|Pre-emptive silencing of free speech is one of the most sinister hallmarks of repressive government in an age when virtually everyone gives lip-service to rights and freedom. The more effective the silencing before anything is said, the more it's possible to pretend that everything is normal, that nothing has been forbidden, and that any thoughts or feelings you may have to contrary are evidence of your own isolated personal problems. America's narrow political spectrum, winner-take-all electoral system, highly concentrated corporate media, and dramatically low rates of voter participation are evidence of a high level routine pre-emptive silencing which we've accepted as normal for decades or more. The actions taken against the A- 16 demonstrators were relatively minor by comparison, but they were overt, intentional and concrete parts of a deliberate plot. They are also evidence that normal methods of pre-emptive silencing may be breaking down under the strains that corporate globalization and related trends are generating.
There's a long, dark history of police interference with the autonomy of universities in national capitals. Most of that history took place in Third World countries where World Bank/IMF policies have done most of their damage in the past. The lawsuit says nothing of this ominous precedence, but it's well worth noting nonetheless.
Examples of government/police disinformation casting protesters as violent:
- It's pepper spray--no, it's gazpacho soup. After the takeover of the Convergence Center, the District of Columbia announced confiscation of the makings of pepper spray. Later it admitted that the "pepper spray" was in actually peppers, onions and other vegetables in a kitchen area--the makings of gazpacho soup.
- It's a Molotov cocktail--no it's a plastic soda bottle and some rags. The District of Columbia also claimed it found a Molotov cocktail inside the Convergence Center. Later it admitted that the "Molotov cocktail" was actually a plastic soda bottle containing rags.
- It's live ammunition--no, it's an ornamental string of empty shells. After a raid on an activists' residence, the District of Columbia claimed it had confiscated an undisclosed amount of ammunition. It later admitted that the "ammunition" was a Mexican ornament, a string of empty shells.
Unfortunately, this Saturday Night Live routine was not played for laughs. The suit alleges, "These examples of dissemination of false information by defendants were part of their effort to disrupt plaintiffs, to discredit plaintiffs, to justify defendants' actions in interfering with the demonstrations, and to portray plaintiffs as violent in order to discourage participation in the demonstrations."
It's important to note that the defendants in the lawsuit were well aware that the plaintiffs were non-violent. The complaint reproduces the Principles of non-violence contained in Mobilization for Global Justice's literature concerning the A-16 demonstrations, concluding with the following four points:
1) We will use no violence, physical or verbal, towards any person
2) We will carry no weapons
3) We will not bring or use any alcohol or illegal drugs
4) We will not destroy property
If anything, the example of media distraction and misrepresentation following scattered acts of property destruction in Seattle made organizers even more serious about insisting on these principles--a fact any semi-competent police force would surely grasp. If the aim of government and police was really to minimize the threat of violence and property damage, the obvious strategy would have been maximum cooperation with the demonstrators toward this end. The strategy of harassment, disruption and antagonism was clearly not aimed at any legitimate lawenforcement goal. Indeed, it sacrificed the sworn duty of law enforcement for the political agenda of those powers invested in the World Bank/IMF.
The media were equally derelict in their by-the-book duty. They either knew, or should have known that the organizers were committed to non-violence. Had they so informed the public, it would have made the police dereliction of duty much harder to pull off, and perhaps even prevented it.
Confiscation of Political Materials
The Convergence Center was used for meeting, planning, discussion, non-violence training, creating political signs, banners and puppets, and storing of tens of thousands of pieces of political literature, T-shirts, banners, puppets, buttons, circulars, posters and stickers. It was used for approximately two weeks prior to Saturday, April 15, while U.S. and D.C. agents used extensive surveillance, including undercover agents, to invade and snoop. At no time prior to April 15 was any action taken regarding any supposed code violations.
