When the Going Gets Tough
"When protest becomes effective, governments become repressive." Tom Hayden summed it up in an axiom three decades ago, while describing his own trial on conspiracy charges for organizing protests against the Vietnam War.
The Seattle protests last December knocked the millenium round of WTO negotiations out of commission, and demonstrators have faced increasingly hostile government response ever since. This is especially true for those who have kept to their principles of non-violence and no destruction of property -- which includes almost everyone who showed up in Washington DC last April to protest the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and in Philadelphia last week for the Republican Convention.
The city of Philadelphia upped the ante with the arrest last week of John Sellers on conspiracy charges, and the setting of bail -- for misdemeanor charges -- at one million dollars. A higher court reduced the bail, which was more typical for a murder suspect than someone who is accused of conspiring to block traffic, to $100,000 on Tuesday. But the message was clear.
Sellers heads the Ruckus Society, a group that has trained activists in the techniques of non-violent civil disobedience. The group was instrumental in organizing both the Seattle and Washington, D.C. protests. He was apparently singled out not for anything he had done in Philadelphia, but for who he is. The use of special punishments on the basis of a person's political identity certainly contradicts the principle that we are "a nation of laws, not of men."
Philadelphia is not alone. In Washington DC, the police went so far as to close down the meeting center of the organizations that were planning the protests. This was a flagrant violation of civil liberties more commonly seen in countries like Indonesia or Burma than in the United States. (Philadelphia police staged a similar, almost certainly illegal raid last week on a warehouse used for making puppets and other protest props, "preventively arresting" 70 people). Washington police also rounded up hundreds of people on the street one night, including some unlucky tourists, and launched "pre-emptive strikes" against people who looked like they might be on their way to a demonstration.
Although there were some scuffles between police and a few protestors in Philadelphia, it is important to understand that police abuses have not been committed in response to violence or even property damage. In Seattle, for example, a handful of people on the fringes of the protests broke windows and overturned trash bins. But the police mostly ignored the window-breakers and let loose their tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on the thousands of peaceful demonstrators.
It may seem inflated to compare these protests to the much larger demonstrations of the Vietnam era, but the Seattle and DC demonstrations were enormously effective. The WTO has yet to recover from the collapse of its millenium round, and last April's protests in Washington gave millions of Americans their first glimpse of the IMF and the World Bank. These two organizations head up a creditors' cartel that controls the major economic decisions for more than 60 countries. They are the most powerful financial institutions in the world, and they have relied on public unawareness for 55 years to maintain -- and regularly abuse -- their power.
The protestors have solid moral authority for invoking the long-standing tradition of non-violent civil disobedience. Martin Luther King once compared such infractions to an ambulance going through a red light on its way to the hospital. The issues raised by the protestors certainly have the moral urgency that King was describing.
Fifteen million Africans have already died from AIDS, and our government's policies (together with the IMF, World Bank, and WTO) could cost the lives of millions more. Extracting the maximum debt service from these devastated countries, and protecting US patent holders from the spread of affordable, generic anti-AIDS drugs, appear to remain as these institutions top priorities.
At home, we now have nearly two million prisoners languishing behind bars, hundreds of thousands convicted on drug charges for which no civilized society would incarcerate them.
These are among the issues that the mostly young people whom Philadephia Police Commissioner John Timoney described as "a cadre of criminal conspirators" have sought to bring to public attention.
Million dollar bail, conspiracy charges, illegal raids, and police abuses are unlikely to be any more effective than tear gas and pepper spray in discouraging these protests. Nor will Mayor Street's threat to prosecute low grade misdemeanor charges "to the full extent of the law." He should take a lesson from Washington, DC and release the protesters still being held in Philadelphia's jails.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.