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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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There is a certain circular (il)logic of the hawkish variety that goes a little something like this: In order for Americans to protect our freedoms from terrorist threats to our security, we have to give up certain liberties until we reach a time of absolute safety. Well, I hate to break it to these folks, but there has never been a time in American history when citizens haven't grappled with one security threat or another, and when the populous cedes power to elected leaders, history shows it's not likely to be given back without a fight.

In Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in Twenty-First-Century America, Michael Ratner and Margaret Ratner Kunstler of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) take the reader through a brief chronicle of American protest and the U.S. government's (legal and illegal) disruption of dissent. They examine the detrimental impact that criminalizing lawful political activity has had on social movements and provide concrete guidance for activists who engage in acts of resistance. The authors make clear the need for Americans to reclaim their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and speak without fear of impediment or reprisal, and they reveal the myriad ways individuals are being punished for enacting the ideals of our democratic nation.

On August 29, 2004 I made a phone call after returning to my apartment from one of the largest protest marches in United States history: the Republican National Convention in New York City. I was exhilarated to have stood in solidarity with hundreds of thousands of people in order to voice my objection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Bush administration's repressive policies, and I wanted to infect an apolitical friend with my joyful enthusiasm.

My excitement turned to concern when I heard Isabella's voicemail message: "Sorry I'm not able to answer my phone. I went to Union Square to buy a pair of shoes and was penned by the NYPD with several hundred people while simply walking down the sidewalk. I'm not sure if I've been arrested or not, but they're holding me and a bunch of other people at one of the piers. It's pretty foul in here and I don't know when they will let us go. I don't even know if I'm being processed or if I am in the system. Please call the NYPD and see if you can help get me out."

After three days Isabella was released without being charged when a judge threatened to fine the city of New York for each hour its Pier 57 prisoners were detained. Isabella was one of the over 1,800 people who, in May 2011, won a class action lawsuit against New York City for being unlawfully arrested and excessively detained to clear the streets of dissenters (and those who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, like Isabella).

According to Ratner and Kunstler, this example of indiscriminate mass arrest by corralling law-abiding protesters, journalists, legal observers, and bystanders with a large swath of police netting is far from unique. It is one of many unjust tactics being used by law enforcement officers to dissuade and prevent citizens from agitating publicly for social and political change. People who possess wealth and social power have networks and resources that give them the ability to gain an audience with lawmakers and politicians and persuade them to do their bidding, whereas ordinary citizens must rely on civil disobedience, passive resistance, and organizational solidarity to attract attention.

However, their dissent cannot be effectively expressed when government officials fail to grant assembly permits or restrict sites on which demonstrations are allowed to places with low foot traffic or poor access. When people without means are silenced by the threat of unlawful arrest or the denial of public space to protest, American democracy is eroded and our individual freedoms are curtailed. Not allowing citizens their right to dissent stands in opposition to the very spirit on which this country was founded.

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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