Nov 1 2000

Free Speech Since Seattle

Law enforcement's attacks on activists--and journalists--increasing

Over the last year, political street protests have made a resurgence in the U.S., with high-profile demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, in Washington, D.C. against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, in Philadelphia at the Republican National Convention and in Los Angeles at the Democratic National Convention. With them has come another, more ominous resurgence—in law enforcement’s violations of civil lib­erties, in what appears to be an attempt to intimidate citizens from exercising their rights to free speech and assembly.

Law enforcement’s strategy appears to be to squelch the rising tide of activism, employing unconstitutional tactics designed to disrupt demonstra­tions and discourage people from expressing political dissent. Preemptive arrests, harassment, surveillance and infiltration of anti-globalization groups have all become more common. Corporate media have tended to down­play reports of such abuses, even when police specifically target journalists for attack, as happened at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles.

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell greeted the 30,000 to 50,000 people visiting his city to attend the WTO demonstrations by declaring a state of civil emergency. “For several days, it was illegal publicly to express anti-WTO opinions in a large section of downtown Seattle,” wrote the Washington state American Civil Union (ACLU) in its extensive report, “Out of Control: Seattle’s Flawed Response to Protests Against the World Trade Organization.” Mayor Schell issued an emergency order on December 1, 1999–the day after the most intense protests–establishing a 25-square-block “limited curfew” or “no-protest” zone in the heart of downtown. According to the ACLU, this essentially created “a militarized zone, with entry controlled by police and barred to people expressing views critical of the WTO.”

ACLU report contends that the zone violated legal require­ments that “any govern­mental restriction on speech be as narrow as possible to accomplish its legitimate purpose and be ‘content-neutral’­that is, not favoring any particular view.” Police screened pedestrian traf­fic for WTO critics and “ordered citizens to remove buttons or stick­ers from their clothing, confiscated signs andleaflets, and blocked citizen entry to the core of downtown.” In March, the ACLU filed suit against the city of Seattle on behalf of seven people who say their rights to free speech were vio­lated.

Seattle police seemed to view even the U.S. Constitution as a form of ille­gal “protest.” One of the plaintiffs, Todd Stedl, told the ACLU that he was handing out copies of the First Amendment, and offered a copy to one of a group of police officers. The offi­cer reportedly shouted, “What’s this?” When Stedl explained that he was “not protesting,” just “educating,” the offi­cer responded, “Not with this you’re not,” and confiscated Stedl’s remaining copies of the First Amendment. Three of the plaintiffs have won a judgment ordering the city to pay them each $5,000; at press time, the ACLU was proceeding with the suit on behalf of Stedl and the others.

In preparing for post-Seattle demonstrations, cities have tried out a number of different strategies for restricting access to public areas. During the protests at the IMF and World Bank meeting last April in Washington, D.C., district officials deployed a small army of officers in riot gear–complete with lines of police dogs at the barricades and helicopters flying low overhead–to cordon off 50 blocks around the institutions’ meeting place.

Unlike in Seattle, prospective entrants weren’t screened for evidence of anti-globalization or pro–Bill of Rights sympathies. Instead, access was restricted more or less across the board, with only those approved by the Bank and IMF, some media, and area employees and residents allowed in.

On behalf of several of the activist groups that organized the demonstra­tions, the ACLU for the National Capital Area, the National Police Accountability Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and the Partnership for Civil Justice (PCJ) jointly filed suit in July against the United States and the District of Columbia for planning and implementing “a strategy to disrupt plaintiffs’ exercise of First Amendment rights to speak and assemble.” Among the charges are that with the “enormous” exclusion zone, officials deliberately “insulated the World Bank and International Monetary Fund from protest, and prevented demonstrators from having their political expressions be heard and seen by those within those buildings.”

Philadelphia chose a more Orwellian route in preparation for the Republican National Convention in late July. By granting the Republican National Committee an “Omnibus Special Events Permit” for the duration of the convention, the city gave the RNC control over nearly all the public venues where protesters might have assembled. Groups representing the thousands of marchers not sanctioned by the RNC were to apply for 50-minute timeslots in a 190-by-40-foot staging area—the “free speech zone.” Only after the Pennsylvania ACLU filed for an injunction did the city change its mind and grant permits to some (but not all) of the groups planning protest marches.

