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Mass Arrests Likely at Political Conventions: 6 Historical Precedents

Clinton's law designates political conventions National Special Security Events, a category of state security that virtually dooms the exercise of First Amendment Rights.

Photo Credit: Audrey Pilato via Flickr


The Republican and Democratic Party conventions later this summer will probably witness the mass arrest of many American citizens assembling to exercise their First Amendment rights. Mass arrests accompanied the Republican conventions held in New York in 2004, when 900 people were busted, and in St. Paul in 2008 when 300 were detained, including 30 journalists.

A political convention is designated a National Special Security Event (NSSE), a category of state security originally established by President Clinton through a classified 1998 directive. NSSEs also include the Olympics, the Super Bowl and gatherings of world leaders like the G20 or NATO summits. An event receiving a  NSSE designation gives federal and local law enforcement wide discretion, often leading them to treat protesters as potential terrorists and threats to national security.

This attitude was visible in the recent NATO summit held in Chicago at which approximately 70 people were busted over two days, including three for “terrorism,” allegedly planning to fire bomb the Obama campaign headquarters.

Less reported upon but perhaps more illuminating, law enforcement authorities cobbled together a small army to execute the Chicago NSSE campaign. In addition to the estimated 3,100 members of the Chicago Police Dept., ground troops came from near and far. The Illinois State Police contributed 700 troopers, Milwaukee supplied 100 officers, a Philadelphia contingent consisted of 68 officers and still other police personnel came from Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Federal agents had operational control of the Chicago NATO summit because it was designated a NSSE site. Meanwhile, federal agencies, including Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, played advisory roles with local law enforcement to plan response activities to OWS.

In an effort to further restrict the rights of ordinary citizens to assemble, the Congress, with bipartisan zeal, moved with speed and stealth to outlaw OWS-types of assemblies on federal property. In March 2012, President Obama signed the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011 (H.R. 347 and S.1794). The Act makes it a federal crime to enter or occupy, disrupt or impede access to “restricted buildings and grounds,” i.e., designate federal facilities. Violators can get up to one-year imprisonment, a fine or both. The Act essentially criminalizes sit-ins, “mic checks,” human chains and a number of other forms of non-violent civil disobedience.

This is a momentous election year, with a day of reckoning coming in November. The nation is living through what Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman calls a second depression. As the electoral process is repeatedly corrupted by moneyed interests, political discontent seems to increase. This partially explains why those in political authority, at both the federal and local levels, are putting in place the mechanisms to repress civil unrest.

Another factor informing those in power to prepare for popular expressions of discontent is America’s long history of social conflict, including episodes of mass arrest, detention, internment, imprisonment and deportation.

Social disruptions are precipitated by a number of factors, including war (or the fear of war), natural disasters, civil strife and political disturbance. Such dislocations often involve mass arrest and civil confinement. The following six episodes show how far federal and local law enforcement can go to restrict civil liberties.

1. Post-9/11 Detention.  9/11 was a horrendous day. One of the ripples from the attacks was the nearly hysterical targeting of Muslims. According to a 2003 report from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), “America’s Challenge:  Domestic Security, Civil Liberties and Nation Unity After September 11th,” at least 1,200 people were detained following the attack. The MPI cautions: “The government has refused to say exactly how many, who they are, or what has happened to  all of them."

However, according to an estimate by Abdul Malik Mujahid, a Chicago imam and contributor to the Huffington Post, the U.S. government’s overall policy of post-9/11 detention effort was far greater. He estimates the total number of “interments” at 212,638 people, including those the FBI interrogated, detained, subpoenaed, arrested, deported and subject to  special INS interviews. The sociologist Charles Kurzman calculated that total number of Muslim-Americans indicted for “violent terrorist plots” from 9/11 through year-end 2011 at 193 – or, as he says,  “just under 20 per year.”

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