On April 15, 2000, the day before A-16 protests were to begin, many out-of-town protesters were scheduled to arrive at the Convergence Center. At around 8:30 a.m., the D.C. Police and Fire Department raided the Convergence Center. They declared the site to be in violation of the fire code, evicted everyone and sealed the doors. They refused to allow removal of plaintiffs' political materials or personal belongings, including food, clothing and medicine. Needless to say, allowing the removal of these items--particularly the literature, T-shirts, banners, posters and puppets--would have reduced any fire hazard, not contributed to it.
Organizers' attorneys arranged for an emergency hearing the next morning, but canceled it in exchange for a written agreement with the District of Columbia allowing protesters to retrieve their materials with the assistance of District officers. The District then broke the agreement. It's agents refused to assist in the removal of items, refused to allow demonstrators to remove their political literature and property, and instead delayed and threatened to demonstrators and their lawyer.
The Convergence Center was kept closed, and materials were kept confiscated materials until about 7:00 p.m. on April 17th, several hours after demonstrations ended. Much of the confiscated property was damaged, or missing altogether--including video equipment with videotapes of police misconduct.
The complaint alleges that:
- The raid was pretextual, motivated solely by the government's desire to disrupt demonstrators' First Amendment activities.
- The raid was timed to cause maximum disruption.
- The confiscation of materials--and refusal to release them-- was intended to cause maximum disruption.
- The raid and confiscation had the purpose and effect of depriving demonstrators of their First Amendment rights both within the Convergence Center and on the streets of Washington.
Again, it's obvious that the actions taken were directly contrary to the pretext given. An empty Center, with lots of flammable material inside is clearly more of a fire hazard than the same center with lots of people around who could readily respond to any small fire before it grew large enough to pose a serious threat. Stealing video equipment doesn't reduce the fire hazard. Allowing demonstrators to take their videotape with them would reduce the fire hazard. If the media was doing its job, at least the government would come up with a pretext that was a little less laughable.
The April 15, 2000 Mass False Arrest
On April 15, 2000, the day before the A-16 protests were to begin, there was a demonstration at the U.S. Department of Justice to protest the "Prison Industrial Complex," under a permit issued to International Action Center (IAC). Afterwards, , the demonstrators walked west, escorted by police who told them they didn't need a permit if they stayed on the sidewalk, which they did. IAC told the police they wanted to walk up 20th Street to Dupont Circle and then disperse. Police officials gave their okay, but it turned out to be a trap.
As the demonstrators moved up 20th Street, police in riot gear surrounded them--along with journalists displaying press credentials, passers-by attracted by the protesters' and tourists and others who just happened to be there--and prevented everyone from leaving. There was no order to disperse beforehand, and no opportunity to disperse after they were surrounded--even for individuals who asked to leave.
The police imprisoned everyone in their trap for about an hour before arresting virtually all of them--protesters, journalists, bystanders and tourists. The complaint alleges that arrestees were "held in harsh conditions" including:
- Being "restrained in plastic handcuffs that inflicted pain, discomfort and distress."
- Being "confined on buses and denied food and water, in some cases for as long as 18 hours or more."
- Being "denied use of a bathroom for hours, causing discomfort and humiliation."
- Being "denied use of lawfully dispensed prescription medications for pre-existing conditions."
- Being "denied use of a telephone to contact family members or attorneys."
Furthermore, the complaint alleges that Police officers deliberately lied to people about their rights, falsely saying they would be held (in some cases for days) unless they posted and forfeited $50. They didn't explain the option of posting $50 and appearing at a hearing to contest the arrest. The result was little more than outright theft--or extortion--but the ACLU is a bit too polite to put it so bluntly.
The purpose of these arrests, according to the complaint, was to "make it difficult and frightening for the arrested individuals to participate in the demonstrations in the following two days, and to discourage others from participating in or observing those demonstrations by signaling to them that they were likely to be arrested even if they did not break the law." Again, ACLU politeness avoids the simplest term: intimidation.
