When New York City was announced as the site of the Republican National Convention back in January 2003, it seemed an odd choice of location. The turf is staunchly Democratic, and Manhattan is so densely packed that conventioneers and protesters will inevitably clash. But the pageantry of George W. Bush returning to Ground Zero to trumpet his victories in the war on terrorism may have been too tempting for GOP media consultants to resist.
An unpopular war has since intervened, and today a majority of registered voters believe our nation is headed in the wrong direction. Bush needs a bounce from the convention and can ill afford the tarnish of being publicly charged by the September 11 families with having neglected terrorist threats while he has exploited their tragedy for his election bid. And surely he does not want the world to witness a quarter-million protesters demanding regime change in the United States, or to realize that opposition to his policies is so heartfelt that people have resolved as a matter of conscience to commit acts of nonviolent civil disobedience and subject themselves to criminal arrest and prosecution.
Fortunately for Bush–but unfortunately for our democracy–the FBI, in the period leading up to the RNC, has borrowed freely from J. Edgar Hoover’s time-tested bag of tricks for stifling dissent by instilling fear. In mid-August, we learned that the FBI has visited at least six states and asked dozens of people whether they or others were planning acts of violence at this summer’s party conventions and whether they understood that it is criminal to withhold information from the FBI. In addition, in July several people were subpoenaed to testify about their protest activities before a grand jury convened in Missouri. Concerned members of Congress have demanded a Justice Department investigation into whether the questioning of demonstrators constitutes “systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate antiwar protesters” and oversteps the bounds of the First Amendment.
We also learned in mid-August that the New York Police Department has identified dozens of “primary anarchists” and has assigned teams of six officers to trail each around the clock, and that as many as twenty NYPD officers have infiltrated protest groups for close to two years and are clandestinely reporting on the groups’ convention plans. On top of these unsettling accounts come the Department of Homeland Security’s warning of the potential for terrorism and District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s announcement that the Manhattan criminal justice machinery is cranked up to process 1,000 arrests a day.
If police behavior during recent antiwar and antiglobalization demonstrations is any guide, those who refuse to bow to intimidation and participate in the RNC protests must come prepared to struggle to make their voices heard. To an increased degree, these demonstrations have been characterized by pre-emptive arrests of lawful protesters, the penning of demonstrators inside caged protest zones and the unnecessary use of aggressive crowd control techniques that have caused injuries.
Mayor Bloomberg may be offering shopping discounts to “peaceful” RNC protesters, but his actions show that he would prefer to keep protest unseen and unheard. When United for Peace and Justice applied for a permit to hold a demonstration in Central Park on the day before the RNC opening, the city, citing the prospect of damage to the grass, denied the application and offered instead a remote site. The group refused it and sought an injunction permitting their demonstration to go forward in Central Park, which was denied. At press time, an appeal was under discussion.
The First Amendment has never given us more than we have demanded of it. It lay dormant for more than a century, until peace activists, suffragists and labor leaders of the teens, twenties and thirties breathed life into its words with their fiery speeches and broadsides. Our nation is once again at a critical juncture. In the name of national security, the executive branch has assumed unprecedented new powers that it is exercising largely in secret. It is incumbent upon us to stand as a check against the abuse of these powers to preserve our democracy.
Let us hope the RNC protests are spirited and that officials live up to their constitutional obligations. When the whole world is watching, may it see democracy in action.