Mass Arrests Likely at Political Conventions: 6 Historical Precedents

Human Rights

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.”

2. WWI Red Scare. J. Edgar Hoover started his career waging war against subversives, serving as an able assistant to U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer during the infamous Red Scare of 1919-1920. Under Palmer’s direction, U.S. agents arrested and detained an estimated 10,000 suspects for alleged subversion; 556 were deported, including Emma Goldman.

The Red Scare grew out of a series of repressive federal legislature that reflected World War I hysteria. The U.S. entered World War I in April 1917. In June, Congress passed the Espionage Act that criminalized what was interpreted as acts of interference in foreign policy and espionage. "Espionage” was a very inexact if elastic category, however, including the publication of materials critical of the government. Punishment ranged from stiff fines to 20-year prison terms for anyone who obstructed the draft or encouraged “disloyalty” against the U.S. government.

The Anarchist Exclusion Act – aka the Immigration Act of 1917 – allowed federal authorities to detain and deport foreign-born anarchists, antiwar protesters and members of radical labor unions (e.g., the IWW). Most clever, the Act made deportations an administrative procedures rather than a due process procedure, thus side-stepping the courts and the Constitution.

The Sedition Act of 1918 was really an amendment to the 1917 Espionage Act. It criminalized four expressions of “free speech”: (i) utterances conveying false statements that interfere with the U.S. war effort; (ii) employing "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the American government, the Constitution, the flag or U.S. military or naval forces; (iii) encouraging strikes or other actions that curtailed the production of war material; and (iv) advocating, teaching, defending or suggesting the doing of any of the above acts. The law was aimed at curbing political dissent, targeting socialists, anarchists, pacifists and radical labor leaders. Approximately 3,600 people were arrested under the Sedition Act. (The Supreme Court upheld the Constitutionality of the Sedition Act; Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously dissented.)

Congress passed an earlier Sedition Act in 1798. It gave the president the power to expel “dangerous” aliens; to arrest, detain and deport resident aliens hailing from enemy countries during times of war; and to silence criticism of government policy. If the arrest and deportation of thousands was not bad enough, in 1919 the House of Representatives refused to seat an elected representative, Victor L. Berger from Wisconsin, because he was a self-proclaimed socialist of German ancestry and held antiwar views.

3. WWI “Prostitute” Roundups. In 1918, following the country’s entry into WWI, Congress passed the Chamberlain-Kahn Act giving the federal government the power to quarantine any woman suspected of having venereal disease for the “protection of the military and naval forces of the United States.” It required that a woman undergo a medical test to determine her status with regard to venereal diseases. At this historical moment, neither a scientifically valid diagnosis nor a medically approved treatment for VD was available. The Act allotted $1 million for a “civilian quarantine and isolation fund.”

The act was prompted by two critical factors. First, syphilis was an epidemic throughout the country; in 1916, an estimated 400,000 prostitutes died from it. Second, there was a high rate of VD infection among American military recruits; an estimated one-third of the men joining the service were infected with syphilis or gonorrhea.

Unescorted and single women were seized in periodic roundups, often on city streets, in public parks or outside military camps. An estimated 30,000 women were seized in local roundups. Some of these women were indeed prostitutes, while others simply teenage girls attracted to the glamor of soldiers going off to war or "charity girls" who had sex in exchange for meals or entertainment. They were designated “domestic enemies,” accused of undermining the war effort.

The War Department established a quarantine policy and local authorities implemented it; it was a nationwide witch-hunt. The women seized were presumed guilty, and if found infected, were often given indeterminate sentences. Half the women quarantined were reported infected, and of those incarcerated, the average period of imprisonment was 10 weeks. Some were confined for a year or more.

4. Depression-Era Bonus Army Attack. On July 28, 1932, the Washington, D.C., police, followed by a contingent of the U.S. Army headed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, attacked a peaceful encampment of World War I veterans, the Bonus Army, in a Hooverville-type shantytown on the Anacostia River flats across from the Capitol.

The Washington police initially led the assault, but facing stiff resistance, they opened fire on the demonstrators, killing two veterans. Informed of the shooting, President Hoover ordered the Army to take charge of the removal of the vets. MacArthur, assisted by his young aide, Dwight Eisenhower, led a force of 600 armed soldiers, a machine gun unit, a horse-mounted cavalry and a half-dozen Renault tanks. Some 10,000 protesters were routed and casualties overwhelmed local hospitals. While the military did not fire its weapons, it used bayonetted rifles and gas grenades to disperse the vets and their supporters, leaving two dead, 135 arrested and hundreds injured.

Eisenhower later wrote, "The whole scene was pitiful. The veterans were ragged, ill-fed, and felt themselves badly abused. To suddenly see the whole encampment going up in flames just added to the pity.”

5. 1960s Political Mobilizations. The ‘60s was a tumultuous period of social unrest. It was framed by a massive military intervention in Vietnam to halt the spread of Chinese communism. An estimated 50,000 U.S. soldiers and 2 million Vietnamese people died; today the U.S. is indebted to China. And it was witness to a momentous civil rights movement characterized by numerous marches, demonstrations and riots. And then there was the counterculture of sex, drugs and rock & roll, and the women’s and gay-liberation movements. The decade changed America.

