Protester Scare Stories
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"Anarchists Emerge as the Convention's Wild Card." That was the headline of a front page piece of the August 20 New York Times. The story by Randal C. Archibold kicked off this way:
Their reputation precedes them. Self-described anarchists were blamed for inciting the violence in Seattle at a 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in which 500 people were arrested and several businesses damaged. They have been accused by the police of throwing rocks or threatening officers with liquid substances at demonstrations against the Republican convention in Philadelphia in 2000 and at an economic summit meeting in Miami last year. Now, as the Republican National Convention is about to begin in New York City, the police are bracing for the actions of this loosely aligned and often shadowy group of protesters, and consider them the great unknown factor in whether the demonstrations remain under control or veer toward violence."
For many readers, the story won't raise any eyebrows. Archibold's narrative goes down easy because it's the story we've been hearing for years: Violence at demonstrations is the fault of shadowy anarchists, a group with a habit of disrupting protests and attacking police. Their reputation precedes them. It's true, but it's a reputation brought to you by the status quo media machine. We the Constitution-loving public would be a whole lot better prepared these days, if we actually had the facts.
As the Kerry Swift boat story tells us, being blamed isn't the same as being guilty. Want to know who started the violence in Seattle? Ask the media who covered the protests early on. From-the-scene reports showed that it was the police who locked down the city, used chemical weapons on penned-in crowds, and fired rubber bullets at nonviolent demonstrators – even at bystanders and families trying to flee.
According to a long ACLU report on the matter the Seattle police bullied local residents and shoppers, made hundreds of improper arrests, and committed widespread acts of brutality.
Turn to Philadelphia, and were protestors accused? Yes. But convicted? Mostly not. In fact, the enormous majority of the cases brought against activists were dismissed, in no small part because of the revelations about undercover police tactics that came out in court. Legal documents revealed that in violation of Philadelphia law, the police infiltrated protest groups, spied on organizers, instructed city housing officers to shut down buildings on specious pretexts, police provocateurs provoked violence. Federal, state and local police, it turned out, were working together with the Secret Service – and the basis for at least one group of search warrants was a report produced by a extremist right wing think tank, the Maldon Institute. One targeted demonstrator, arrested while walking down the street, made history when he became the first American ever accused – but not convicted – of brandishing a cellphone with intent to commit a crime. Bail was set at $1 million.
All of this, it should be said, was long before the PATRIOT ACT.
Why go into all this history? Well, look at this way: The very same guy who was police chief in Philadelphia is now advising the city of New York on policing the RNC. After Philly, John Timoney became the chief of police in Miami where he oversaw the militarization of that city in advance of the protests targeting the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit. A judge presiding over the cases of protestors arrested there told the Miami Herald that he personally witnessed no less than 20 felonies committed by police officers during the FTAA demonstrations. Miami got $8.5 million in federal funds "for security" from the money approved for spending in Iraq.
In 21st Century USA, I happen to believe that nonviolent protest is the most effective kind. Whenever someone or a group engages in self-destructive behavior or behaviour that backfires on their colleagues, it's a shame. But abusing the criminal justice system to intimidate and witch-hunt protestors, using provocateurs, suppressing Constitutional rights of speech and assembly is worse. The power of the few to abuse is nothing compared to the power of the world's richest state.
If I had been writing The New York Times front page story August 20, I would have led off this way:
"John Timoney's reputation precedes him. Forces under his command have repeatedly been found guilty of constitutional abuse. There are lots of unknown factors but one is known – conspiring and often shadowy law enforcement agencies have a history of violence against protestors and it seems to be getting worse. Who's bracing in New York City in advance of the 2004 RNC? Regular Americans seeking to express their opinions of a man who purports to be their president. "
This commentary first aired on Air America Radio on Sunday, August 22.
Laura Flanders is the host of "The Laura Flanders Show" heard on weekends on Air America Radio. She is the author of "Bushwomen, tales of a cynical species (Verso).