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