by Matthew Rothschild
In many places across George Bush's America, you may be losing your ability to exercise your lawful First Amendment rights of speech and assembly. Increasingly, some police departments, the FBI, and the Secret Service are engaging in the criminalization — or, at the very least, the marginalization — of dissent.
"We have not seen such a crackdown on First Amendment activities since the Vietnam War," says Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
This crackdown took a violent turn in late November at the Miami protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas and at an anti-war protest at the Port of Oakland last April. In both cases, the police used astonishing force to break up protests. But even when the police do not engage in violence, they sometimes blatantly interfere with the right to dissent by preemptively arresting people on specious grounds.
Sarah Bantz is a member of the Missouri Resistance Against Genetic Engineering. Last May, she and several hundred others were gathering in St. Louis to protest against Monsanto and the World Agricultural Forum, which was meeting there.
On May 16, the first day of the protest weekend, Bantz and a small group of other activists went to the Regional Chamber and Growth Association to give their pitch on how biotech was hurting local farmers. After that meeting, she and her fellow activists piled into her van, but they were able to get only about a mile down the road when something unusual happened.
"All of a sudden there was one police car and then another, and I was pulled over," she recalls. "One officer came around and asked me to get out of the vehicle, which I did. The cop started to look through the van without permission. I had some Vitamin C pills sitting out, so they decided that was a drug and they were going to arrest me. They put me in cuffs and put me in the back of the car. They really had no grounds for arresting me, but I spent ten hours in jail." One reason they cited, along with the vitamins, was her failure to wear a seatbelt.
Bantz was scheduled to deliver three speeches at what organizers called their Biodevastation 7 Conference. "I gave none of them," she says. "For one, I was in jail, and for another I was talking to the police about why they detained me. And I was too frazzled to give the third. It was all unbelievable."
That same day, the Flying Rutabaga Bicycle Circus expected to take part in the protests. "We are a group of concerned bicyclists, puppeteers, musicians, farmhands, clowns, cheerleaders, activists, eaters of food, and drinkers of water," the circus says on its web page. "We are united in a quest to seek out food (that's our fuel) that is not tampered with by biotechnology companies. We ride for diversity, organic farming, and biojustice everywhere."
But they weren't allowed to ride in St. Louis.
"We set off on our bicycles for our first performance, a small skit, to let the protesters know about our Caravan Across the Corn Belt tour," says Erik Gillard, one of the Flying Rutabagas, who was riding with eight others. "We were following traffic rules when a big police paddy wagon pulled up with its light on. Gradually, more police officers arrived, and they told us we had to leave our bicycles. We were all arrested for operating our bicycles without a license."
There is no such offense in St. Louis, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri says. Afterward, Police Chief Joe Mokwa said the arresting officer was "overenthusiastic," according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
After a while, the police changed the charge to "impeding the flow of traffic on a bicycle," Gillard says. "It was written up for some intersection ten blocks from where we were all picked up." He says the police detained the group for six or seven hours. "All of our journals that contained phone directories or e-mail lists or information about where we were going to stay were taken and never returned," he says.
Also on the same day, the police raided the Bolozone, an activist group home where many of the cyclists were staying. Reminiscent of police raids in Washington, D.C., during the 2000 World Bank-IMF protests, this one succeeded in detaining people prior to the demonstration.
One of the residents of the Bolozone, Kelley Meister, a political activist and artist who identifies herself as an anarchist, was there the morning of that raid.
"I was out in the alley painting a sign," says Meister, "and one cop car drove up and then four more. Two officers came toward me, and I said, 'Hi, can I help you? I live here.'
"And they said, 'This building is condemned.' And they started to walk past me.
"I said, 'Do you have a warrant? I don't give you permission to enter my house.'
"The reply was, 'We don't need a warrant. This building is condemned.' " The St. Louis housing inspector, who came with the police, brought a condemnation notice with him, she says.
The owner of the building, Dan Green, had been working cooperatively with the city for months while rehabbing it, according to Denise Lieberman, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. The timing of the raid makes it clear that the police used a "bogus housing inspection to conduct a criminal search without a warrant," she says.
"They arrested me and two of the cyclists, and charged us with occupying a condemned building," Meister says. "They put us in handcuffs, and placed us in a police van. I could see them carrying things out of the house, such as art from my room and bags of stuff. I was taken to the station and held for fifteen hours. Some of the others were held for twenty hours."
The police did not let Meister back in her home for five days. "When we finally got inside, we realized that they had ransacked the house from top to bottom," she says. The police also confiscated the bikes, puppets, props, posters, and banners of the Rutabaga Circus cyclists who had been staying at the Bolozone. When they got their bikes back after the weekend was over, many of their tires were slashed, Gillard says.
Meister says she's considering suing the police. And so is the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.
Richard Wilkes, public relations officer for the St. Louis Police Department, says "the department really doesn't have a response" to the allegations about raiding the house or detaining protesters or cyclists. "None of those things had anything to do with preventing people from protesting," he says.
It's not every day that a sitting judge will allege he saw the police commit felonies. But that's what Judge Richard Margolius said on December 11 in regard to police misconduct in Miami during the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in late November.
Judge Margolius was presiding over a case that the protesters brought against the city. In court, he said he saw the police commit at least twenty felonies, Amy Driscoll of the Miami Herald reported. "Pretty disgraceful what I saw with my own eyes," he said, according to the paper. "This was a real eye-opener. A disgrace for the community."
Police used tasers, shock batons, rubber bullets, beanbags filled with chemicals, large sticks, and concussion grenades against lawful protesters. (Just prior to the FTAA protests, the city of Miami passed an ordinance requiring a permit for any gathering of more than six people for longer than twenty-nine minutes.) They took the offensive, wading into crowds and driving after the demonstrators. Police arrested more than 250 protesters. Almost all of them were simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Police also seized protest material and destroyed it, and they confiscated personal property, demonstrators say.
"How many police officers have been charged by the state attorney so far for what happened out there during the FTAA?" the judge asked in court, according to the Herald. The prosecutor said none. "Pretty sad commentary, at least from what I saw," the judge retorted.
Even for veterans of protests, the police actions in Miami were unlike any they had encountered before. "I've been to a number of the anti-globalization protests — Seattle, Canc