Patricia Nell Warren

Ray of Hope for Peaceful Protest

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | March 22, 2009 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics, Politics
Tags: civil disobedience, First Amendment, Judge John Grady, Los Angeles police brutality, Matthew Shepard, peaceful protest, right to assembly, right to petition

During the Bush years, and the Clinton years too, I worried more and more over encroachments on that part of the First Amendment that guarantees the right to peacefully assemble and petition the government.

At every level, law enforcement had tightened up in a very un-American way on peaceful protest and traditional civil disobedience. The gamut went from cities that prohibited marches of any kind, to President Bush making sure there was no flicker of public dissent at his appearances -- even T-shirts with anti-Bush messages. Penalties of all kinds were multiplied against arrestees, from gag orders preventing them from talking to the media, to bails more appropriate for serial killers. Felony convictions began to be used as freely as pepper spray.

But in Chicago, the other day, freedom of assembly got its first ray of hope in a long while.

U.S. district judge John Grady ruled against the city's Disorderly Conduct Ordinance, which police had used to hammer on protesters for years. The judge found it to be largely unconstitutional. The case dated back to 2006 arrests of several protesters who were distributing anti-war leaflets near a recruiting booth in Grant Park. The ordinance had made it possible for police to order protesters to disperse even when they were breaking no laws. Judge Grady agreed that the ordinance gave police way too much discretionary power.

How ironic that Grant Park was where a happy multitude of voters gathered to celebrate on the night Barack Obama was elected President! Here's hoping that this judge's ruling will set a legal precedent elsewhere. Here's hoping that having a President who actually cares about civil rights will prompt a 180-degree turn on all the local ordinances, and state laws, and federal policies, that have narrowed American civil disobedience over the last two decades.

Local ordinances, and the abuse of them to prevent "assembly," had become a key element in the strategy to suppress public dissent. In New York City, political marches had been expressly denied permits since the 90s. In 1998, the city was the scene of one of America's more notorious repressions of a gay-themed demonstration. Days after Matthew Shephard's murder, NYPD police brutality was unleashed against hundreds of Manhattan marchers who turned out for a candlelight vigil in defiance of the no-march ordinance. To their discredit, federal judges upheld New York's perceived "right" to stifle legitimate protest.

In Los Angeles, things were no better during the 2000 DNC convention, where the LAPD went out of control with arrests and rubber bullets -- and the delegates inside the convention hall pretended that they didn't see a thing.

In fact, I don't doubt that the U.S. got itself so deeply mired in the Iraqi war as the direct result of our government cowing the American people into not openly questioning our involvement in Iraq, especially after the revelations of criminal misconduct, torture and prisoner abuse began. If protest had happened openly and all across the country, the way it did with the Vietnam war in the 1960s, the U.S. might have withdrawn its troops from Iraq by now.

But now maybe, just maybe, the U.S. has decided to back away from the edge of the civil-liberties cliff where it had already started to jump off. The right to assemble peacefully is as basic to democracy as the right to free speech, and our nation was about to throw it away Hopefully the new administration has taken note of this specific need as they work to liberalize the country. With the economy being slower to recover than we'd like, and the jobless rate still rising, and Americans getting more frightened and impatient to see results, there might be the moment when impatient and desperate citizens take to the streets.

If that happens, the country will need a level head about peaceful protest. It is a legitimate outlet, a safety valve.

Contrary to what conservatives believe, stifling peaceful protest doesn't keep a country cowed and peaceful. It has the opposite effect -- it keeps the lid on pressures that build and build. The resulting explosions are angry mobs, not peaceful marchers. We Americans should know that fact from studying what happens in other countries when "the right to assemble peacefully" is denied. It's called "learning the lessons of history." We need to learn good, and fast.


Judge Grady's ruling


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Wilson46201 | March 22, 2009 2:50 PM

Yesterday I was standing on Monument Circle in Indianapolis next to my friend retired Congressman Andy Jacobs Jr at a peaceful protest of about 100 folk about the Sixth Anniversary of the War on Iraq. Andy recalled how as a freshman Congressman in 1996 he had stood right next to President Lyndon Johnson as the police hauled away noisy demonstrators. How different it is in 2009 !

A. J. Lopp | March 22, 2009 5:34 PM

We all presume, Wilson, that you meant to type "1969" instead of "1996" --- LBJ died in 1973.

I'm not being ugly --- we all have fat fingers at times.

Here here Patricia. Way to go!

Our country has seen such a decline in all of our rights to the right-wing nuts.

I hold out with HOPE for a new beginning with this new and wonderful President of the United State. I am also hopeful that we in America and abroad can restore integrity and fairness that we as Americans have always been known for.

I agree, Davyd. I keep holding out hope and then worrying about the phrase "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

A. J. Lopp | March 22, 2009 5:56 PM
... to President Bush making sure there was no flicker of public dissent at his appearances -- even T-shirts with anti-Bush messages.

In early November 2002 I attended a political rally at the convention center in Louisville, Kentucky for George Bush, who speak briefly there in person. I had on a plain sweatshirt with no message, and others had been thrown out after they took off their sweatshirts or sweaters and had anti-Bush T-shirts on underneath. I heard two of the volunteer security men talking right behind me. One told the other to keep an eye on me, the other wanted to throw me out for having my ears pierced.

Here's hoping that having a President who actually cares about civil rights will prompt a 180-degree turn on all the local ordinances, and state laws, and federal policies, that have narrowed American civil disobedience over the last two decades.

Civil disobedience is, by definition, illegal. Yet, there is no doubt that there is an established tradition that certain forms of harmless civil disobedience should be tolerated or punished lightly. On the other hand, civil disobedience is meaningless if the protesters are not willing to be arrested and suffer whatever the consequences are. There is a point at which it is the responsibility of the citizenry to maintain this tradition --- the idea being that we will not allow a despot to take it away.

If we are a nation of sheep, we will lose this tradition. And it will be our own fault. Period.

Contrary to what conservatives believe, stifling peaceful protest doesn't keep a country cowed and peaceful. It has the opposite effect -- it keeps the lid on pressures that build and build. The resulting explosions are angry mobs, not peaceful marchers.

This is essentially the reason for the race riots during the late 20th Century --- producing mottoes such as "Burn, baby, burn!" --- demonstrating beyond doubt your point, Patricia, that suppressing protest only raises the pressure point at which things will finally, and uncontrollably, explode.

Wilson46201 | March 22, 2009 6:11 PM

Eeeek!!! 1966

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 23, 2009 1:04 AM

I think our government(s) always feared "the mob" despite the high sounding language of our Bill of Rights. New York or Philly would have made excellent capitals for the young democracy, but there were PEOPLE there and the disorder of the French Revolution scared the bejesus out of the founding fathers. Hence the creation of Washington DC.

Even legitimate protests to racial segregation, Vietnam or police brutality at the 1968 Democratic National Convention were denied by local and state governments suggesting that those participating were "outside agitators." By so doing they were stripped of their American Citizenship.

Sharing rights equally with others who peacefully disagree, if voted on by the American Voting public, would be resoundingly defeated. I hope that the American Civil Liberties Union lives forever as we will always need them.

People need to be paying more attention to this. The biggest encroachments on free speech and assembly haven't been happening at the federal level, but at the local level, usually disguised as attempts to protect residents from noisy protesters.

That's good that this judge sided with the Constitution. But a few more years of Bush/McCain appointees and we'd probably see the right to "Free Assembly" reduced to designated "Free Speech Zones"... in Wyoming.