Can't Stop, Won't Stop

If you want to wear your “Dump Dubya” button in Crawford, Tex., a few miles from the president's ranch, make sure you get approval from the police chief. Wearing a political button could violate Crawford’s protest ordinance that requires a $25 permit and prior approval by police. A February 16 verdict by a six-person jury meeting in a rented recreation center room upheld the ordinance. Five peace activists stopped at a Crawford roadblock en route to protests near the president’s ranch last May were convicted of violating the city’s parade and procession law. They were fined $200 to $500 and plan to appeal.

Increasing limits on protest aren’t limited to one-horse Texas towns with Bush memorabilia shops. Government surveillance and the criminalization of dissent are growing and activists and civil liberties advocates say Americans need to be worried. Two significant recent episodes prove their point:

* In Des Moines, the U.S. Attorney Office issued and then, under pressure, dropped a gag order and subpoena that demanded information about who attended and what was discussed at a peace forum. The supoenas also required annual reports from the Drake University chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. The campus group sponsored a forum November 15, 2003, a day before a run-of-the-mill peace rally at a National Guard facility. Among those subpoenaed was the executive director of the Catholic Peace Ministry. Faced with mounting criticism, the government also withdrew subpoenas for four specific protestors.

* The Texas Civil Rights Project condemned U.S. Army intelligence agents who wanted a roster of those who attended a conference on women and Islamic law at the University of Texas law school in Austin. Intelligence agents are also accused of posing as lawyers during the February 4 event. The U.S. Army Intelligence Security Command has said it is looking into the incident. The law school’s president said it was the first time in 30 years he had heard of the government investigating a law school forum or seminar.

“When the government intimidates people expressing their opinions non-violently in Iowa, the civil rights of all Americans are questioned,” said Joseph Truong, of the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition. His group’s second annual national Books Not Bombs Day of Action is scheduled for March 4. Last year most demonstrations went well and some were supported by schools. But at least 300 students were suspended, 151 students arrested and two schools locked down, Truong said.

Still, Truong’s group is moving forward with its planned protest. “These are not terrorists, these are people who are dissenting. I don’t think people believe the Catholic Peace Ministry is a threat,” said Caroline Palmer, a member of the National Lawyers Guild. The guild has over 6,000 members and chapters at over 100 law schools and in nearly every state. It is dangerous to lump peace activists, or other dissenters, with legitimate targets for criminal investigations, she said.

“We have been urged by the Bush administration that we have to trade off liberty for security and that’s not true,” said Bill Dobbs of United or Peace and Justice, a national coalition of over 600 groups opposed to faulty U.S. foreign policy and devoted to social and racial justice. Dobbs noted local ordinances that limit protest are growing and have surfaced in small towns, like Crawford, Texas, and big cities like Miami.

During a major protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) meeting last year in Miami, demonstrators found local laws governed how big puppets could be, he said. In other instances, people were arrested for standing across the street from a protest site or for simply wearing black, which police assumed made them anarchists, Dobbs added. Protestors are hit with over charges, meaning what might have been a simple arrest for civil disobedience can now mean multiple criminal charges. “People and journalists need to be looking around the entire landscape and asking what is going on,” said Dobbs. With the new surveillance and police powers, it will likely to take years to know how far the authorities have gone, he added.

“Why would government anti-terror resources be targeted at anti-war activists?” asked Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, of the Partnership for Civil Justice and a board member for the anti-war group International A.N.S.W.E.R. She argues that the government activity is clearly aimed at intimidation and has no legal basis. “When you have a government carrying out criminal, immoral activity, you have a right to protest,” she says. Verheyden-Hilliard warns against falling for the “good protestor-bad protestor” divisions. In the 1960s, authorities wanted to label and isolate the Black Panthers as the bad radicals to justify a violent assault on the Black Power movement, Verheyden-Hilliard said.

Abuses within the notorious federal domestic spying and disruption program known as Cointelpro, which targeted the civil rights and Black Power movements as well as thousands of other activists from the 1950s to early 1970s, led to prohibitions on some government spying activity. However, many of those prohibitions have been lifted. The Partnership for Civil Justice has a class action lawsuit going against the District of Columbia and federal law enforcement authorities for hundreds of arrests during anti-war and IMF/World Bank protests on Sept. 27, 2002. A U.S. District Court judge certified the suit in late September. The judge ordered release of an internal police document about the arrests that Mayor Anthony Williams had withheld for months.

Lawsuits stemming from police misconduct during the Bush inauguration in 2001 and the arrests of over 600 people in April 2000 are ongoing.

On February 4, the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Committee filed a civil suit in Miami challenging ordinances enacted just before the FTTA gathering. One provision made it unlawful for more than seven people to gather for more than 30 minutes outside of a structure for a common purpose. Though Verheyden-Hilliard calls the Bush administration guilty of “cynical manipulation of the political climate” after Sept. 11, she said civil liberties erosions didn’t start with the Bush-Ashcroft team. That means continued vigilance regardless of who is in the White House, she said.

Heavy surveillance is expected and likely already underway for the huge demonstrations in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities planned by International A.N.S.W.E.R. and other groups for March 20, the one-year anniversary of the war on Iraq. International A.N.S.W.E.R. has already filed a Freedom of Information Act request about Justice Department activity related to the peace movement.

A government memo, which surfaced last November and was reported in the New York Times called for an increased focus on peace activists by law enforcement. Yet the repeated harassment and the knowledge that it will continue isn’t stopping activists. “Less activism is exactly what these measures are designed to create,” said Wayne Krause, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. For activists, the only response is to keep organizing and getting people out in the streets and using their civil rights.

Richard Muhammad is the Chicago-based editor of StraightWords E-Zine, and former managing editor for The Final Call newspaper. He can be reached at Straightwords4@yahoo.com.

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