By Bonnie Weinstein
The idea that freedom of assembly and speech are “privileges” is simply outrageous. This unconstitutional (and retrograde!) notion was espoused by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, according to an article in the Aug. 17 New York Times by Jennifer Steinhauer, entitled, “Behavior May Cost Protesters ‘Privileges,’ Bloomberg says.”
In practice, however, our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly have often been violated, both in the past and even more so today, in the name of the so-called war on terror.
At the million-man march, the million-youth march, and the Feb. 15, 2003, mass march against the impending war on Iraq, protesters were penned in—trapped like rats and barricaded in penlike structures surrounded by police. At a very small demonstration in San Francisco on a weekday, called by A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), during a visit by the Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, the tiny group of about 150 protesters was penned in, surrounded by police, and even had rifles trained on it.
In the 1960s and 70s the Black communities in cities throughout our country were barricaded—unable to “go downtown” or even to the supermarket across the street for days and even weeks at a time.
At a meeting organized for Malcolm X at Columbia University, an audience sat waiting for their speaker. There had been a “riot” (police riot) in Harlem (common in the 1960s), so it was completely unsafe for Malcolm to cross the police barriers, since Harlem was under a curfew and Blacks were not allowed to leave—even in daytime. It would have been just the chance the police were looking for to shoot him down. Malcolm’s aide, James Shabazz, took the chance. He sneaked out of Harlem that day and delivered greetings from Malcolm and an inspiring speech to an eager crowd of around 200 people, who had waited patiently until he could get there.
At a demonstration on Haight Street in protest of the Kent State killings, may 4, 1970, which had just occurred, the National Guard was called out and Haight Street had barbed wire rolled out on the sidewalks on either side of the street. National Guard troops—rifles at the ready—were stationed no more than two feet apart for blocks. Inside the barrier, antiwar activists were passing out flowers and peace signs, chanting, and trying to engage the Guardsmen in conversation. (Remember the photo of the National Guardsman with the flower in the barrel of his rifle? Demonstration organizers had encouraged protesters to be friendly to the troops—to encourage them to see the protesters as fellow human beings instead of enemies.)
Tear gas was commonly used on the campuses and in the streets that were erupting with protest whenever people gathered spontaneously. Mounted police enclosed small crowds of protesters, crushing them together. People panicked, the police batons started bashing and the canisters of gas started flying through the air—protesters choking as they fled in all directions.
And even earlier, in the great civil rights struggles, people suffered dogs, water hoses and beatings for crimes like holding a vigil on a public sidewalk against Jim Crow laws labeling public restrooms and water fountains “whites only.”
These police and government tactics are not new to us. And now violation of our freedoms is escalating. Last year at the Oakland ports, peaceful and unarmed protesters were shot with wooden and rubber pellets, causing serious injury to many. Another case in point is the refusal to grant uncaged assembly permits at the Democratic Party convention in Boston. Still another was New York’s refusal to grant permits for an antiwar protest rally in Central Park in connection with the Republican national convention.
These unconstitutional assaults on our First Amendment rights and the new laws that erode our rights in the name of “fighting terror” have to be challenged. We have to stand united against illegal roundups, the taking of political prisoners, police brutality, torture, and invasions of privacy by police and government agencies—a practice long routine in poor and minority neighborhoods. We must also protest the restriction of locations for demonstrations, the outrageous financial obligations placed on protesters, and the other ploys used to stifle dissent.
San Francisco even tried to bill the organizers of a demonstration over $32,000 for the Department of Public Works to clean up Market Street after the Feb. 16, 2003, “The World Says No to War” demonstration. And the A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition was handed a bill for thousands of dollars for the removal of antiwar signs that were posted by individuals all over the city.
Antiwar groups have been experiencing increasing difficulty getting permits, being required to procure insurance bonds in excess of a million dollars. More and more obligations are being placed on prospective permit holders. Demonstrations now cost tens of thousands of dollars, funds that organizers must raise on their own—and we often don’t even get to pick the place or the route of our own protest!
What is glaringly missing today is a national leadership that can organize a truly broad and unified opposition to these increasing oppressive restrictions on our inalienable rights!
We need a leadership that will bring us together to demand our rights and defend those who have been and are being persecuted around the world, as well as in our own country.
The importance of cases like that of peace activist Farouk Abdel-Muhti must be championed. His illegal imprisonment in New York, without any charges, for almost two years certainly contributed to his untimely death this past July. He was out of jail for only about three months before his death. And there are thousands of cases of torture and abuse in American “detention centers” just like the horrible practices carried out under American orders and by American personnel at Abu Ghraib.
And, taking place right now, is the case of Attorney Lynne Stewart, who is being threatened with imprisonment for 40 years (in effect for the rest of her life) for doing what defense attorneys do—defending her client.
The issues at stake surrounding Lynne Stewart’s case challenge not only the privacy of attorney-client communications, but will, in effect, end the right to defense counsel altogether. Because now, by the very act of defending a client, the attorney can be charged with the same offense! The cost of such a defense alone is prohibitive and contributes to the breakdown of legal rights altogether.
What lawyer will defend any client charged with a serious crime? And what client will feel comfortable talking to his or her attorney if every conversation and piece of communication between them is being viewed, recorded and used against them by the prosecution?
In another case, under special judicial order, the photo of a juvenile—a 15-year-old suspect in a shooting—was released to the mass media. Because police said he was “armed and dangerous,” the court gave them permission to plaster his picture all over the place. This amounts to nothing less than a license for police to “shoot to kill” a 15-year-old boy—to carry out the ultimate punishment on a child— before even going to trial.
Under the guise of national security, this government—represented by both its Democratic and Republican politicians—is launching a deliberate assault on our constitutionally guaranteed rights. We have to strongly oppose this assault. Our strength lies in our numbers. Our numbers depend on our unity. Our unity depends on the righteousness of our demands for freedom, equality and justice for all. We cannot, by our silence, acquiesce to unconstitutional restrictions on our freedoms and our lives.