In Minnesota last weekend, in the days before the 2008 Republican National Convention began, the police raided at least four buildings housing nonviolent protesters in preemptive attacks designed to stifle free speech. These are outrageous violations, but, unfortunately, they are part of a dangerous and consistent pattern going back almost a decade, a standard unconstitutional operating procedure.
This police repression at the RNC in the last few days is a deliberate implementation of police repression tools honed at Democratic and Republic Conventions over the course of the last eight years, as well as the methods used at the Washington DC and Miami anti-corporate globalization protests.
The raids included riot police bursting in on a convergence center, a Food Not Bombs house (see the incredibly broad list of what police were seeking with their warrant, including “hollowed out puppets”), and a house housing the videographers who proved police lies and abuse during the New York City Convention four years ago. See also this compilation of video reports from Salon and from .
Minnesota activists warned of this exact threat both in the weeks leading up to the protests (see Andy Birkey’s warning in the Minnesota Independent just a few days ago.from August 19) and
Abby Scher was one of the first to report on this pattern, in her January 2001 Nation essay, “The Crackdown on Dissent.”
The Washington DC Model (April, 2000)
Kirk Murphy detailed the parallels between the recent raids in MN and the unconstitutional DC raids designed to disrupt our protests against the IMF/Word Bank meeting. I had traveled down to DC in an activist bus from Boston, and had arrived early that morning to co-lead a nonviolent direct action training session at the convergence center. Soon after arriving, the police, and a pro-forma contingent of firesquelchers under the pretext of searching for supposed fire hazards, ordered us out of the center and closed access to the building. Many of us considered sitting down right there to make a test case out of it. I remember Kate Donnelly strongly articulating her protest, telling the police in no uncertain terms that they had no right to try to suppress speech. The police almost arrested her on the spot and did arrest some other people they perceived to be leaders, if I remember the situation correctly. During those protests, the police also suddenly penned in hundreds of legal demonstrators and arrrested them en masse. We did mobilize thousands to risk arrest, however, and non-essential government workers were ordered to stay home from work. I encountered and nonviolently confronted former defense secretary (and World Bank head) McNamara walking down the street during these actions, but that’s another story for another time.
The Miami Model (November, 2003)
After the Miami Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) ministerial meeting (November 18-21, 2003), the Miami Independent Review Panel (IRP) evaluated the law enforcement response to protests and planned protests. The IRP is a “mechanism for external community fact-finding and dispute resolution. The nine volunteer Panel Members conduct independent reviews and hold public hearings concerning serious complaints against Miami-Dade County Departments.”
Their conclusions were quite strong,
The members of the Independent Review Panel strongly condemn and deplore the unrestrained and disproportionate use of force by various police departments in Miami during the FTAA. Most importantly, we extend our heartfelt apologies to the visitors who came to our city to peaceably voice their concerns, but who were met with closed fists instead of open arms. Nationally televised images of police violence against non-violent protesters stained our community. For a brief period in time, it appeared as if Miami was a “police state.” Civil rights were trampled and the socio-political values we hold most dear were undermined. The right of every citizen to publicly proclaim their approval or disapproval for the actions of their elected leaders in a peaceful manner lies at the heart of what it means to be an American. The curtailment of that right is the first step from freedom towards bondage.
You can read their entire report, The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) Inquiry Report in PDF form. The AFL-CIO demonstrators experienced
Unfortunately, even though the Miami IRP attempted to obtain the Miami Police Department’s operations plan, the Flordia Third District Court of Appeals overturned Circuit Judge Michael Chavies order to hand over the document. The appeals court based its decision precisely on the basis that the repression unleashed in Miami in 2003 is a model to be repeated. According to www.saveourcivillberties.org, the appeals court ruled, “The FTAA summit is long over. There is no longer the threat of violence surrounding that meeting…. While it contains security plans from the past FTAA summit meeting, the plans are not unique to that event. It is clear that at least some of the procedures, general and specific, will continue to be used for future events.”
The AFL-CIO described the Miami Model in more detail.
The Miami model calls for authorities to foment irrational fears about peaceful political protest in order to legitimize suppression of our rights. This climate of panic enables top police officials to harass and intimidate protestors and sympathetic members of the public through profiling, random stops, and pre-emptive arrests; to neutralize protestors by isolating them from the public and shielding their intended political audience from them; and to punish protestors through unwarranted and indiscriminate use of force, mass arrests, and mistreatment in jail. These tactics are designed to discourage ordinary Americans from exercising their Constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly. People in America should not have to fear violent attacks funded by their own tax dollars when they participate in peaceful and permitted demonstrations.
(see also the video The Miami Model, available on Google Video, and available by loan via the AFSC Video and Film Lending Library.