The Creation and Maintenance of An Overbroad Exclusion Zone
In Seattle, the "no protest" Zone was 25 blocks. In D.C., the Exclusion Zone was twice that size, at least 50 blocks that completely insulated the World Bank and IMF from protest, and prevented demonstrators from being heard or seen by those inside. The restrictions were even tighter than Seattle. Not only were demonstrators excluded, but so was anyone else without specific permission. The only people allowed were area employees and residents with ID, people approved by the IMF and World Bank, and certain corporate media. Community media, who might ask some embarrassing questions, we not given press passes and were not allowed inside the Exclusion Zone.
The complaint raises three major objections to this blatant First Amendment violation, each reflecting important considerations in Supreme Court doctrine. The Court has recognized that certain extreme situations bring other legitimate concerns into conflict with the First Amendment, and sometimes require a balancing of interests. The creation of the Exclusion Zone was wildly out of line with this doctrine on all three counts:
(1) Lack of justification for the Exclusion Zone. There was no reasonable basis to expect violence and police had adequate personnel and equipment to safely permit demonstrators within sight and sound of their intended audience.
(2) Failure to tailor the remedy. The Exclusion Zone wasn't narrowly tailored to serve legitimate interests in protecting persons, property and access to the IMF- World Bank meetings for those invited.
(3) Failure to provide alternatives. The Exclusion Zone failed to allow ample alternative channels of communication for the demonstrators to express their views to their intended audience.
Use of Excessive Force
The complaint alleges that US and DC officers and agents threatened and used excessive force including "knocking, tripping or throwing to the ground; beatings with a baton; spraying with a chemical irritant; running over with a motorcycle; driving a van rapidly through a crowd; donning gas masks and pointing gas canister guns; and using motorcycles, vans and horses as weapons."
According to the complaint, excessive force was so common that one can infer it was tolerated by the District and would not have occurred otherwise. Supporting this inference, DC policymakers explicitly condoned these unlawful acts after the fact by asserting that the officers had acted properly. Police Chief Ramsey said he had "no apologies" for any conduct of his officers. This was the logical conclusion of training regimen which primed the police for the multiple violations they perpetrated, and supervisory oversight which did nothing to stop or correct violations as they occurred.
Again, according to the complaint, preparatory training and indoctrination fostered several key beliefs--all but the last of which are clearly false:
- Demonstrators would likely be violent.
- Demonstrators had committed previous violence in Seattle;
- Disruption of demonstrators--violating their First Amendment rights--was a legitimate police goal.
- harassment and intimidation of demonstrators--also violating their First Amendment rights--were legitimate police tactics.
- Unlawful conduct and excessive force by officers would be tolerated and not investigated.
The last belief--the only one that was accurate--was further reinforced by approval of the widespread, illegal practice of removing or obscuring their badges and name tags, and by failure to investigate or take appropriate corrective action on April 16 in response to early reports of excessive force, thus encouraging continued brutality the next day.
In short, the ACLU complaint alleges a comprehensive pattern of intentional violations of First Amendment rights on a scale not seen since the mass illegal arrests, beatings and related violations during the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. In fact, the government attempted to virtually suppress a demonstration by tens of thousands of people.
While the government attempted to systematically and surreptitiously suppress entire movements in the 1960s--and even in the 1980s with it's infiltration and harassment of the Central America Solidarity movement--it never dared to suppress individual demonstrations on this scale, with the sole exception of the march from Selma to Montgomery, which was harassed and delayed by Alabama state officials, but not prevented from occurring. Significantly, Alabama officials were loudly condemned for their actions in 1965. In 2000, US and DC officials received no such condemnations for a much more energetic and logistically successful suppression of popular mass protest.
Emboldened by the lack of public outcry, it's only logical that officials would take the next logical step in their attempt to criminalize and outlaw dissent. The next steps in this direction were taken by local, state and national police in Canada in early June.