopted by unseasoned activists. Web-based tools, like Facebook and Twitter, are widely heralded as having facilitated the success of the Arab Spring, and many Americans are uncritically adopting similar maneuvers for nationwide protests, such as Occupy Wall Street. What these people may not be considering, however, is that the use of mobile phone and the Internet technology for organizing makes it easier for the government to monitor and disrupt activists' plans since our legal system hasn't been adequately modified to include this type of technology.

While this perspective may come across as hyperbolic or paranoid, consider the way law enforcement manipulates the media to brand protestors as dangerous thugs and scare away potential supporters by indicating the possibility of an eruption of violence (which rarely happens). This type of assumptive policing and fear mongering convinces ordinary citizens that public demonstrations are not worth the risk and encourages them to seek alternative methods to be heard. This, in turn, drives more and more people off the streets and toward the supposed safety of the World Wide Web, simultaneously accelerating a surveillance State. When you step back far enough, the pattern becomes clear.

Near the end of section one, " The Meaning and Importance of Dissent," Ratner and Kunstler write, "Political, social, and economic rights have only been won in this country when they were demanded." Hell No encourages Americans to recall the profound actions of our forebears that brought about critical progressive changes and sublimate this book's alarm call into revolutionary transformation.

Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in Twenty-First-Century America was published this spring by the New Press. AlterNet recently published an excerpt of the book, which you can read here.

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