Losing of our Right to Protest?
Posted by Mary
The First Amendment says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
But these days, the idea that people can assemble peacefully to ask for a redress of grievances or even to have a say in their own governance seems to be a quaint and old-fashioned idea. An idea whose time has come and gone and today needs to be severely restricted lest it gets out of control. How else to interpret the massive police presence in Miami last week which seemed designed to intimidate and suppress the protesters?
These days it seems that the only "persons" that the government is interested in listening to are the corporations. We are fast becoming a government of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation. Corporations have all rights and almost none of the responsibilities of ordinary Americans. When was the last time you heard about a corporation losing its charter because it had violated the terms under which it operates? Yet, people are arrested and jailed for "being in the wrong place" at the wrong time. And in Miami this dilemma of protests vs control came up in spades.
The protests in Miami were the first time that Free Trade agreements were negotiated in the US since 9/11. Rather than hearing the grievances of the protesters, the police thought that their role was to shutdown the protesters.
Naomi Klein reported that the from the standpoint of the protesters, the war on terrorism now targets the protesters and the police reaction was way over the top.
Inside the Inter-Continental hotel, it was being called "FTAA lite". Outside, we experienced something heavier: "War lite". The more control the US trade representatives lost at the negotiating table, the more raw power the police exerted on the streets.
Small, peaceful demonstrations were attacked with extreme force; organisations were infiltrated by undercover officers who used stun guns; buses of union members were prevented from joining permitted marches; people were beaten with batons; activists had guns pointed at their heads at checkpoints.
Police violence outside trade summits is not new; what was striking about Miami was how divorced the security response was from anything resembling an actual threat. From an activist perspective, the protests were small and obedient, an understandable response to weeks of police intimidation.
The FTAA Summit in Miami represents the official homecoming of the "war on terror". The latest techniques honed in Iraq - from a Hollywoodised military to a militarised media - have now been used on a grand scale in a major US city. "This should be a model for homeland defence," the Miami mayor, Manny Diaz, said of the security operation that brought together over 40 law-enforcement agencies, from the FBI to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
For the Miami model to work, the police had to establish a connection between legitimate activists and dangerous terrorists. Enter the Miami police chief, John Timoney, an avowed enemy of activist "punks", who classified FTAA opponents as "outsiders coming in to terrorise and vandalise our city".
As the NY Times reported this week, protesters are targeted for increased surveillance. In yet another comparason of Vietnam, the government finds that Americans who protest are the moral equivalent of the enemy. And the government's increasingly heavy hand is directed toward citizens, especially if they are acting in ways that are considered subversive, like filming arrests during protests.
The police are suppressing peaceful assembly more because they have been co-oped by the corporate powers that find citizen protests annoying. As Jeffrey Kaplan says in his article, Consent of the Governed, the real problem is that the Free Trade agreements are used to undermine the democratic laws of the countries. In particular, corporations are actively undermining our own environmental and labor laws. In the United States, our corporations and government have done such a good job of undermining labor rights, that European corporations view American workers like our corporations view workers in Mexico or China.
How do we reclaim our democracy and our right to regulate corporate behavior? Kaplan's article suggests that perhaps it comes from some of the court cases working their way through the courts where the personhood of a corporation is being challenged. If we cannot control our own corporations, what chance does the world have in controlling the international corporations which can reward and punish the governments that participate in the free market?