Similarly, Los Angeles planned to establish a 186-acre “security zone” around the Staples Center during August’s Democratic National Conven­tion, and to limit demonstrations to certain designated areas, well out of sight of the delegates. The ACLU (Southern California chapter) again filed suit, and Judge Gary Allen Feess of the U.S. District Court for Central California ruled in its favor, finding that the city’s security zone was so broad as to be unconstitutional, that the city had made “no attempt” to accommodate protesters’ First Amend­ment rights, and noting that the court “has its doubts” as to whether the zone was even intended as a “content neu­tral” security provision.

Targeting the media

During the Democratic convention, the Los Angeles Police Department upped the ante on the attack on free speech, targeting journalists for harassment and abuse. On August 14, the broadcast of the Independent Media Center’s satellite newscast, Crashing the Party, was prevented when police closed the parking lot outside the IMC building and evacuated the show’s satellite van, ostensibly in response to a bomb threat.

Representatives from the IMC pointed out that the police action began just as Crashing was about to air, and ended 10 minutes after the satellite broadcast window for the show had closed (Village Voice, 8/15/00). According to a report on the IMC website, police told a member of the Lawyers Guild that they had received the bomb tip that morning. Yet police did not take action until late afternoon, just before the show was scheduled to begin. The IMC report also states that the Lawyers Guild’s Ben Rosenfeld witnessed the county police searching the van “with­out waiting for the bomb squad to arrive,” and that “for a time, the bomb squad refused to come to the scene, cit­ing insufficient evidence.” There was virtually no mainstream news coverage of this incident.

LAPD officers also physically attacked several members of the press who were covering convention protests. The ACLU of Southern California has filed suit on behalf of seven journalists who say they were deliberately clubbed or shot with rubber bullets by police while wearing clearly displayed press creden­tials. Ramona Ripston, executive direc­tor of the regional ACLU, told FAIR’s CounterSpin (9/8/00) that “in addi­tion to the physical abuse” suffered by the journalists, “some of the cameras were taken. When they got the cameras back, the film was gone. One can only assume,” added Ripston, “that the police did not want any photographs of what was going on that night.”

There has not been the cry of out­rage from the media that one might expect after such disturbing and direct attacks not only on free speech, but on freedom of the press. Journalist John Seeley reported in the LA Weekly (9/1/00) that many in the media have responded to the attacks from a “‘no ­big-deal’ perspective.”

Among other things, Seeley stated that though “several younger” Los Angeles Times reporters told Times city editor Bill Boyarsky that the paper’s cov­erage wasn’t adequately addressing police behavior toward journalists, Boyarsky “expressed no particular con­cern” about the use of clubs and rubber bullets on reporters or the impact this might have on news gathering. “At the end of the day,” Boyarsky told the LA Weekly, “no one was seriously hurt.” Seeley also notes that some journalists who wanted to sign on to the ACLU suit “have been told not to by their bosses.”

Sidebar: Justifying the Crackdown

Poor reporting by the mainstream press has helped justify crackdowns on free expression by portraying protestors as violent and dangerous. NBC‘s description (NBC Nightly News, 7/14/00) of activists planning to attend the Los Angeles demonstrations as “battle-tested” veterans of the “violent” Seattle protests who were “better trained than the LAPD for street violence” is fairly typical of summaries offered by mainstream reporters.

One ABC World News Tonight report (7/23/00), about lessons from Seattle that Philadelphia police might apply to the Republican convention, even stated as fact that protestors in Seattle were seen “at times playing to the television cameras” by feigning injury. The report features, without rebuttal, a Philadelphia police lieutenant claiming that at the sight of a camera, activists are trained to “fall down and start screaming and yelling whether you hit them or not.” ABC‘s report made no mention of any substantive allegations of police brutality in Seattle.