Battle intensifies for free speech and assembly in the USA

As the nationwide crackdown on the Occupy movement intensifies, most recently evidenced by the police assault on Occupy Oakland over the weekend, so too does opposition to the repression.

Besides using excessive force on the streets, Oakland police have also apparently been abusing arrested demonstrators in custody. A post at Daily Kos offers a first-hand account of treatment possibly amounting to torture:

Just got out of Santa Rita Jail last night the prisoners from the Oakland Commune were being denied medications (some had seizures) while the guards said they didnt care if they died. Some people were brutally beaten. The put tear gas in the vents of my cell twice. They were keeping people without restrooms forcing them to shit and piss themselves or puke all over and stay in the same area….

Following the incidents in Oakland, solidarity actions were held in cities across the country, including this ad hoc demonstration in New York City:

The organization World Can’t Wait has initiated a call for nationwide resistance to the nationally coordinated repression of the Occupy movement. The statement reads, in part,

Time and again those who wield power violated their own laws and ordered police to pepper spray, beat with clubs, and shoot tear gas canisters at the heads of people who were doing nothing more than non-violently expressing their dissent and seeking community. This reached a peak in the recent coordinated and systematic attacks of the past few weeks against all the major occupations. In fact, the mayor of Oakland admitted on BBC to being part of conference calls that coordinated national strategy against the occupiers. On top of all that, and in another blatant show of illegitimate force and power, they attempted to prevent journalists and photographers from covering these acts of repression—unless they were “embedded” with the police.

To put the matter bluntly, but truly: the state planned and unleashed naked and systematic violence and repression against people attempting to exercise rights that are supposed to be legally guaranteed. This response by those who wield power in this society is utterly shameful from a moral standpoint, and thoroughly illegitimate from a legal and political one.

Now this movement faces a true crossroads. Will it be dispersed, driven into the margins, or co-opted? Or will it come back stronger? This question now poses itself, extremely sharply.

One thing is clear already: if this illegitimate wave of repression is allowed to stand… if the powers-that-be succeed in suppressing or marginalizing this new movement… if people are once again “penned in”—both literally and symbolically—things will be much worse. THIS SUPPRESSION MUST BE MASSIVELY OPPOSED, AND DEFEATED.

But as activists intensify their response to the repression of Occupy, the establishment is also intensifying its campaign against the movement.

On January 24, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on the Occupy movement, but rather than delving into the serious issues of government corruption and wrongdoing by banks raised by the movement, the hearing focused on shutting it down.

The hearing was entitled “Who Made the Decision to Allow Indefinite Camping?” and questioned the National Park Service’s role in allowing occupiers to maintain a presence in McPherson Square, a park in downtown Washington. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa emphasized that the hearing was not intended “to discuss the merits or demerits of the Occupy movement,” but rather was concerned with the “rule of law,” since there are prohibitions against camping in national parks that he says are being unenforced.

“[DC] Mayor [Vincent] Gray’s description of the conditions at the McPherson Square Occupy DC encampment is a blunt assessment of the situation created by the National Park Service’s decision to ignore laws designed to protect the public,” said Chairman Issa in a statement. “The public health and safety situation is in itself disturbing and the refusal to provide documents about the Park Service’s decision making leaves a lingering perception that long-standing prohibitions against encampments have been ignored to avoid a politically embarrassing situation for the Administration.”

Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) expressed his bemusement  that a congressional hearing would be held on a matter such as the Occupy DC encampment, saying that he found it “baffling” that the hearing was being held while there have been no comparable investigations by the oversight committee into allegations of wrongdoing by banks.

As Occupy DC was barred from participating in the hearing, a statement was read on its behalf, which questioned Issa’s assertion that the hearing was not intended to deal with the politics of the Occupy movement.

“Representative Issa’s motivations for this investigation are clearly political,” the statement said. “A vote with him is a symbolic vote for the status quo of money in politics over the value of grassroots democratic expression for the betterment of our country.”

Further, Occupy DC questioned the premise that special permission is needed to maintain a physical presence in public spaces:

Citizens of a free country should not have to ask for permission to occupy public spaces. Our occupation of McPherson Square is an expression of our right to free speech and peaceful assembly. We are maintaining a site of protest — a physical presence that gives visibility and voice to our dissent. We are creating a space in which free speech flourishes — not only the speech of occupiers, but that of the general public, the empowered and the disenfranchised alike.

Like most people, the members of Occupy DC at McPherson Square do not relish being in uncomfortable conditions that humans without housing have endured for millenia. We do so because it has become a necessary tactic to express our concern for the country’s direction in a way that will maintain public attention. Two out of every three Americans, incidentally, agree that our country is headed in the wrong direction. A far smaller percentage approves of the job Congress is doing. And while foreclosures have become a hallmark of modern America, the solutions to our country’s numerous problems do not include suppressing free speech and evicting peaceful patriots from their tents.