The New York RNC (August 2004)
The New York police conducted a mass arrest of bike riders at the Critical Mass bike ride on August 27, 2004, detained arrestees without charges well beyond the legal limit, and “proactively” arrested en masse nonviolent protesters, such as those participating in a War Resisters League demonstration, even though they were marching legally at the time. Mike McGuire of the WRL chronicled this pattern, and the parallels between Miami and New York, in the January 2006 isse of the Nonviolent Activist. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the War Resisters League’s National Committee).
Activists who challenged their arrests at the RNC, and those who sued the NYC police for violations of their rights, have helped uncover New York police documents in which police commanders admit that “proactive arrests” and other repressive techniques were part of the DNA of the police response to potential protest. For contemporary reports from four years ago, see Democracy Now’s coverage. Alex Vitale is an academic who studies the connections between the Miami Model and the repression at the RNC, but I haven’t found his articles online yet.
“Free” Speech Zones
Increasingly, police are trying to create so-called free speech zones (both the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 and in Denver in 2008 attempted to cage protesters into prescribed out-of-the-way pens) in which to confine and muzzle our messages. The term is an odious one. I saw a sign on Flickr from the Denver 2008 DNC protests saying “All America Is A Free Speech Zone.” It isn’t, but it should be.
We should probably call them censorship zones, or muzzled speech zones, in order to be more descriptively honest. In 2004, Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, argued persuasively that, even from a moderate point of view, the creation of these zones are unconsitutional. Universities have also tried to quarantine free speech, including the infamous example of repression in Berkeley, CA, which set off the Free Speech Movement in the mid-1960s, and continuing with the successful student struggles at West Virginia University and New Mexico State in the last ten years. Arrests by protesters violating Secret Service-created zones have been thrown out, according to James Bovard writing in the San Francisco Chronicle of January 4, 2004, including by Pennsylvania District Judge Shirley Rowe Trkula, who asked, “I believe this is America. Whatever happened to ‘I don’t agree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’?” See also “When King George Travels, Liberties Suffer” by John Nichols from the Madison Capital Times of Wisconsin, reprinted on Common Dreams.
Beijing China’s use of “free” speech zones during the 2008 Olympics, in which it was declared that protesters could protest in specific areas but authorities refused all requests for permits, according to Human Rights in China, and have arrested and sentenced some of those who applied, should at least forever discredit the “free speech zone” appellation.
Ways to Respond
Los Angeles activists before the Democratic National Convention in 2000 observed the tactics used in Philadelphia at the Republican National Convention and successfully sued for a preliminary injunction in Federal District court which prevented the Los Angeles police from raiding the convergence center there. US District Judge Dean E. Pregerson’s order didn’t go far enough, but it was a start. Unfortunately, however, after the ACLU and AFSC, among other groups sued, US District Judge Marcia Krieger refused to enjoin the Denver DNC 2008 free speech cage. (Full disclosure: I work for the AFSC, editing Peacework Magazine.)
We need to discuss how to prepare for and counteract these demonizing tactics designed to have a chilling effect on free speech and disrupt our effectiveness. Certainly, we need to demonstrate our solidarity with those caught up in the dragnets. The National Lawyers Guild has taken the lead in defending the rights of many of the protesters described above. Their report, Punishing Protest: Government Tactics that Supress Free Speech (
the link is to the PDF), by Heidi Boghosian, details many of the practices outlined above, and many others, and also includes a chapter containing “Court Settlements and Decrees to Protect Free Speech and Political Activity” from 10 cities, including many of the cities mentioned above.
The NLG’s MN chapter is taking the lead, at least in these early stages, of supporting those detained and arrested in Minnesota. They have already, as I write this, managed to reclaim at least some of the video equipment illegally confiscated during the raids of August 27, 2008.</font>
In addition to legal tactics, nonviolent protesters across the globe are faced with the challenge of how to make repression boomerang against the power structures which employ it. One method is to creatively highlight and even mock the ways that the repression violates the principles the authorities claim to follow. One challenge, however, is that responding to the repression can sometimes prevent us from focusing on the proactive message we originally planned on delivering. This is a delicate balancing act.
New Tactics has hosted a forum on how we might learn from creative practitioners of nonviolence worldwide and incorporate these insights into improved nonviolent direct action training in response to these and other forms of police repression. Peacework Magazine posted an annotated selection of links to organizing guides and tools for activists in the spring of 2008. Additionally, War Resisters International is working on a new, more globally oriented Nonviolence Handbook to replace the US Handbook for Nonviolent Action compiled by the War Resisters League and DonellyColt Graphix many years ago, and reprinted on the web by ACT-UP among others.
We can use these tools in order to build on and augment the shared skillsets of nonviolent activists around the world. When the Nepalese were waging their nonviolent revolution in 2006, the police murdered at least 17 people and injured at least 6000 others. The outraged response of millions fueled the protesters courage to demonstrate in even greater numbers, and still maintain their nonviolent stance, in the following days. The King was overthrown. The repression we face in the US is currently less overtly violent, but perhaps we can learn from the Nepalis how to promote a vision of a better future while channeling our outrage into increasingly large and creative protests against militarism and violations of human rights here and abroad.