A series of urban rebellions, most often involving black Americans, rocked the nation.  About a dozen major uprisings took place during the ‘60s and mass arrest was a common feature. Three of the most significant riots are telling: (i) the five-day Watts rebellion of 1965 saw 34 people killed and 3,438 arrests; (ii) the six-day Newark riot of 1967 saw 23 people killed and close to 1,500 arrested; and (iii) the five-day Detroit riot of 1967 saw 43 killed and over 7,000 people arrested.

Campaigns against the Vietnam War also led to episodes in political protest and mass arrest. The “Movement,” as it was affectionately known, was non-violent and came together in mass mobilizations. In 1967, 400,000 marched to New York’s Central Park to protest the war; by 1969, 200,000 marched in the nation’s capital against the war.  However, sometimes political mobilization got out of the control of the more responsible segments of the left. Two of these incidents were the 1967 “levitating” of the Pentagon and opposition at the 1968 Democratic convention.

On October 21, 1967, an estimated 100,000 people massed on the Mall in Washington to "Confront the War Makers." At some point, a small contingent of several hundred people broke off and marched to the Justice Department where 1,000 men turned in their draft cards.

A second contingent, made up 50,000 people, broke off and headed toward the Pentagon. Inspired by Yippee politics of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, these political jesters sought to “levitate” the Pentagon. They were greeted by 2,500 federal troops and 200 U.S. marshals. The troops formed a human barricade protecting the Pentagon steps. All told, 681 people were arrested and 100 were treated for injuries.

Between August 19 and 25, 1968, millions of Americans and people around the world watched dumbstruck as Chicago’s Democratic National Convention played out the great national debate over the Vietnam War. In addition to the hundreds of delegates, attendees and journalist at the convention, some 5,000 activists rallied against the Democratic Party’s pro-war stand.

Anti-war fever had been building for months. In February, the Pentagon’s great lie of invincibility was shattered in the Tet offensive. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. And in June, Robert Kennedy, the leading antiwar candidate, was assassinated in Los Angeles.

Now, two months later, a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party was playing out.  The incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, had decided to not run for a second term. Antiwar Dems inside the convention hall, led by Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, fought the establishment Dems, led by Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Edward Muskie (D-ME), for control of the party.

Outside the hall, a force of 12,000 Chicago police, 7,500 Army troops and 6,000 National Guardsmen turned an expression of First Amendment assembly into a domestic war confrontation. Demonstrators heaved rocks and insults, the police used nightsticks, mace and tear gas to put down popular protest. The Yippee slogan, "The whole world is watching," had special resonance as many reporters, camera operators and bystanders were clubbed, beaten and arrested in what came to be known as a “police riot.” An estimated 700 were arrested.

6. WWII Internment. The nation’s most shameful episode in popular and governmental overreactions to a national-security crisis is the internment of 120,000 Japanese-American (Nisei) and Japanese aliens (Issei) during World War II. President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 empowering the War Department to designate “military areas” and then exclude anyone from such areas it felt to be a threat. The principle “military area” was California; the principle “threat” was Japanese residents.

In April ‘42, people of Japanese ancestry, including those with only one-sixteenth Japanese blood, were given one week to settle outstanding personal accounts and appear for internment. As has been well documented, Japanese-Americans lost everything they couldn't carry with them, including their farms, shops and homes. The internment lasted until Japan’s surrender in 1945. Major camps were in California (Manzanar), but also in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. In 1993, President Clinton apologized for the U.S. government’s unjust treatment of Japanese-Americans:

Today, on behalf of your fellow Americans, I offer a sincere apology to you for the actions that unfairly denied Japanese Americans and their families fundamental liberties during World War II.

In addition, 11,500 German, Italian and Latin Americans were interned. The U.S. government also arrested nearly 3,000 Japanese and Germans, along with 231 Italians, as possible enemy aliens. The internment program is the great shame of Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy.

* * *

These six episodes are not a complete list of the acts of popular assembly and mass arrest that have taken place in the U.S. since the nation’s founding. Rather, they are illustrative examples of how the power of the state, whether federal or local, can be mobilized to put down threatening forms of popular, domestic assembly.

Occasionally, the forces of state and corporate authority are surprised, their coordinate tyranny momentarily disrupted. Most recently, the unexpected defeat of MPAA-backed legislation to more forcefully police free speech on the Internet, SOPA and PIPA, shook up Washington insiders. In terms of direct action, the mass mobilization opposing the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 was a game-changer. The forces of corp/state order were unprepared for what took place; 157 people were arrested and nearly all released for lack of probable cause or hard evidence.

In the intervening decade, popular protest has begun to build. However, the forces of authority have gotten smarter, putting in place increasingly repressive legal provisions and better-prepared ground troops to restrict mass popular protest.

9/11 provided the rationale for an expanded state military and security apparatus.  Today, the fears of 9/11 are waning and the political-military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan (like in Vietnam) are become self-evident. To maintain the massive military, intelligence and policing apparatus of state power, a new enemy has to be identified. In the globalization war for resources, the “enemy” is China and Iran; in the domestic struggle over equality, it is political activists.

Popular unrest and mass arrest marked the 2004 and 2008 Republican conventions.  More troubling, arrests at OWS gathering in New York (e.g., 700 arrested in Brooklyn Bridge march) and Chicago (e.g., 175 arrested in Congress Plaza) suggest just how prepared the state is getting. The hot summer of 2012 is just getting started.

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