A few days after Issa’s hearing, tensions flared at the Occupy DC encampment with the arrest of a demonstrator who was unnecessarily tased by police. Protesters accused the police of using excessive force, saying that “without provocation, present threat to any officer, or any signal of intent to use additional force,” police shot taser darts into a restrained individual’s back. A statement at OccupyDC.org reads:

Sunday morning, U.S. Park Police restrained a participant in the occupation of McPherson Square who was behaving non-violently, fired taser darts into his back, and continuously tased him while he lay face down and handcuffed. This comes just one day before Park Police say they will begin arrests of individuals currently maintaining the 24-hour daily occupation of the square.

Earlier in the day, police had left notices indicating the intention of the National Park Service to enforce anti-camping regulations on tents around the site. After they departed, individuals began removing the notices from their tents. Park Police in turn singled out a specific individual, followed him in a large group and grabbed his arms. Shortly thereafter, Officer Jennifer L. Lemke (Badge #398), without provocation, present threat to any officer, or any signal of intent to use additional force, shot taser darts into the restrained individual’s back. As he fell to the ground, police handcuffed him and he became motionless, yet Lemke continued to tase him.

As he was carried to the police vehicle, with taser darts still embedded in his back, he collapsed and had a possible seizure. After 15-20 minutes of a growing crowd chanting for the individual to receive medical assistance, police took him away.

The impasse over Occupy DC continues, with members of the National Park Service on Tuesday giving the protesters at McPherson Square notice that they must take down a tarp that had been draped over the General McPherson statue, and that the occupiers must comply with new regulations against bedding material.

Other cities are implementing much more stringent restrictions on the Occupy movement and protesting in general.

Authorities in Charlotte, N.C., have just passed a law to restrict demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this September.

The legislation empowers the unelected city manager to declare an event “of international or national significance” to be an “extraordinary event.” The city manager may then establish times and locations in which demonstrations are allowed to take place.  The city may establish a designated “free speech zone,” and those who demonstrate outside of these confines may be subject to arrest and prosecution.

In addition to curbing protest rights during the DNC, the measure also empowered the city to evict Occupy Charlotte. In opposition to the bill, dozens of Occupy activists packed the City Hall chambers and following the passing of the measure, the crowd broke out into chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

On Monday, the day the law took effect, police entered the Occupy Charlotte protest site, arrested at least seven people and dismantled the campground.

Charlotte’s assault on free speech follows similar ordinances adopted in Chicago in preparation for a joint NATO/G8 joint summit meeting in May.

Last week, the Chicago City Council overwhelmingly approved tight restrictions on parades and protests ahead of the NATO/G8 meeting. As the vote was cast, protest organizers nearly drowned out the roll call vote on the security measures proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

As In These Times reported on Jan. 19,

The marble floor in Chicago City Hall vibrated as labor union members and other protesters stamped their feet and loudly chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” after the council overwhelmingly voted for two ordinances Wednesday related to police powers and protest restrictions in advance of the simultaneous G8 and NATO summits in Chicago in May. …

[O]pponents … say the ordinances are still a serious attack on basic civil rights. Among other things, they allow the city to deputize police officers from outside Chicago for temporary duty, change the requirements for obtaining a protest permit and allow the city to enter into no-bid security contracts without city council approval. (The ordinances can be read here and here.)

At a press conference before the vote Wednesday, representatives and advocates of unions, disability rights, community groups, veterans and mental health patients said the ordinance could mean a reprise of the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago—where police viciously attacked demonstrators—and seriously gut free speech rights.

The nationwide crackdown on Occupy has for months been attracting the attention of the international community, which has expressed concern that the protesters’ fundamental rights are being violated.

Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has said said that the crackdowns are in violation of the U.S. government’s international obligations.

“I believe in city ordinances and I believe in maintaining urban order,” he said. “But on the other hand I also believe that the state — in this case the federal state — has an obligation to protect and promote human rights.”

La Rue said that the protesters have a right to occupy public spaces “as long as that doesn’t severely affect the rights of others.”

Human Rights Watch also issued a statement calling on police to respect the fundamental rights of Occupy demonstrators.

“The United States’ tradition of peaceful protest is protected not only in U.S. law but also under international law,” said Alison Parker, U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch. “Even when protesters’ actions warrant police intervention, force should only be used where strictly necessary and then only to the degree necessary.”

Relevant international obligations to which the U.S. has subscribed include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials.

More than 6,000 Occupy protesters have been arrested in 110 cities since the demonstrations against corporate greed and political corruption began last fall.

To sign the “Call for Mass Action Against the Suppression of the Occupy Movement,” click here.

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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/compliancecamp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/compliancecamp Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at] gmail.com.

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